Ongoing localized and inter-communal violence, as well as political infighting, poses an imminent threat to civilians in South Sudan.
Populations in South Sudan continue to suffer as a result of ongoing conflict taking place at the subnational level. Growing discontent within the 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 – have led to increased instability. In several parts of the country, tensions between the two political parties over access to resources and political appointments have culminated in violent clashes and triggered serious human rights violations, including widespread sexual violence, particularly against women and girls.
Subnational and localized violence remains pervasive, according to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan (CHRSS), with violence currently taking place in nine out of ten states. Between January-March 2022 the Human Rights Division of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) documented at least 300 civilian deaths, 125 abductions and 63 cases of sexual violence by government forces and the SPLA-IO, as well as other armed groups and community-based militias. In Leer County a surge of violence, including gang rapes, beheadings, the burning civilians alive and attacks on humanitarian workers, resulted in at least 72 civilians killed and 64 cases of sexual violence between February-April.
More than 8.3 million people – almost 75 percent of the population – need humanitarian assistance. South Sudan is one of the most dangerous countries for humanitarian workers, with at least 130 killed since 2013. During March the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported 25 incidents involving violence or threats against humanitarian personnel and assets. An estimated 2 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 almost 11 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. There has been no substantive attempt to hold perpetrators accountable.
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, 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 2018 peace agreement have led to widening divisions that threaten the future security of the country. Delays in reforming the security sector appear to be a deliberate strategy by President Kiir to retain dominance.
The CHRSS warned that the pursuit of elections, tentatively scheduled for 2023, poses a serious risk of fueling further polarization. Rushing elections without implementing the necessary constitution-making conditions and security arrangements increases the risks of political and ethnic violence.
The TGoNU is failing 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 15 March 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.”
Between 13-15 December 2021, the CHRSS, in collaboration with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and UNMISS, convened a high-level conference on Sustaining Momentum for Transitional Justice in South Sudan.
During its 49th session in March 2022, the HRC adopted two resolutions extending the mandate of the CHRSS until March 2023 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.
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, particularly in the context of possible increasing tensions ahead of the elections.
The AU and the government should expeditiously establish the Hybrid Court and prosecute individuals responsible for past atrocities, regardless of their affiliation or position.