Populations at Risk Current Crisis

South Sudan

Political divisions within South Sudan have resulted in heavy fighting and mass atrocities committed by rival pro and antigovernment forces, plunging the country into civil war. Ethnic mobilization threatens wider inter-communal violence, heightening the risk of further mass atrocity crimes.
BACKGROUND: Violent clashes between Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) soldiers from rival political and ethnic groups has left several thousand people dead and displaced over 1 million civilians since 15 December. The fighting began in Juba 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 has mainly been between ethnic Dinka and Nuer SPLA soldiers loyal to the President and former Vice-President, respectively. Both sides have been accused of targeting civilians based upon their ethnicity and presumed political allegiances. On 31 December the UN mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) stated that, "extra-judicial killings of civilians and captured soldiers have occurred in various parts of the country, as evidenced by the discovery of large numbers of bodies in Juba, as well as the Upper Nile and Jonglei state capitals of Malakal and Bor." In Central Equatoria state, the UN reported Nuer civilians being "tied to each other in a line before being forced to walk to another location to be killed."

UNMISS released an interim report on 21 February outlining human rights abuses committed by both sides between 15 December and 31 January. The report concluded that "civilians bore the brunt of much of the fighting and that gross violations of human rights were committed."

Approximately 68,000 people have sought refuge in eight designated sites within UNMISS bases across the country, including nearly 32,000 people at two sites in Juba. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has noted that maintaining law and order within some UN compounds is becoming increasingly difficult, with reports of ethnic violence between internally displaced persons (IDPs) increasing. OCHA ranked South Sudan as a "Level-3" humanitarian emergency and reported the "serious deterioration in the food security situation" has left around 3.7 million people at high risk of famine. Ahead of the upcoming rainy season, the UN is constructing two additional sites to provide shelter and protection for IDPs.

The ethnic dimension to the conflict has fueled inter-communal violence elsewhere in the country. On 18 December an estimated 2,000 Lou Nuer youth attacked Dinka civilians sheltering at an UNMISS base in Akobo, Jonglei state, resulting in the death of 11 civilians and 2 UN peacekeepers.

One of the country's key oil producing areas, Malakal has changed hands several times since the conflict began. The UN has noted that ethnic Shilluk and Dinka civilians were attacked when the opposition controlled Malakal, while Nuer civilians were targeted when the government retook the town.

The Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) held a summit on 27 December to discuss the crisis in South Sudan. Prior to the summit President Kiir expressed his willingness to engage in negotiations and declared that he will hold accountable anyone committing atrocities. Twenty SPLA soldiers have since been charged for civilian killings. Delegations from both sides met with IGAD mediators in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on 3 January with direct negotiations starting two days later.

Despite acting as a mediator during the peace talks, the Ugandan government has militarily intervened in South Sudan in support of President Kiir. Ugandan People's Defence Force troops were initially deployed to help secure Juba airport, but later engaged in major combat operations alongside government forces, including the recapture of Bor on 18 January.

After five weeks of fighting, an Agreement on Cessation of Hostilities (COH) was signed on 23 January between the government and opposition forces, now referred to as the "SPLA in Opposition." Both sides have since accused each other of violating the COH as fighting continued in Jonglei, Unity, Upper Nile and Lakes states. On 11 February talks between the government and opposition forces recommenced.

Heavy fighting resumed in Malakal on 18 February, where ethnic clashes were reported inside a UN protected site, leaving 10 people dead and causing 2,000 of the 20,000 civilians sheltering in the base to flee. On 28 March violent clashes between pro and anti-government forces, which left at least 12 civilians dead, were witnessed in Duk county, Jonglei state.

Despite ongoing fighting, peace talks continued between the government and the SPLA in Opposition in Addis Ababa on 25 March. IGAD suspended the talks on 31 March to allow their special envoys to consult with their respective leaders. A new round of negotiations is scheduled to start on 30 April.

Due to ongoing security concerns and a lack of personnel, UNMISS has been unable to frequently patrol outside of their bases. The UN Security Council (UNSC) adopted Resolution 2132 on 24 December, temporarily enlarging UNMISS by an additional 5,500 troops and 440 police. Approximately 800 troops have deployed so far. UNMISS police contingents are undertaking disarmament campaigns in all 8 UN sites where civilians are sheltering.

