Populations at Risk Imminent Risk

South Sudan

The possible resumption of civil war in South Sudan poses an imminent threat to populations who may be targeted on the basis of ethnicity and presumed political loyalties.
BACKGROUND: Violence between elements of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and the SPLA in Opposition (SPLA-IO) reignited in Juba on 7 July, two days before South Sudan observed the fifth anniversary of its independence. Heavy fighting, including tanks and helicopter gunships, was reported in Juba, particularly in the Jebel area near a UN base protecting thousands of civilians.

Hundreds of people, including civilians and two UN peacekeepers, were reportedly killed during five days of fighting. Two UN compounds were hit by mortar and artillery fire, killing at least eight people. Approximately 42,000 people were displaced in Juba. Many civilians attempting to flee to UN bases were reportedly prevented from doing so and some were allegedly subjected to targeted killings. At the time of publication a fragile ceasefire appeared to be holding in Juba.

Instability elsewhere in South Sudan has been increasing for weeks, with reports of major fighting between the SPLA and ethnic Fertit in Wau state on 24 June. The violence in Wau resulted in 43 people killed and over 70,000 people displaced. According to the UN, at least 12,000 people are now being protected near its base in Wau.

During August 2015 President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, leader of the SPLA-IO, agreed to end the country's 2013-2015 civil war by signing the "Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan." The power-sharing agreement called for a permanent ceasefire, as well as the establishment of an independent Hybrid Court for South Sudan (HCSS) to investigate mass atrocities committed during the conflict. Machar returned to Juba on 26 April to be sworn in as First Vice President, and the Transitional Government was formed on 29 April. Despite some progress, the UNSC, UN Secretary-General, AU and various international partners had warned that President Kiir and First Vice President Machar were failing to genuinely commit to implementation of the peace agreement.

The civil war was the result of a conflict that started on 15 December 2013 between soldiers from rival SPLA factions. Over the following 18 months, the worst fighting was between ethnic Dinka and Nuer soldiers loyal to President Kiir and Machar, respectively. At least 24 armed militias loosely aligned with either side, including the powerful Nuer White Army, have been operating in South Sudan.

Between 2013 and 2015 parties to the civil war engaged in widespread extrajudicial killings, torture, child abductions and sexual violence, targeting civilians as part of their military tactics. OHCHR published a report on 11 March, noting that all parties to the conflict had committed systematic violations which may amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity. UNICEF estimates that more than 16,000 children were forcibly recruited during the civil war. The AU's Commission of Inquiry reported that between December 2013 and September 2014 government and rebel forces committed "indiscriminate killings of civilians" in Juba, Bor, Bentiu and Malakal.

On 17 February there was an outbreak of inter-communal violence inside the UN site in Malakal, which was sheltering 48,000 IDPs. There are allegations that some SPLA soldiers entered the camp and fired upon civilians before being repelled by peacekeepers from the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS). The fighting left 25 people dead and displaced over 26,000. On 11 March the UN established a High-Level Board of Inquiry to investigate UNMISS' response and subsequently accepted responsibility for failing to adequately protect civilians.

At least 50,000 people were killed during the 2013 to 2015 civil war, which has resulted in nearly 1.7 million IDPs and 706,000 refugees, according to UNHCR. Prior to the recent violence in Juba and Wau over 160,000 people were still taking refuge in six UNMISS bases across the country, which have been frequently targeted for attack. Since the resumption of heavy fighting between 7 and 11 July, more civilians have sought UN protection, which UNMISS lacks the capacity to adequately provide.

ANALYSIS: Political instability, endemic corruption and sustained violence have been pervasive in South Sudan for the majority of its five years of independence. The resumption of fighting in Juba and Wau puts civilians at grave risk of mass atrocity crimes. Attacks on populations sheltering at UN protection sites demonstrates a clear disregard for international human rights and humanitarian law by all parties to the conflict.

Despite the formation of the Transitional Government of National Unity, the peace agreement was never fully implemented and the root causes of the conflict have not been adequately addressed. The rapid descent into large-scale fighting in Juba highlights the difficulty of achieving a sustainable peace process under the current political leadership. Ethnic tensions also continue to be exacerbated by officials using hate speech to incite violence.

A pervasive culture of impunity has fueled recurring cycles of armed violence and mass atrocities in South Sudan. With ongoing resource deficits and a hostile operating environment, UNMISS is still struggling to protect vulnerable populations.

The Transitional Government of National Unity, led by President Kiir and First Vice President Machar, has failed to uphold its Responsibility to Protect and ensure accountability for mass atrocity crimes. UNMISS requires urgent international assistance in order to uphold its civilian protection mandate.

INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE: [For responses prior to December 2015, see GCR2P's Timeline of International Response to the Situation in South Sudan.]

On 15 December the UNSC adopted Resolution 2252, which extended UNMISS' mandate until 31 July 2016. The resolution emphasized that the government of South Sudan "bears the primary responsibility to protect its populations from crimes against humanity, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and genocide."

On 22 March the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution establishing a commission to investigate human rights abuses in South Sudan.

On 31 May the UNSC adopted Resolution 2290 extending the sanctions regime until 31 May 2017 and the mandate of the Panel of Experts until 1 July 2017. The resolution also emphasized that the "Transitional Government of National Unity bears the primary responsibility to protect its population from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity." Six senior military figures, three from each side, are currently subject to sanctions.

On 25 June the UN Secretary-General called on all sides in Wau to cease hostilities and allow humanitarian access to affected populations. The UNSC issued a Press Statement on 1 July reiterating that attacks against civilians may constitute war crimes and calling on the Transitional Government of National Unity to investigate and prosecute those responsible.

The UN Secretary-General, Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), AU and other key international partners have condemned the renewed violence in Juba and urged all parties to cease armed hostilities. On 10 July the UNSC held an emergency meeting and issued a Press Statement condemning attacks against civilians and demanding that President Kiir and First Vice President Machar urgently end the fighting.

NECESSARY ACTION: The Transitional Government of National Unity must restore the cessation of hostilities and fully implement all provisions of the August 2015 peace agreement. The UNSC and IGAD should immediately impose an arms embargo and extend targeted sanctions to include any political and military leaders deemed responsible for the resumption of armed hostilities in Juba and elsewhere.

UNMISS must robustly implement its civilian protection mandate. The international community should immediately enhance UNMISS' capabilities through the provision of additional aviation assets, including tactical military helicopters and unarmed unmanned aerial systems. If armed clashes in Juba and elsewhere resume, the UNSC should authorize the deployment of additional troops to support UNMISS. The government and SPLA-IO must ensure that UNMISS has the ability to move freely to all parts of the country without threats to its personnel and respect the inviolability of UN compounds.

The AU should expeditiously establish the HCSS and ensure it has the resources to investigate and prosecute individuals responsible for mass atrocities committed since December 2013. The government, AU and the international community must hold those responsible for atrocities in South Sudan accountable, regardless of affiliation or position.

Last Updated: 15 July 2016