South Sudan

1 December 2021
Risk Level: Serious Concern
75 percent of South Sudan engulfed in localized violence

Increased localized and inter-communal violence, as well as political infighting, poses a threat to civilians in South Sudan.


Growing discontent within the two main political parties in South Sudan, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement of President Salva Kiir and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army in Opposition (SPLM/A-IO) of Vice President Riek Machar, has led to increased instability and violence. Meanwhile, between June-August, the SPLM/A-IO splintered into two rival factions – those loyal to Machar and those loyal to the Chief of General Staff of SPLM/A-IO, Simon Gatwech Dual – leading to violent clashes and exacerbating inter-communal tensions in Upper Nile State. On 7 August between 45 and 64 people were killed and 2,000 displaced in Kitgwang, Upper Nile, from SPLM/A-IO infighting.

Populations in South Sudan also continue to suffer as a result of increased inter-communal violence and clashes between government forces and armed opposition groups. The UN Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan (CHRSS) has asserted that the current level of localized violence may be higher than during the country’s 2013-2018 civil war. During 2021 localized violence has occurred in Upper Nile, Warrap, Central Equatoria and Western Equatoria states, resulting in human rights violations and increased protection risks. Between 1 June and 31 August the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) reported 179 incidents of human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions, abductions, conflict-related sexual violence, arbitrary arrests and detention, torture and ill-treatment, forced military conscription and the looting and destruction of civilian property. Meanwhile, hundreds of people have been killed as a result of increased inter-communal violence, including cattle raiding, abductions and attempted robbery.

The rise in political and localized violence has exacerbated the humanitarian situation. According to the UN, humanitarian needs are at their highest level since the formation of South Sudan in 2011, with 7.2 million people – 60 percent of the population – facing acute food insecurity and 108,000 facing catastrophic hunger. Fighting has resulted in increased displacement and diminished access for the UN and other humanitarian actors. An estimated 1.7 million people remain internally displaced and 2.3 million have fled to neighboring countries.


Political instability and armed conflict have been pervasive in South Sudan for the majority of its 10 years of independence. Between December 2013 and April 2018 an estimated 400,000 people were killed as the army and SPLA-IO perpetrated war crimes and crimes against humanity. The CHRSS alleges that between 2017-2019 government troops and opposition forces deliberately used the starvation of civilians as a method of warfare, particularly in Western Bahr el Ghazal and Jonglei states. There has been no substantive attempt to hold perpetrators accountable.

While there is a history of seasonal inter-communal violence in parts of South Sudan, recent disputes have been exacerbated by resource pressures caused by climate change and arms proliferation. Weak state structures, as well as a lack of trust in the justice system, has also driven some communities to favor extrajudicial executions as a means of ending the cycle of retaliatory inter-communal violence.

Although the formation of the Transitional Government of National Unity (TGoNU) in 2020 was supposed to provide an opportunity to address divisions in the country and the underlying causes of localized conflicts, senior political and military leaders continue to manipulate long-standing enmities between rival ethnic communities. Bitter disagreements between and within parties of the TGoNU on how to implement the peace agreement have led to widening divisions that threaten the future security of the country.

The TGoNU is struggling to uphold its responsibility to protect.


The UN Security Council (UNSC) has subjected eight people to targeted sanctions since 2015 and imposed an arms embargo since 2018. On 12 March 2021 the UNSC extended the mandate of UNMISS, emphasizing that, “South Sudan’s government bears the primary responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.”

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the CHRSS have expressed alarm over the escalation of inter-communal and localized conflict in South Sudan. During its 46th session in March 2021, the HRC adopted two resolutions on South Sudan, extending the mandate of the CHRSS until March 2022 and requesting that the High Commissioner provide technical assistance to the government on human rights monitoring and transitional justice.


The international community should exert increased diplomatic pressure on all parties to the 2018 peace agreement to ensure its full implementation. The UNSC should impose further targeted sanctions against any individuals who undermine the peace process. The African Union (AU), Intergovernmental Authority on Development and neighboring countries should actively enforce the existing arms embargo.

The AU and the government should expeditiously establish the Hybrid Court and prosecute individuals responsible for past atrocities, regardless of their affiliation or position.


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