South Sudan

South Sudan: Populations at Risk - Imminent Risk (15 February 2017)

South Sudan

Despite the August 2015 peace agreement, ongoing violence in South Sudan poses an imminent threat to populations who may be targeted on the basis of ethnicity and presumed political loyalties.


The peace process that formally ended the 2013-2015 civil war in South Sudan remains on the brink of collapse as a result of ongoing violence. In a briefing to the UN Security Council (UNSC) on 17 November the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, warned that there is a "strong risk of violence escalating along ethnic lines, with the potential for genocide." On 19 December former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned the UNSC that failure to act would put the country on a "trajectory towards mass atrocities" and that the recent rise in hate speech and ethnic mobilization, particularly among the Southern Sudanese diaspora, may spark mass atrocities.

On 28 November the Spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General announced that the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) had received reports of government-aligned militias deploying to the Equatoria region ahead of a planned offensive against armed rebels and ethnic groups presumed to be supporting them. Following a ten-day visit to the country, the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan stated on 1 December that there is already "ethnic cleansing underway in several areas of South Sudan using starvation, gang rape and the burning of villages."

Renewed fighting between elements of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and the SPLA in Opposition (SPLA-IO) as well as other rebel groups has erupted throughout South Sudan. On 25 January the UN received reports of clashes between the SPLA and SPLA-IO in Central Equatoria, resulting in civilians killed and displaced towards the border areas. On 30 January UNMISS expressed deep concern with the outbreak of fighting and the intermittent shelling between SPLA and SPLA-IO in the city Malakal in the Eastern Nile state. As a result of new clashes in the areas around Yei and Kajo-Keji, OCHA reported more than 52,600 South Sudanese fled to Uganda in January 2017.

The latest violence follows five days of intense fighting from 7-11 July between elements of the SPLA and the SPLA-IO. Heavy combat, including tanks and helicopter gunships, took place in Juba. Following an 11 July ceasefire, First Vice President Riek Machar fled Juba and was replaced on 24 July by Taban Deng Gai, whose nomination by the fractured opposition was accepted by President Salva Kiir.

Hundreds of people, including civilians and two UN peacekeepers, were reportedly killed during the July fighting and 42,000 people were displaced in Juba. Some civilians attempting to flee to UN bases were subjected to targeted killings on the basis of ethnicity. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and UNMISS reported that widespread sexual violence, possibly amounting to war crimes and crimes against humanity, took place during the July violence.

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 UNSC adopted Resolution 2304, authorizing the deployment of the 4,000-strong RPF. The Transitional Government of National Unity issued a joint communiqué with the UNSC on 4 September consenting to its deployment. However, despite President Kiir reconfirming commitment to the regional force on 26 January, the Transitional Government has made no progress towards fulfilling its commitments regarding the RPF.

The fighting in Juba occurred nearly a year after President Kiir and Machar had agreed to end the country's civil war by signing the "Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan" during August 2015. The power-sharing agreement 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 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 of South Sudan has repeatedly delayed the formation of the Hybrid Court. On 5 February the government announced a plan to free the country of armed opposition groups by 2020.

The civil war was the result of a conflict that started on 15 December 2013 between the SPLA and SPLA-IO. Over the following 18 months, the worst fighting was between ethnic Dinka and Nuer soldiers loyal to President Kiir and Machar, respectively. At least 24 armed militias loosely aligned with either side, including the powerful Nuer White Army, have been operating in South Sudan. At least 50,000 people were killed while nearly 1.7 million people were internally displaced and 1.2 million fled the country, according to UNHCR. On 10 February UNHCR announced that more than 1.5 million people had fled South Sudan since December 2013 and that an additional 2.1 million people continue to be internally displaced.


Political instability and sustained violence have been pervasive in South Sudan for the majority of its five years of independence. The resumption of fighting and the split in the SPLA-IO leaves civilians at ongoing risk of potential mass atrocity crimes, particularly during the dry season when troops are able to be more mobile.

Despite the formation of the Transitional Government of National Unity, the peace agreement was never fully implemented and the root causes of the conflict have not been addressed. A pervasive culture of impunity has fueled recurring cycles of armed violence and mass atrocities. The UN Panel of Experts on South Sudan has reported that deliberate policies by parties to the conflict have "exacerbated the political, tribal and ethnic drivers of the war."

The government has previously obstructed UNMISS. With ongoing resource deficits and a hostile operating environment, UNMISS is still struggling to protect vulnerable populations.

The Transitional Government has failed to uphold its Responsibility to Protect and ensure accountability for past mass atrocity crimes. UNMISS requires urgent international assistance in order to uphold its civilian protection mandate.


On 31 May the UNSC adopted Resolution 2290 extending the sanctions regime until 31 May 2017 and the mandate of the Panel of Experts until 1 July 2017. Six senior military figures, three from both the SPLA and SPLA-IO, are currently subject to sanctions.

IGAD issued a communiqué on 9 December, following an Assembly of Heads of State and Government, which condemned "systematic targeting, killings and forced displacement of civilian populations," expressed concern over the "rising ethnic rhetoric, hate speech and ethnically-fueled violence," and called upon the parties to immediately cease all hostilities.

On 14 December, during a UN Human Rights Council special emergency session on South Sudan, a resolution was adopted, emphasizing that the government of South Sudan has "the primary responsibility to protect all populations in the country from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity."

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 29 January during a consultative meeting held on the sidelines of the African Union (AU) Summit, the UN, IGAD and AU agreed that the 2015 peace deal is the best and only way to achieve lasting peace in South Sudan.


The Transitional Government must abide by the cessation of hostilities and fully implement all provisions of the August 2015 peace agreement and UNSC Resolution 2304. All political and community leaders should publicly condemn the use of ethnic hate speech. The government, SPLA and SPLA-IO must ensure that UNMISS is able to move freely and without threats to their personnel. The inviolability of UN compounds must be respected.

IGAD, together with the Transitional Government, must expeditiously establish and deploy the RPF. The international community should immediately enhance UNMISS' capabilities through the provision of additional aviation assets, including tactical military helicopters and unarmed unmanned aerial systems.

UNMISS and its commanders need to fully implement the mission's mandate, especially regarding providing adequate protection to civilians and ending human rights violations.

The UNSC and IGAD should immediately impose an arms embargo on South Sudan and expand targeted sanctions against those deemed to be prolonging, exacerbating or profiting from ongoing conflict.

The AU should establish the HCSS and ensure it has the resources to investigate and prosecute individuals responsible for mass atrocities committed since December 2013, including commissioning a special investigation into the July violence in Juba. The government, AU and international community must hold those responsible for atrocities in South Sudan accountable, regardless of affiliation or position.

Last Updated: 15 February 2017