The government has become increasingly critical of UNMISS since 15 December, with hostile statements made by numerous senior government officials. Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) violations, including attempts by the SPLA to forcibly enter UNMISS bases, have affected the mission's ability to uphold its protection of civilians mandate.

ANALYSIS:The high number of casualties and large-scale displacement since 15 December illustrate the severity of the crisis confronting South Sudan. The rapid descent into civil war highlights the fragility of the government as well as the SPLA's political and ethnic divisions. UNMISS and the UN Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, Ivan Šimonovic, have accused both pro and anti-government forces in the commission of mass atrocities. Civilians have been subjected to targeted killings and have been attacked while sheltering in churches and hospitals.

Parties to the conflict have indiscriminately used heavy weaponry in civilian areas and have destroyed and looted civilian property. Despite the signing of the COH, the risk to civilians remains high due to ongoing fighting.

UNMISS and humanitarian agencies continue to face severe difficulties in accessing areas where civilians have been displaced by ongoing fighting. The start of the rainy season in May will accelerate the deteriorating humanitarian situation and also further hamper UNMISS' ability to protect civilians as most roads will be flooded.

The ethnic dimension to the conflict dramatically heightens the risk to civilians. Civilians in Bor have been subjected to atrocities in the past, including a 1991 massacre of Dinka by Nuer fighters loyal to Machar. Cycles of inter-communal violence in Jonglei state have claimed thousands of civilian lives in recent years. In July 2013 armed groups of up to 4,000 Lou Nuer youth attacked Murle communities, resulting in an unknown number of casualties and the displacement of tens of thousands of civilians. The absence of accountability for previous atrocities perpetuates recurring ethnic mobilization and targeted violence.

The government of South Sudan and UNMISS require immediate international assistance to reestablish security throughout the country, ensure accountability and uphold their Responsibility to Protect.

INTERNATIONAL RESPONSE:UNMISS has approximately 7,000 troops in South Sudan with a civilian protection mandate. UNSC Resolution 2109, which extended UNMISS' mandate until July 2014, called upon the government of South Sudan to "take greater responsibility for the protection of its civilians."

On 24 December the UN Special Advisers on the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect issued a statement recalling that "targeted attacks against civilians and against UN personnel, such as those that have occurred in Juba and Jonglei state, could constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity."

The AU announced the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry on 7 March. Headed by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, the Commission will investigate human rights violations committed since 15 December and make recommendations on appropriate accountability and reconciliation measures. On 13 March IGAD agreed to deploy a stabilization force and monitor the COH.

The UN Human Rights Council adopted a Presidential Statement on 24 March that expressed concern over the human rights situation in South Sudan since the outbreak of violence, welcomed the AU's establishment of a commission of inquiry and called upon all parties to adhere to the COH.

Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States and the European Union delegation in South Sudan issued a joint statement on 28 March which underlined their support for UNMISS, condemned SOFA violations by the government and encouraged all parties to cooperate with the UN to allow humanitarian access to affected civilians.

NECESSARY ACTION:All parties to the current conflict must uphold their Responsibility to Protect. President Kiir and Machar must fully abide by the commitments made under the COH and continue to engage with IGAD to resolve the crisis. The UNSC, AU and major international supporters of South Sudan, including the United States, should assist in mediation efforts and assist IGAD in facilitating the Monitoring and Verification Mechanism of the COH.

UNMISS must assume a more robust role in upholding its protective mandate. The international community should enhance UNMISS' capabilities through the rapid provision of additional troops and resources, including level-two field hospitals. The supply of additional tactical and utility helicopters could assist surveillance efforts aimed at detecting and deterring potential attacks upon vulnerable communities.

UNMISS' Human Rights Division must investigate reports of extra-judicial killings and possible mass graves. The AU Commission of Inquiry should initiate investigations as soon as possible. The UN should assist the Commission by sharing best practices and providing logistical support.

The government must ensure that UNMISS has the ability to move freely to all parts of the country. It must stop officials from inciting public hostility against UNMISS, endangering the security of the mission and its personnel. The government must hold all perpetrators of mass atrocities accountable, regardless of their affiliation or position.

The government of South Sudan must initiate a comprehensive strategy aimed at ethnic and political reconciliation. This must include justice for victims of past conflicts, including those targeted during inter-communal violence in Jonglei state and elsewhere. It is critical that members of civil society participate in the process as well as the peace negotiations in Addis Ababa.

Last Updated: 9 April 2014