Despite the formation of a Transitional Government of National Unity, the risk of recurring armed conflict between government forces and armed rebel groups, as well as increased inter-communal violence, poses a threat to civilians in South Sudan.
Populations in South Sudan continue to suffer as a result of increased localized violence, as well as clashes between government forces and armed opposition groups. According to the Head of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), more than 2,000 civilians died in localize conflicts during 2020. During January violence continued to displace people in Central and Western Equatoria, Upper Nile and Warrap states. The UN Human Rights Council (HRC)-mandated Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan (CHRSS) has asserted that the current level of localized violence may be higher than during the country’s 2013-2015 civil war.
Since the Transitional Government of National Unity (TGoNU) was formed in February 2020, it has been unable to address the underlying causes of inter-ethnic conflict. Violence between the South Sudan People’s Defence Forces (SSPDF) and non-state armed groups has reduced since the signing of the 2018 Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan (R-ARCSS), which formally ended the civil war. However, the UN Security Council (UNSC)-mandated Panel of Experts on South Sudan recorded evidence of the SSPDF and armed rebels from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Opposition (SPLA-IO) perpetrating attacks against civilians, civilian infrastructure and humanitarian workers during 2020.
An estimated 1.62 million civilians remain displaced as a result of past conflict, with 2.19 million refugees still in neighboring countries. Nearly 5.8 million people in South Sudan are acutely food insecure and an estimated 1.4 million children under the age of five are malnourished. 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.
Political instability and armed conflict have been pervasive in South Sudan for the majority of its almost ten years of independence. Between December 2013 and August 2015 an estimated 400,000 people were killed as the army and SPLA-IO perpetrated war crimes and crimes against humanity, but there has been no substantive attempt to hold perpetrators accountable. After years of delay, on 29 January the TGoNU announced its intention to establish the Hybrid Court for South Sudan to investigate atrocities committed during the civil war.
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 climate change, arms proliferation and the decline of state authority.
Although the formation of the TGoNU was supposed to provide an opportunity to address long-standing divisions in the country, senior political and military leaders continue to manipulate long-standing enmities between rival ethnic communities.
The TGoNU is struggling to uphold its responsibility to protect.
The 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 UNMISS until March 2022, 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 level of violence and called upon the TGoNU to accelerate implementation of the peace agreement. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the CHRSS have also expressed alarm over the escalation of inter-communal conflicts.
The CHRSS, the Chairperson of the African Union (AU) Commission, the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide and the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict have all welcomed the decision to establish the Hybrid Court and other transitional justice institutions.
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. The AU, Intergovernmental Authority on Development and neighboring countries should actively enforce the 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 enable the CHRSS to continue its work until an appropriate court or tribunal is fully operational.