Ongoing localized and inter-communal violence, as well as political infighting, pose a pervasive threat to civilians in South Sudan.
On 12 September 2018 a Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS), brokered by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), was signed by the parties to the conflict – including President Salva Kiir and former Vice President and opposition leader Riek Machar – formally ending the civil war. The subsequent formation of the Transitional Government of National Unity (TGoNU) in 2020 provided an opportunity to address divisions in the country and to support sustainable solutions to the conflict. However, bitter disagreements between and within parties of the TGoNU on how to implement the R-ARCSS have led to widening divisions and further exacerbated tensions at the local level. Upon request by the TGoNU, the UN Peacebuilding Commission has been supporting efforts to address peacebuilding challenges related to the implementation of the R-ARCSS since 2022.
In recent years, inter-communal violence and attacks by community-based militias have resulted in increasing civilian casualties. Cattle raiding and revenge killings, as well as increased resource competition between herding and farming communities, have triggered violent clashes. Senior political and military leaders continue to manipulate long-standing enmities between rival ethnic communities.
In several parts of the country, tensions between the two main political parties, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement and the SPLM-In Opposition, over access to resources and political appointments have also culminated in violent clashes and triggered serious human rights violations, including widespread sexual violence, particularly against women and girls. The UN Human Rights Council-mandated Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan has repeatedly warned of an escalation of violence and the need for urgent attention to the implementation of the peace agreement.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), over 9.1 million people – more than two thirds of the population – need humanitarian assistance. An estimated 2.2 million people remain internally displaced and 2.27 million have fled to neighboring countries. South Sudan is one of the most dangerous countries for humanitarian workers, with more than 141 killed since 2013.
The UN Security Council (UNSC) has subjected eight people to targeted sanctions since 2015 and imposed an arms embargo since 2018.
The onset of the dry season in December has been characterized by increased violence and atrocities, including clashes between armed groups in northern Jonglei and Upper Nile states, inter-communal violence in northern Warrap, and ongoing cattle raids and migration-related conflicts in the Equatorias. During December ensuing fighting between youth groups from the Nuer and Murle communities resulted in at least 57 people killed and 30,000 displaced in the Greater Upper Nile region. The UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) documented a sharp rise in violence at the end of 2022, with an 87 percent increase in the number of civilians harmed compared to the same period in 2021. According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, at least 166 civilians were killed in clashes in Upper Nile State between August and 14 December 2022.
UNMISS reported in December that inter-communal conflict continues to fuel repeated cycles of violence, potentially eroding the gains made toward sustaining peace across South Sudan. OCHA reported that the clashes have exacerbated the humanitarian situation as the most vulnerable, including women, children, the elderly and disabled, are bearing the brunt of the prolonged crisis.
The TGoNU made some progress in the political process during December 2022, such as the passing of the Constitution Making Process Act and the ratification of the Roadmap by the Transitional National Legislature. However, key challenges remain, including justice and accountability measures to address past atrocities. While national elections were initially scheduled for 2022, the TGoNU has repeatedly extended the transitional period and delayed elections.
The repeated failure to uphold multiple peace agreements shows a lack of genuine commitment to a political solution on the part of South Sudan’s leaders. Instead, continuous political competition and mobilization of armed groups is leading to increasing localized conflict, fragmentation and widening ethnic divisions. Political leaders have continued to focus on the preservation of their personal power, allowing mistrust to reinvigorate ethnic tensions and fuel violence across the country. Delays in reforming the security sector appear to be a deliberate strategy by President Kiir to retain dominance.
The influx of small arms and light weapons and ammunition during South Sudan’s civil war has increased the risk of atrocities, with many weapons falling into the hands of civilians and youth groups, making inter-communal clashes more deadly. The armed conflict and continued violations of ceasefire agreements underline the importance of the UN arms embargo and targeted sanctions.
Despite positive steps regarding political and security arrangements, progress on key human rights issues has been limited and justice remains largely elusive for the victims and survivors of atrocity crimes in South Sudan. Neither the government nor opposition groups have held perpetrators within their own ranks accountable for past or current atrocities. None of the transitional justice mechanisms provided for by the R-ARCSS, including the Hybrid Court, have been established. A pervasive culture of impunity continues to fuel resentment, recurring cycles of armed violence and mass atrocities in South Sudan.
All armed groups must immediately cease hostilities and respect IHRL and IHL to prevent further civilian harm. The TGoNU must make every effort to stop the fighting, address the root causes of inter-communal violence and ensure the safety and security of all populations. The TGoNU must also urgently establish an inclusive electoral system and advance the permanent constitution-making process to allow for free, fair and credible elections by December 2024.
The international community should exert increased diplomatic pressure on all parties to the R-ARCSS to ensure its full implementation. The UNSC must impose further targeted sanctions against any individuals who undermine the peace process. The African Union (AU), IGAD and neighboring countries should actively enforce the existing arms embargo.
UNMISS should continue to deploy quick reaction forces and temporary operating bases to areas at high risk of violence, as well as enhance its early warning capacities.
The AU and TGoNU must expeditiously establish the Hybrid Court and prosecute individuals responsible for past atrocities, regardless of their affiliation or position.
Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies
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