Despite the formation of a new Transitional Government of National Unity, the risk of recurring armed conflict between government forces and armed rebel groups continues to pose a threat to civilians in South Sudan.
During September 2018 parties to the conflict in South Sudan signed the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS), formally ending a civil war that started during December 2013. Despite severe delays in implementing crucial components of the agreement – including the reunification of the armed forces and the demarcation of state borders – on 22 February South Sudan formed a new Transitional Government of National Unity (TGoNU).
Although a ceasefire has largely been maintained and armed violence has reduced since September 2018, clashes between government forces and rebel groups that refused to sign the R-ARCSS, including the National Salvation Front (NAS), continue to pose a threat to civilians. During January escalated political violence and NAS operations in Central Equatoria and the Upper Nile forced 8,000 civilians to flee to Ethiopia and displaced another 11,000 internally.
Between December 2013 and August 2015 an estimated 400,000 people in South Sudan were killed as the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and armed rebels from the SPLA-IO perpetrated war crimes and crimes against humanity, including widespread extrajudicial killings, torture, child abductions and sexual violence. Despite the signing of numerous peace agreements between August 2015 and September 2018, atrocities continued. Since December 2013 an estimated 4 million South Sudanese have been forced to flee their homes, with 2.2 million refugees spread across neighboring countries. Since the signing of the peace agreement in September 2018, refugees and internally displaced persons have slowly returned. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 5.5 million people remain acutely food insecure.
Despite the R-ARCSS and the formation of the TGoNU, on 9 March the UN Human Rights Council-mandated Commission on Human Rights (CoHR) in South Sudan presented its latest report documenting ongoing killing, torture, sexual violence and rape, intentional starvation of civilians, intimidation, displacement and enforced disappearances. The CoHR also found that both the government and the armed opposition have used starvation of civilians as a method of warfare.
Recurring inter-communal violence also continues to pose a threat to civilians. Since mid-February renewed inter-communal violence between the Lou Nuer and Murle in Jonglei State and the Greater Pibor Administrative area has caused more than 26,000 people to flee.
Political instability and armed conflict have been pervasive in South Sudan for the majority of its eight years of independence and numerous previous peace agreements have failed. The establishment of the TGoNU enables South Sudan to start addressing long-term social challenges and political divisions, including recurring inter-communal violence. The inability to resolve outstanding issues – including borders of states and unification of the armed forces – puts the R-ARCSS and long-term peace in South Sudan at serious risk.
While there is a history of seasonal inter-communal raids and violence between Nuer, Murle and Dinka communities in parts of South Sudan, recent disputes have been exacerbated by resource pressures caused by flooding in Jonglei earlier this year and the decline of state authority in much of the region.
Despite an August 2015 agreement calling for an independent Hybrid Court for South Sudan to investigate atrocities committed during the conflict, the government has repeatedly delayed its formation and no one has been held accountable for atrocities committed during the civil war.
The government of South Sudan must uphold its responsibility to protect, including by fully and expeditiously implementing the R-ARCSS.
Several regional actors, including the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), Kenya, Sudan and Uganda, facilitated the peace process in South Sudan. These combined efforts culminated in the R-ARCSS.
On 21 March 2019 the Human Rights Council extended the mandate of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan for another year, emphasizing that the government has “the responsibility to protect all of its population in the country from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.”
On 30 May the UN Security Council (UNSC) extended South Sudan’s sanctions regime, including the arms embargo imposed in 2018.
On 8 January 2020 the United States imposed sanctions on Vice President Taban Deng Gai for human rights violations and impeding the peace process.
On 4 March the European Union Delegation to South Sudan expressed deep concern regarding reports of high levels of inter-communal violence in Jonglei State and other parts of the country and urged the TGoNU and other stakeholders to redouble efforts to calm the situation.
On 12 March 2019 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, and expressing concern that despite the signing of the Revitalised Agreement, violations including rape and sexual violence continue to occur which may amount to international crimes, including war crimes and crimes against humanity.”
The international community must continue to 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 or impede the peace process in South Sudan, regardless of position or office. The African Union (AU), IGAD and neighboring countries should actively assist in imposing and monitoring 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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