Fighting between the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and the SPLA in Opposition (SPLA-IO), as well as other rebel militias, has been escalating in various parts of South Sudan since the beginning of 2017. The SPLA reinforced its positions in Upper Nile and Jonglei states ahead of the rainy season. The SPLA has also attempted to eliminate armed opposition groups in Unity State, Western Bahr el-Ghazal and Central and Eastern Equatoria. Civilians were sometimes deliberately targeted or caught in the middle of this fighting, resulting in massive displacement and grave human rights violations.
Tensions between various ethnic groups have also increased as a result of border disputes and cattle raids, resulting in sporadic clashes and deaths throughout the country. Inter-communal violence and insecurity during May forced thousands of civilians to flee the town of Terekeka, Central Equatoria.
According to the UN, civilians who have fled recent fighting between the SPLA and rebel groups reported "killing of civilians, destruction of homes, sexual violence, and looting of livestock and property." During February a confidential UN report warned that the fighting had already reached "catastrophic proportions." Parts of South Sudan have recently experienced famine, which the UN Humanitarian Coordinator for South Sudan called a "man made" situation caused by the government. During April UN experts and humanitarian organizations also accused the government of intentionally denying aid to civilians in rebel-held areas.
Of the 919,200 South Sudanese refugees currently in Uganda, about 248,000 have arrived since January 2017. At least 137,000 South Sudanese refugees have also crossed into Sudan since the beginning of 2017. Since the beginning of the conflict in December 2013, more than 3.8 million South Sudanese have been forced to flee their homes, including 1.97 million internally displaced persons (IDPs).
In addition to the latest fighting, there are constant rumors of internecine power struggles within the government of South Sudan. On 9 May President Salva Kiir fired controversial army chief Paul Malong. On 13 May seven opposition groups, including the SPLA-IO, agreed to combine their efforts to oust the government. On 22 May President Kiir launched a National Dialogue. During June the Steering Committee invited the former Vice President and exiled former head of the SPLA-IO, Riek Machar, to participate. In a written response on 24 June, Machar recognized the importance of the National Dialogue, but has declined to attend.
Nearly a year after President Kiir and Machar agreed to end the country's 2013-2015 civil war by signing the "Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan" (ARCSS), intense fighting broke out in Juba between elements of the SPLA and SPLA-IO. Heavy combat, including tanks and helicopter gunships, took place from 7-11 July 2016. Following another ceasefire, Machar fled Juba. Hundreds of people, including civilians and two UN peacekeepers, were killed during the July fighting and 42,000 people were displaced. Some civilians were subjected to targeted killings on the basis of ethnicity. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) reported that widespread sexual violence, possibly amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity, also took place.
On 5 August the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) proposed the deployment of a Regional Protection Force (RPF) to support UNMISS. On 12 August the UN Security Council (UNSC) adopted Resolution 2304, authorizing the deployment of the 4,000-strong RPF. After multiple delays imposed by the government, the first RPF troops arrived in Juba at the end of April, with additional forces expected during August.
The ARCSS called for a permanent ceasefire, as well as the establishment of an independent Hybrid Court for South Sudan (HCSS) to investigate atrocities committed during the conflict. Between 2013-2015 at least 50,000 people were killed as parties to the civil war engaged in war crimes and crimes against humanity, including widespread extrajudicial killings, torture, child abductions and sexual violence, with both sides targeting civilians as part of their military tactics. The government has repeatedly delayed the formation of the HCSS. On 19 June a Technical Committee finally initiated a process to establish the Truth, Reconciliation and Healing Commission, in accordance with the ARCSS.
Political instability and sustained violence have been pervasive in South Sudan for the majority of its six years of independence. The resumption of widespread fighting leaves civilians at risk of further mass atrocity crimes. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has expressed concern that displaced civilians in Upper Nile are at imminent risk of gross human rights violations, inter-ethnic violence and further displacement. The rainy season is having an additional adverse affect on the humanitarian situation in South Sudan, leaving 60 percent of the country inaccessible.
The August 2015 ARCSS was never fully implemented and the root causes of the conflict have not been addressed. The Transitional Government of National Unity, established by the agreement, exists in name only. A pervasive culture of impunity has fueled recurring cycles of armed violence and mass atrocities in South Sudan.
The UN Panel of Experts has reported that deliberate policies by both sides of the conflict have "exacerbated the political, tribal and ethnic drivers of the war." Since December 2016, former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, and the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan have all acknowledged that conditions exist that could lead to the commission of mass atrocity crimes. Despite providing ample early warning to the UNSC regarding these risks, little action has been taken to protect vulnerable populations and hold perpetrators of past atrocities accountable.
Despite the declaration of famine conditions in parts of South Sudan, the government continues to obstruct UNMISS and humanitarian organizations while spending a large part of its national budget on arms. With ongoing resource deficits and a hostile operating environment, UNMISS is still struggling to protect vulnerable populations. South Sudan is also the deadliest country in the world for humanitarian workers, with more than 80 killed since December 2013.
Not only is the government of South Sudan manifestly failing to uphold its Responsibility to Protect and ensure accountability for past atrocities, it is responsible for ongoing attacks on civilian populations.
During May 2017 the UNSC adopted Resolution 2253 extending the sanctions regime until 31 May 2018 and the mandate of the Panel of Experts until 30 June 2018. Six senior military figures, three from both the SPLA and SPLA-IO, are currently subject to sanctions.
On 15 December the UNSC adopted a resolution extending UNMISS' mandate for an additional year. The resolution also authorized UNMISS to monitor, investigate and report on incidents of hate speech and incitement to violence in cooperation with the UN Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect. On 23 December the UNSC failed to adopt a resolution authorizing an arms embargo and further targeted sanctions when eight members of the Council abstained from voting.
On 20 March the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution extending the Commission on Human Rights' mandate for an additional year and authorizing it to preserve evidence and clarify responsibility for alleged gross violations and abuses of human rights. The resolution also recalled "that the Government of South Sudan has the primary responsibility to protect all populations in the country."
On 23 March the UNSC issued a Presidential Statement, calling upon parties to adhere to the permanent ceasefire, enhance humanitarian access, and remove obstacles to UNMISS carrying out its mandate. During a briefing on 25 April the UNSC concluded that none of the benchmarks have been met, but no action was taken.
On 12 June the IGAD Assembly of Heads of State and Government decided to urgently convene a High-Level Revitalization Forum of the parties to the ARCSS, to discuss ways to facilitate its implementation.
The government must fully implement all provisions of the August 2015 peace agreement and UNSC Resolution 2304. The government, SPLA, SPLA-IO and affiliated militias must ensure that UNMISS is able to move freely and without threats to their personnel. The inviolability of UN compounds must be respected. UNMISS must be enabled to fully implement its mandate, especially regarding providing adequate protection to vulnerable civilians.
The UNSC and IGAD should immediately impose an arms embargo on South Sudan and expand targeted sanctions against senior military commanders deemed to be exacerbating or profiting from the ongoing conflict.
The African Union (AU) should expeditiously establish the HCSS and ensure it has the resources to investigate and prosecute individuals responsible for mass atrocities committed since December 2013. The government, AU and international community must hold those responsible for atrocities in South Sudan accountable, regardless of their affiliation or position.
Last Updated: 17 July 2017