Ongoing localized and inter-communal violence, as well as political infighting, pose a pervasive threat to civilians in South Sudan.
Between December 2013 and August 2015 an estimated 400,000 people were killed as the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and armed rebels from the opposition SPLA-In Opposition perpetrated war crimes and crimes against humanity, including extrajudicial killings, torture, child abductions and sexual violence. Despite the signing of numerous peace agreements between 2015 and 2018, intermittent fighting and ethnic violence continued. In September 2018 a Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS), brokered by Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), was signed by the parties to the conflict – including President Salva Kiir and then 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 and support sustainable solutions to the conflict. However, bitter disagreements between and within parties of the TGoNU have widened divisions in the country and further exacerbated tensions at the local level.
Attacks and civilian targeting by the parties to the conflict, as well as inter-communal violence, persist in various parts of South Sudan. Cattle raiding and revenge killings, as well as increased resource competition between herding and farming communities as result of climate change, 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.
Upon request by the TGoNU, the UN Peacebuilding Commission has been supporting efforts to address challenges related to the implementation of the R-ARCSS since 2022. The Commission is working with the TGoNU to mobilize political, technical and financial support for the country’s peacebuilding infrastructure at the local level through its governance and reconciliation components.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), over 9.4 million people – more than two thirds of the population – need humanitarian assistance. OCHA has reported that the most vulnerable, including women, children, the elderly and disabled, are bearing the brunt of the prolonged crisis as ongoing clashes exacerbate the humanitarian situation. An estimated 2 million people remain internally displaced and 2.22 million have fled to neighboring countries. South Sudan is one of the most dangerous countries for humanitarian workers, with more than 143 killed since 2013.
The outbreak of the conflict in neighboring Sudan during April 2023 has had political, social and economic consequences for South Sudan, including import disruptions, an influx of refugees and limited humanitarian resources, as well as a shift of focus by President Kiir and IGAD to the situation in Sudan. Increased competition over already scarce resources has led to an escalation of tensions among communities.
According to the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), at least 141 people were killed in cyclical revenge attacks between the Misseriya community from Sudan and the South Sudan People’s Defence Forces in Northern Bahr el-Ghazal State between April and September. According to the host community, violence was allegedly triggered by Misseriya cattle herders failing to respect resolutions agreed upon during pre-migration. Violence related to cross-border cattle raiding also persisted among the tri-state borders of Warrap, Unity and Lakes States.
During October the UN Human Rights Council-mandated Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan (CHRSS) warned about the systematic curtailment of democratic and civic space in South Sudan. The CHRSS claims that the National Security Service (NSS) has instituted a pervasive and unlawful censorship regime that curtails independent media. The NSS is also accused of imposing widespread restrictions and surveillance on human rights defenders and civil society organizations and their activities.
The repeated failure to uphold multiple peace agreements shows a lack of genuine commitment to a political solution by South Sudan’s leaders. Instead, continuous political competition and the mobilization of armed groups is leading to increasing localized conflict, fragmentation and 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 disappearance of civic and political space diminishes opportunities for civilians to participate in constitution-making, transitional justice, national elections and other essential democratic processes and may give rise to grievances that become a trigger for atrocity crimes.
The influx of small arms, light weapons and ammunition during South Sudan’s civil war has increased the enduring risk of atrocities, with the accessibility of weapons to 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 Security Council (UNSC)-imposed arms embargo and targeted sanctions.
A pervasive culture of impunity continues to fuel resentment, recurring cycles of armed violence and atrocity crimes. Neither the government nor opposition groups have held perpetrators within their own ranks accountable for past or current atrocities and none of the transitional justice mechanisms provided for by the R-ARCSS, including the Hybrid Court, have been established.
All armed groups must immediately cease hostilities and respect IHL and IHRL 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, including by passing and implementing the National Elections Act without further delay, as well as reconstituting the Political Parties Council, National Constitutional Review Commission and National Elections Commission. The TGoNU should also respect civic and political space and take all necessary measures to guarantee the participation of civilians in essential democratic processes.
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.