Populations at Risk Serious Concern

South Sudan

Despite the August 2015 peace deal, violence continues and civilians in South Sudan remain at serious risk of mass atrocity crimes.
BACKGROUND: Despite some improvement in the security situation in South Sudan since November, both the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and armed rebels have routinely violated a peace agreement signed in August, with heavy fighting reported in Unity, Upper Nile and Western Bahr el Ghazal states. Most recently, on April 11 the SPLA attacked a cantonment site occupied by opposition forces in Numatina, Western Bahr el Ghazal, in direct contravention of the ceasefire provisions of the peace agreement.

On 17 February there was an outbreak of inter-communal violence between armed elements of the Shilluk and Dinka communities inside the UN site in Malakal, which was hosting 48,000 IDPs. There were also credible reports that some SPLA soldiers entered the camp and fired upon civilians. The fighting left more than 25 people dead, including 3 humanitarian workers, and displaced over 26,000. On 11 March the UN established a High-Level Board of Inquiry to investigate the UN Mission in South Sudan's (UNMISS) response to the incident.

President Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, leader of the main rebel group, agreed in August to end the country's two-year civil war by signing the "Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan." The power-sharing agreement calls 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.

On 24 December President Kiir divided the country's existing 10 states into 28 new states, thereby complicating the agreed upon power-sharing formula and aggravating tensions with the former rebels. On 7 January the parties reached an agreement on the division of ministries in the Transitional Government of National Unity, but missed a 22 January deadline to establish the body. On 17 January Machar withdrew opposition politicians from Juba in protest over President Kiir's re-division of states, further endangering the peace process. On 11 February President Kiir reappointed Machar as Vice President as part of the agreed peace process.

As part of the transitional security arrangement opposition forces started arriving in Juba on 24 and 28 March in advance of the return of Machar to South Sudan and the establishment of the transitional government. By April 11 all 1,370 opposition troops and police had arrived in Juba to ensure Machar's security ahead of his expected return on 18 April.

The civil war was the result of a conflict that started on 15 December 2013 between soldiers from rival SPLA factions. Fighting began after President Kiir accused Machar, the then-former Vice President, of an attempted coup. The worst fighting has been between ethnic Dinka and Nuer soldiers loyal to Kiir and Machar, respectively. At least 24 armed militias loosely aligned with either side have also been operating in South Sudan, including the powerful Nuer White Army. Since August some rebel commanders have split from Machar and are not part of the peace agreement.

Parties to the civil war engaged in widespread extrajudicial killings, torture, child abductions and sexual violence, and targeted civilians as part of their military tactics. UNMISS has reported that some children were subjected to castration, throat-slitting and being burned alive, while the UN Children's Emergency Fund estimates that more than 16,000 children were forcibly recruited during the civil war. On 27 October the African Union (AU) released its Commission of Inquiry report covering December 2013 to September 2014, concluding that widespread and systematic atrocities were perpetrated. It also noted that "indiscriminate killings of civilians" were committed by government and rebel forces in Juba, Bor, Bentiu and Malakal.

The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights published a report on 11 March on the human rights situation in South Sudan following an October 2015 to January 2016 assessment mission. The report noted all parties to the conflict had committed systematic violations which may amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity. The report accused the government of pursuing a 'scorched earth' policy deliberately targeting civilians and highlighted the widespread use of rape as a weapon of war by the SPLA and affiliated militias in Unity state. According to the 22 January report of the Panel of Experts on South Sudan, the dire humanitarian situation in Unity state "reflects the devastating results of the Government's systematic attack against its own citizens." The panel also noted that continued inflows of arms has had a "devastating impact on civilians" and recommended that an arms embargo be established.

At least 50,000 people were killed during the civil war and over 193,000 people are still taking refuge in six UNMISS bases across the country. According to UNHCR, the conflict has resulted in nearly 1.7 million IDPs and 640,000 refugees in neighboring countries. In addition, fighting in Yambio County, Western Equatoria state, between local armed groups and the SPLA on 21 January has led to the displacement of 30,000 people, while fighting in Wau County Western Bahr el Ghazal, in late March resulted in reported killings, rapes and the displacement of thousands.

ANALYSIS: Ongoing fighting in parts of South Sudan and the failure to uphold past ceasefires highlights the difficulty in achieving a sustainable peace process. While violence has not reached the same levels as before the August agreement, civilians remain at serious risk of attack from government and rebel forces. The defection of several rebel commanders, some of whom have previously perpetrated mass atrocities, also increases the risk to vulnerable civilians.

Although both sides have committed human rights violations that amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity, neither the government nor armed opposition have consistently held perpetrators within their ranks accountable. A culture of impunity has fueled recurring cycles of violence in South Sudan. Due to the breakdown of fighting along ethnic lines during the civil war there is an ongoing risk of inter-communal violence and revenge killings during the transition period.

With ongoing resource deficits and a hostile operating environment, UNMISS is struggling to uphold its protective mandate.

South Sudan requires ongoing international assistance to uphold its Responsibility to Protect and ensure accountability for mass atrocity crimes.

INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE: In order to support UNMISS' efforts to implement its protection of civilians mandate, the UNSC adopted Resolution 2132 on 24 December 2013, expeditiously enlarging UNMISS by an additional 5,500 troops and 440 police. [For responses prior to May 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 18 February the UN Secretary-General condemned the violence in Malakal and called upon all parties to refrain from "stoking ethnic disputes." The following day the UNSC issued a Press Statement, stressing that "attacks against civilians and United Nations premises may constitute war crimes."

Following a meeting with President Kiir in Juba on 25 February, the UN Secretary-General stressed the importance of implementing the peace agreement and urged the government to allow unfettered humanitarian access.

On 17 March 2016 the UNSC adopted a Presidential Statement expressing concern over the delays in the implementation of the peace agreement in South Sudan and called upon the Government of South Sudan to "uphold its responsibility for the protection of civilians" and fully adhere to the permanent ceasefire. The UNSC expressed its intention to review progress of the implementation of the peace agreement by 31 March.

On 22 March the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution which established a commission to investigate human rights abuses in South Sudan. Recalling that the "protection of civilians in South Sudan is a responsibility of the government of South Sudan", the Council tasked the commission to "monitor and report on the situation of human rights in South Sudan and make recommendations for its improvement."

On 7 April the UNSC adopted Resolution 2280 extending the sanctions regime until 1 June and the mandate of the Panel of Experts until 1 July. Six senior military figures, three from each side, are currently subject to sanction under the regime. A Presidential Statement was also adopted which expressed the UNSC's intention to review progress of the implementation of the peace agreement by 30 April.

NECESSARY ACTION: After two years of civil war, the government and rebels must fully implement all provisions of the peace agreement. The UNSC and Intergovernmental Authority on Development should immediately impose targeted sanctions against any political and military leaders deemed responsible for violating the agreement and establish an arms embargo.

UNMISS must robustly implement its civilian protection mandate. The international community should continue to enhance UNMISS' capabilities through the provision of additional aviation assets, including tactical military helicopters and unarmed unmanned aerial systems. The government 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 necessary to investigate and prosecute individuals responsible for mass atrocities committed since December 2013. UNMISS' Human Rights Division must continue to investigate violations of IHL and expeditiously publish its findings. The findings of the high-level board of inquiry should be made public.

The government must hold all perpetrators of atrocities accountable, regardless of affiliation or position, and initiate a comprehensive strategy aimed at strengthening the peace process, particularly the establishment of the Commission for Truth, Healing and Reconciliation.

Last Updated: 15 April 2016