Ongoing localized and inter-communal violence, as well as political infighting, poses a threat to civilians in South Sudan.
Populations in South Sudan continue to suffer as a result of ongoing conflict at the subnational level, particularly in Upper Nile, Unity, Jonglei, Warrap, Lakes, Central Equatoria and Western Equatoria states. 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 sporadically culminated in violent clashes.
Between June-August 2021 the SPLM/A-IO splintered into two rival factions – those loyal to Machar and those loyal to the Chief of General Staff, Simon Gatwech Dual, resulting in violence and exacerbating inter-communal tensions. The security situation in Upper Nile continues to be impacted by the split within the SPLM/A-IO.
Although the overall level of violence against civilians reduced significantly during 2021, subnational and localized violence remained pervasive, according to the UN Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan (CHRSS). Hundreds of people have been killed as a result of ongoing inter-communal violence and attacks by community-based militias, including revenge killings, cattle raiding, abductions and attempted robbery, in Unity, Jonglei, Lakes, Warrap and Western Bahr el Ghazal states. The UN reported that between 1 September and 31 October 2021, an estimated 66 people were killed by inter-communal clashes and revenge attacks in the northwestern region of Greater Bahr el Ghazal alone.
According to the UN, humanitarian needs are at their highest level since the formation of South Sudan in 2011, with 8.3 million people – almost 75 percent of the population – in need of humanitarian assistance. In December the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported an increase in the number of armed attacks against humanitarians and humanitarian assets across the country since March 2021. 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, particularly in Western Bahr el Ghazal and Jonglei states. There has been no substantive attempt to hold perpetrators accountable.
While there is a history of seasonal inter-communal violence in parts of South Sudan, recent disputes have been exacerbated by resource pressures caused by climate change and arms proliferation. The rise in political infighting and localized violence, as well as the COVID-19 pandemic and severe weather conditions, have aggravated the humanitarian situation.
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 and the underlying causes of localized conflicts, 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 peace agreement have led to widening divisions that threaten the future security of the country. Armed groups that remain outside of the peace agreement, such as the National Salvation Front, also continue to engage in violent attacks, forced recruitment, harassment and abductions.
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 2021 the UNSC extended the mandate of the UN Mission in South Sudan (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. The CHRSS conducted a five-day visit to South Sudan in February 2022.
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.
The AU and the government should expeditiously establish the Hybrid Court and prosecute individuals responsible for past atrocities, regardless of their affiliation or position. The HRC should renew the mandate of the CHRSS in full during its 49th session.