South Sudan

31 May 2024
Risk Level: Imminent Risk

Ongoing localized and inter-communal violence, as well as political infighting, pose a pervasive threat to civilians in South Sudan.


Frequent sub-national clashes in South Sudan threaten populations in various parts of the country. For several years senior political and military leaders have manipulated long-standing enmities between rival ethnic communities, enabling national level political dynamics to spark local conflicts. 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.

Some herding and farming communities, who have a history of competing over resources, continue to engage in violent inter-communal clashes, as well as cattle raiding and revenge killings. The increasing scarcity of resources as a result of climate change has exacerbated this fighting. During the last quarter of 2023, the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) documented 862 victims of inter-communal and political violence, including 406 people killed, 293 injured, 100 abducted and 63 subjected to sexual violence.

Ongoing instability has its origins in a war that resulted in an estimated 400,000 people killed between December 2013 and August 2015 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 IGAD, was signed by 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 and further exacerbated tensions at the local level.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), over 9 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 2.28 million have fled to neighboring countries.


As South Sudan prepares for its first-ever national elections to be held by December this year, significant concerns remain about the country’s human rights situation. The UN Human Rights Council-mandated Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan has warned that disappearing civic space and diminished opportunities for civilians to participate in essential democratic processes may give rise to grievances and increase the risk of atrocity crimes.

Concerns also remain regarding South Sudan’s electoral preparedness. Despite many delays in holding elections – as mapped in the R-ARCSS – the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for South Sudan cautioned that the country is not yet in a position to hold a credible election. Security sector reform and the permanent constitution-making process remain significantly behind schedule. While members of the National Elections Commission (NEC), the Political Parties Council (PPC) and the National Constitutional Review Commission (NCRC) were appointed in November, complaints have surfaced regarding whether their composition is in line with the R-ARCSS. The PPC, NEC and NCRC are also reportedly unfunded and non-operational. In a press release on 20 March the SPLM claimed that other provisions included in the R-ARCSS do not have to be established before holding elections, such as a new census, a permanent constitution and the return of refugees.

During April the UN Security Council (UNSC) reviewed the conclusions of a UN assessment regarding the country’s election preparedness and mandated UNMISS to provide electoral assistance, including support to voter education programs for the prevention and response to election violence.

Meanwhile, violence continues across South Sudan. Additional peacekeepers and urgent patrols were deployed to two conflict hotspots following a surge of inter-communal violence, which led to a significant number of civilian deaths, the abduction of women and children and mass displacement of vulnerable communities. The violence erupted after armed youth from the Greater Pibor Administrative Area attacked cattle keepers across the border in Kapoeta East County, Eastern Equatoria. In Tambura, Western Equatoria, tensions between communities from different ethnic backgrounds have increased following a series of attacks.


The repeated failure to uphold multiple peace agreements, continued political competition and mobilization of armed groups show a lack of genuine commitment to a political solution by South Sudan’s leaders. 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 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.


    • A security crisis caused by, among other factors, delays in implementing a peace agreement, absence of a unified army under national command, weak state institutions and lack of capacity to prevent atrocity crimes and address rising political and inter-communal tensions.
    • Policy or practice of impunity for serious violations of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and International Human Rights Law (IHRL), atrocity crimes or their incitement.
    • Past and present serious inter-communal tensions and conflicts, the mobilization of armed groups along ethnic lines and the politicization of past grievances.
    • Capacity to commit atrocity crimes, including availability of personnel, arms and ammunition.
    • Potential upcoming elections as trigger event for atrocity crimes.


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. 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), Intergovernmental Authority on Development and neighboring countries should actively enforce the existing arms embargo.

The AU and TGoNU must expeditiously establish the Hybrid Court and prosecute individuals responsible for past atrocities, regardless of their affiliation or position.


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