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.
During September 2018 parties to the civil war signed the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS), formally ending a conflict that started during December 2013. Despite severe delays, on 22 February a new Transitional Government of National Unity (TGoNU) was formed.
While the formation of the TGoNU provided an opportunity to address long-standing divisions, there has been an increase in inter-communal violence since the start of 2020, particularly in Jonglei State and the Greater Pibor Administrative Area. According to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, inter-communal clashes led to 658 civilian deaths, 592 abductions and 65 cases of sexual violence during the first quarter of 2020. On 16-17 May clashes between the Lou Nuer and Murle in 28 villages in Jonglei State resulted in at least 300 people being killed. On 3 July at least 38 people, including five children, were killed during an attack by armed Murle youth in Duk County, Jonglei State.
In an attempt to end the rising inter-communal violence, the government launched a disarmament campaign across the country. However, at least 148 people were killed, including 85 civilians, in Tonj County, Warrap State, on 8-9 August when security forces clashed with local youths.
The TGoNU is attempting to overcome years of civil war. 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 SPLA-In Opposition (SPLA-IO) perpetrated war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Although armed violence between government forces and non-state armed groups has reduced since the signing of the R-ARCSS, on 9 March the UN Human Rights Council-mandated Commission on Human Rights (CoHR) in South Sudan reported ongoing killing, torture, sexual violence, intentional starvation of civilians, displacement and enforced disappearances. Clashes between the South Sudan People’s Defence Forces (formerly the SPLA) and rebel groups outside the R-ARCSS also continue.
Since December 2013 an estimated 4 million South Sudanese have been forced to flee their homes, with 2.2 million refugees still in neighboring countries.
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 flooding, arms proliferation and the decline of state authority. The intensification of inter-communal violence risks disrupting the peace process.
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 UN Security Council (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 the UN Mission in South Sudan 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 increase in 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 violence.
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 in South Sudan and should extend the arms embargo. The African Union (AU), Intergovernmental Authority on Development, and neighboring countries should actively assist in enforcing the arms embargo.
The AU and the government should expeditiously establish the Hybrid Court and ensure that it has the resources to investigate and prosecute individuals responsible for past atrocities. All perpetrators of such crimes should be held accountable, regardless of their affiliation or position.
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