South Sudan: Populations at Risk - Imminent Risk (15 November 2016)

from Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect
Published on 15 Nov 2016 View Original

Despite the August 2015 peace agreement, recent 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. On 30 September the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) expressed concern regarding the safety of 100,000 people trapped in Yei, Central Equatoria state, due to armed clashes between elements of the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and the SPLA in Opposition (SPLA-IO). In early October fighting resumed in Unity state with the UN receiving reports of civilians being raped, abducted, and killed, as well as the forced recruitment of children. Heavy fighting was also reported near Malakal, Upper Nile state. According to UNHCR, an average of 3,500 people fled South Sudan to neighboring countries every day during October.

The latest violence follows five days of intense fighting from 7 to 11 July between elements of the SPLA and the SPLA-IO. Heavy fighting, including tanks and helicopter gunships, took place in Juba, particularly in the Jebel area near a UN base protecting thousands of civilians. 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. On 24 September Machar issued a statement from Sudan calling upon his supporters to wage armed resistance against the government.

Hundreds of people, including civilians and two UN peacekeepers, were reportedly killed during the July fighting. Two UN compounds were hit by mortar and artillery fire, killing at least eight people. Approximately 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 Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) recorded 217 incidents of sexual violence between 8 and 25 July. On 1 August the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) condemned the sexual violence and noted that such acts may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity. Several rapes of foreign humanitarian workers also took place near a UN base where peacekeepers were aware of the attacks, but failed to act.

A UN Special Investigation into the Juba violence concluded on 1 November that, "a lack of leadership on the part of key senior Mission personnel culminated in a chaotic and ineffective response." Following publication of the report UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced the dismissal of UNMISS' Force Commander, Lieutenant General Johnson Mogoa Kimani Ondieki of Kenya. The government of Kenya criticized the dismissal, announcing their intention to withdraw all Kenyan troops from UNMISS and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) peace process.

On 5 August 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. The Transitional Government of National Unity issued a joint communiqué with the UNSC on 4 September consenting to its deployment. However, UN Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping, Hervé Ladsous, said on 14 September that the Transitional Government had made no progress towards fulfilling its commitments regarding the RPF.

The fighting in Juba occurred 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" 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 mass atrocities committed during the conflict. Despite the formation of the Transitional Government on 29 April, President Kiir and Machar were criticized for their half-hearted implementation of the peace agreement.

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.

Between 2013 and 2015 parties to the civil war engaged in war crimes and crimes against humanity, including widespread extrajudicial killings, torture, child abductions and sexual violence, targeting civilians as part of their military tactics. At least 50,000 people were killed and nearly 1.7 million were internally displaced, while 900,000 people fled the country, according to UNHCR. Prior to the recent violence, over 160,000 people were still taking refuge in six UNMISS bases across the country. Since the July fighting more civilians have sought UN protection.


Political instability, endemic corruption 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. Attacks on civilians sheltering at UN protection sites demonstrate a clear disregard for IHL and international human rights law (IHRL) by all parties to the conflict.

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 in South Sudan. 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." Ethnic tensions also continue to be heightened by officials using hate speech.

The government has previously obstructed UNMISS, hampering its ability to uphold its mandate. 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 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.

UNSC Resolution 2304 of 12 August extended UNMISS' mandate until 15 December and emphasized that the Transitional Government bears the primary responsibility to protect populations from mass atrocities. The resolution threatened an arms embargo if the government continued to obstruct UNMISS from fulfilling its mandate.

A UNSC delegation visited South Sudan from 2 to 5 September to discuss full implementation of the peace agreement. The African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council conducted a mission to South Sudan from 28 to 30 October.

During a mission to Juba on 11 November, UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, warned that populations face the threat of genocide unless national, regional and international actors "take immediate measures to end the violence and uphold our collective responsibility to protect the populations of South Sudan from atrocity crimes."


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 and incitement to violence. 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 must expeditiously establish and deploy the RPF. UNMISS and the RPF must robustly implement their civilian protection mandate. 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 needs to fully implement the recommendations of the UN Special Investigation aimed at providing adequate protection to civilians and ending human rights violations. The UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations should ensure that all UNMISS commanders uphold their mandate to protect civilians and are held accountable for negligence and underperformance.

The UNSC and IGAD should immediately impose an arms embargo and extend targeted sanctions.

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 November 2016