Populations at Risk Current Crisis

South Sudan

Renewed fighting in South Sudan's civil war has resulted in mass atrocity crimes against civilian populations.
BACKGROUND: Despite the signing of no less than eight peace agreements since January 2014, fighting in South Sudan between rebel forces and the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) continues. The breakdown of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD)-sponsored peace talks on 6 March has emboldened both sides as they continue to pursue a military solution to the conflict. On 29 June the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) Human Rights Division reported widespread extrajudicial killings, torture, child abductions and sexual violence associated with recent fighting. Over 166,000 people are currently taking refuge in six UNMISS bases across the country, the highest number since the start of the conflict. According to UN Refugee Agency the conflict has resulted in 1.5 million internally displaced persons and 730,000 refugees in neighboring countries.
In early May the SPLA launched a major offensive against rebel positions in Unity state. The UN and humanitarian organizations have had to withdraw from the area, leaving at least 300,000 people without access to vital assistance. After an estimated 130 children were killed in Unity state over a period of three weeks, the UN International Children's Emergency Fund (UNICEF) issued a statement on 17 June noting that "violence against children in South Sudan has reached a new level of brutality." UNMISS' 29 June report included evidence of children subjected to castration, throat-slitting and being burned alive. UNICEF also estimates that 13,000 children have been forcibly recruited since the start of the conflict.

There has also been a dramatic increase in violence in Upper Nile state, where rebel forces loyal to Major-General Johnson Olonyi attacked SPLA positions in and around Malakal and seized control of the town on 15 May. The SPLA retook the town on 6 July. Fighting has also been reported in Western Equatoria state, where thousands of people have been displaced since 23 May.

Following a visit to South Sudan on 22 to 25 July, the UN Under­Secretary­General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator stated that: "Families have endured horrendous atrocities - including killing, abduction, and the recruitment of children into armed groups." He called upon the leaders of the warring parties to take responsibility and stop the "senseless cycle of violence."

The civil war is the result of a conflict that started on 15 December 2013 between soldiers from rival SPLA factions. The civil war began after President Salva Kiir accused Riek Machar, the former Vice President who was removed from office during July 2013, of an attempted coup. The worst fighting continues to be between ethnic Dinka and Nuer soldiers loyal to President Kiir and Machar, respectively. At least two-dozen armed militias loosely aligned with either side are also operating in South Sudan, including the powerful Nuer White Army. Tens of thousands of civilians have been killed by both sides.

UNMISS has reported 39 violations of the status-of-forces agreement since 18 February, including harassment, assault and detention of UN personnel, mostly by government security forces. SPLA officers have threatened to fire on UNMISS bases, which they claimed were harboring rebel fighters. An artillery shell landed inside the UNMISS base in Bentiu on 17 March, halting humanitarian operations. On 1 July rebel forces attacked an UNMISS base in Malakal, resulting in one death.

The civil war has been characterized by repeated failed peace agreements. Both sides violated the 23 January 2014 Cessation of Hostilities (COH) agreement almost immediately after it was signed. On 21 January 2015 President Kiir and Machar signed a seventh peace agreement in Arusha, Tanzania. Despite recommitment to the COH, fighting continued in several parts of the country. Another ceasefire agreement was signed on 2 February under the auspices of IGAD. Amid ongoing fighting, dialogue resumed on 23 February with the goal of reaching a final power-sharing agreement by 5 March, but talks were then extended. On 24 July, IGAD-PLUS, an expanded mediation group which includes the African Union (AU), UN, European Union, China, United States, United Kingdom, Norway and the IGAD Partners Forum, put forward a new proposal called the Compromise Agreement. The power-sharing deal also calls for the establishment of a hybrid court to investigate cases of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. A new round of peace talks between the parties started on 6 August with a final agreement expected on 17 August.

On August 11 two major rebel commanders accused of previous mass atrocities split from Machar's rebel alliance, further enhancing the risk to civilians and complicating the possibility of a peaceful resolution of the conflict.

