The risk of recurring armed conflict between government forces and armed rebel groups, as well as inter-communal violence, poses an ongoing threat to civilians in South Sudan.
Populations in South Sudan continue to suffer as a result of increased inter-communal violence and clashes between government forces and armed opposition groups. 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. During July an estimated 150 people were killed and 21,000 displaced by fighting in Western Equatoria State while 5,000 were displaced by localized violence in Warrap State.
The Transitional Government of National Unity (TGoNU), formed in February 2020, has been unable to address the underlying causes of localized conflicts. Since March the Human Rights Division of the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) has documented at least 14 incidents in Warrap State involving members of the South Sudan People’s Defence Forces, the National Police Service or the National Security Service that resulted in the extrajudicial execution of 29 men and boys. The spate of extrajudicial executions coincides with the appointment of a new Governor of Warrap State, Aleu Ayieny Aleu, who pledged to end inter-communal violence and restore peace.
Growing discontent within the two main political parties, 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, has led to further instability. Defections and political fragmentation have triggered recent violence in Upper Nile, Warrap and Central Equatoria states. During August violent clashes also broke out in Upper Nile State between forces loyal to Machar and those loyal to Lieutenant General Simon Gatwech Dual after he tried to replace Machar as the head of the SPLM/A-IO.
An estimated 1.71 million civilians remain displaced as a result of past conflict, with 2.3 million refugees in neighboring countries. Nearly 7.2 million people in South Sudan are acutely food insecure and an estimated 1.4 million children under the age of five are malnourished. The UN reported that more people are in need of humanitarian assistance during 2021 than ever before.
Political instability and armed conflict have been pervasive in South Sudan for the majority of its 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. There has been no substantive attempt to hold perpetrators accountable. 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.
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. Weak state structures, as well as a lack of trust in the justice system, has also driven some communities to favor extrajudicial executions as a means of ending the cycle of retaliatory inter-communal violence. Some local authorities have exploited disputes and used extrajudicial executions to garner public support.
Although the formation of the TGoNU 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 leaders of the TGoNU on how to implement the peace agreement has led to widening divisions that threaten the future security of the country.
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 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.”
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the CHRSS have expressed alarm over the escalation of inter-communal conflict in South Sudan.
During its 46th session in March 2021, the HRC adopted two resolutions on South Sudan, extending the mandate of the CHRSS until March 2022 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 R-ARCSS 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 enable the CHRSS to continue its work until an appropriate court or tribunal is fully operational.