Despite the formation of a Transitional Government of National Unity, the risk of recurring armed conflict between government forces and armed rebel groups, and increased inter-communal violence, poses a threat to civilians in South Sudan.
Populations in South Sudan continue to suffer as a result of inter-communal violence, particularly in Jonglei State and the Greater Pibor Administrative Area, as well as from clashes between government forces and armed opposition groups. According to the Head of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), more than 2,000 civilians died in local-level conflict during 2020. The latest report of the UN Security Council (UNSC)-mandated Panel of Experts on South Sudan provided evidence of serious human rights violations committed during 2020 by both the South Sudan People’s Defence Forces (SSPDF) and armed rebels from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Opposition (SPLA-IO), including attacks against civilians, civilian infrastructure and humanitarian workers.
The Transitional Government of National Unity (TGoNU) is also attempting to overcome years of civil war. Between December 2013 and August 2015 an estimated 400,000 people were killed as the army and SPLA-IO perpetrated war crimes and crimes against humanity. Although violence between the SSPDF and non-state armed groups has reduced since the signing of the 2018 Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS), there is increased fragmentation within some non-state armed groups.
During late 2020 the SSPDF increased the deployment of troops to Central and Western Equatoria to renew an offensive against the National Salvation Front – who remain outside the R-ARCSS – and the SPLA-IO. Fighting between armed groups during November led to the displacement of 9,000 civilians in Central and Eastern Equatoria states.
An estimated 3.8 million South Sudanese remain displaced as a result of past conflict, with 2.2 million refugees still in neighboring countries. Nearly 6.5 million people in South Sudan are acutely food insecure and an estimated 1.3 million children under the age of five are malnourished. During October 2020 the UN Human Rights Council-mandated Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan (CoHR) alleged that between 2017-2019 government troops and armed opposition forces deliberately used the starvation of civilians as a method of warfare, particularly in Western Bahr el Ghazal and Jonglei states.
Political instability and armed conflict have been pervasive in South Sudan for the majority of its nine years of independence.
While there is a history of seasonal inter-communal violence between Nuer, Murle and Dinka communities in parts of South Sudan, recent disputes have been exacerbated by resource pressures caused by climate-related factors, arms proliferation and the decline of state authority.
The intensification of inter-communal violence and fighting between government forces and some armed groups risks disrupting the peace process. While the formation of the TGoNU during February 2020 was supposed to provide an opportunity to address long-standing divisions in the country, ongoing political rivalries have exacerbated tensions within South Sudan. Senior political and military leaders continue to manipulate long-standing enmities between rival ethnic communities.
Despite an August 2015 agreement calling for an independent Hybrid Court for South Sudan to investigate atrocities committed during the civil war, the government has repeatedly delayed its formation.
The TGoNU is struggling to uphold its responsibility to protect.
The UNSC has subjected eight people to targeted sanctions since 2015 and imposed an arms embargo since 2018. On 12 March 2020 the UNSC extended the mandate of UNMISS until March 2021, emphasizing that, “South Sudan’s government bears the primary responsibility to protect its populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity.”
On 11 June the European Union expressed concern about the level of violence and called upon the TGoNU to accelerate implementation of the peace agreement. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the CoHR have also expressed alarm over the escalation of inter-communal conflicts.
The international community must exert sustained diplomatic pressure on all parties to the R-ARCSS 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 arms embargo.
The AU and the government should expeditiously establish the Hybrid Court and prosecute individuals responsible for past atrocities. All perpetrators should be held accountable, regardless of their affiliation or position.
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