ANALYSIS: Since December 2013 both sides have perpetrated human rights violations that amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, including ethnic targeting of civilians, extrajudicial killings, widespread sexual violence and child recruitment, as well as large-scale destruction of civilian property. Neither the government nor opposition have consistently held perpetrators within their own ranks accountable for atrocities committed during the civil war.

The failure to uphold multiple ceasefire agreements reveals a lack of commitment to a political solution. In the absence of a meaningful peace process, both sides are likely to use the June-November rainy season to rearm and recruit in preparation for renewed military offensives.

UNMISS' Human Rights Division has expressed concern that recent human rights violations indicate increasing ethnic divisions within the conflict, demonstrated by the proliferation of armed militias aligned with specific communities. These poorly trained and largely unaccountable forces are more likely to perpetrate further mass atrocity crimes.

Uganda, which is a member of IGAD, has militarily intervened in support of the government since the start of the conflict. IGAD's ability to reach a political solution has been complicated by Uganda's ongoing participation in the civil war. Similarly, Sudan has been accused of militarily supporting the rebels.

South Sudan requires international assistance to end the civil war and ensure accountability for mass atrocity crimes. With ongoing resource deficits and a hostile operating environment, UNMISS is struggling to uphold its protective mandate.

INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE: In order to support UNMISS' efforts to implement its protection of civilians mandate, the UN Security Council (UNSC) adopted Resolution 2132 on 24 December 2013, temporarily enlarging UNMISS by an additional 5,500 troops and 440 police.

During March 2014 the AU established a Commission of Inquiry (AU-CoI) to investigate human rights violations committed since December 2013 and make recommendations on appropriate accountability and reconciliation measures. The AU-CoI has not yet released its report. [For responses prior to May 2015, see GCR2P's Timeline of International Response to the Situation in South Sudan.]

On 3 March the UNSC adopted Resolution 2206, establishing a sanctions regime for South Sudan. On 1 July the Sanctions Committee approved the designation of six senior military figures, three from each side, for sanctions.

On 28 May the UNSC unanimously adopted Resolution 2223, which extended the mandate of UNMISS until 30 November 2015 and emphasized that the "Government of South Sudan bears the primary responsibility to protect civilians within its territory and subject to its jurisdiction, including from potential crimes against humanity and war crimes."
The UNSC issued a Press Statement on 9 July, marking four years since South Sudan's independence, but expressing "profound disappointment" that President Kiir and Machar put "personal ambitions" ahead of the good of their people and noting that their failure "has resulted in the deaths of thousands of civilians."

Speaking to the media on 13 July, the UN Secretary-General urged Uganda and Sudan to "use their influence on the parties to help end the conflict."

NECESSARY ACTION: After 18 months of war, IGAD and the UNSC must encourage parties to the conflict to end the cycle of meaningless peace agreements accompanied by ongoing armed hostilities. Both the government and rebels must refrain from attacks on civilians, abide by previous commitments made under the COH and meaningfully engage to resolve the conflict.

The UNSC and IGAD should immediately impose an arms embargo and additional targeted sanctions on all political and military leaders, regardless of rank or affiliation, deemed responsible for the continuation of armed hostilities and the perpetration of mass atrocity crimes.

Uganda and Sudan should both end their military support for either side of the conflict.

UNMISS must robustly implement its civilian protection mandate. The international community should continue to enhance UNMISS' capabilities through the provision of additional troops and aviation assets. The government must ensure that UNMISS has the ability to move freely to all parts of the country without hindrance or threats to its personnel.

UNMISS' Human Rights Division and the AU-CoI must continue their investigations into mass atrocities and expeditiously publish their findings. The government must hold all perpetrators of atrocities accountable, regardless of affiliation or position. A referral to the ICC or the establishment of a hybrid court should be considered if the government is unable to end impunity. The government of South Sudan should initiate a comprehensive strategy aimed at ethnic and political reconciliation.

Last Updated: 15 August 2015