More ICRtoP resources on South Sudan:
Q and A: The Responsibility to Protect and South Sudan
ICRtoP Blog: No Stability Without Accountability
Security Council Resolutions on South Sudan Referencing RtoP
The Crisis in South Sudan
“Over the next five years…a new mass killing or genocide is most likely to occur in Southern Sudan.” – Dennis Blair, former U.S. Director of National Intelligence, 2010.
South Sudan, often referred to as the world’s “newest country”, gained its independence on July 9 2011 after voters resoundingly decided to break away from Sudan in a referendum held earlier that year. Despite optimism that autonomy would lead to greater peace and prosperity for the new citizens of South Sudan after years of neglect, corruption, and human rights abuses under the government of Sudan, the new nation is suffering from persistent inter-ethnic conflict and unbridled arms proliferation. Deadly clashes between Government forces (also known as the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, or SPLA) and armed rebel groups, particularly the Yau-Yau, have led to horrific human rights abuses committed by both sides and the displacement of tens of thousands of people. In December 2013, political divisions between President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar exacerbated deeply-rooted ethnic tensions, sparking armed clashes, a humanitarian emergency, and the risk of civil war. Despite six rounds of peace talks mediated by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) and four ceasefire agreements, violence continues with fresh fighting between government troops and rebel fighters reported only 48 hours after the latest peace agreement from 9 November 2014. The level of violence has led Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the United Nations Mission to South Sudan (UNMISS) to conclude that war crimes and crimes against humanity may have taken place in the country.
The situation in Jonglei State raises particular alarm as it is home to two tribes with a long-standinghistory of inter-tribal conflict, the Lou Nuer and the Murle. Lack of infrastructure, chronic underdevelopment, and the civil war from 1983-2005 (in which both Sudan and the SPLA armed different communities) have only deepened a historic rivalry between the tribes, who frequently clash while defending or pillaging cattle herds. At the heart of these conflicts is a traditional dowry system; often young men steal cattle in order to make bridal payments. Tensions intensified in August 2011, shortly after South Sudan’s secession, when the Murle attacked Lou Nuer livestock, resulting in over 600 dead, 750 wounded, and 26,000 stolen cattle. In January 2012, 6,000 armed Lou Nuer youth attacked a Murle community, leaving hundreds of people dead, and tens of thousands displaced. Most recently, in July 2013, up to 4,000 Lou Nuer youth again mobilized against the Murle, resulting in high casualties. Many on the ground have reported that 100,000 are displaced, with thousands hiding in swamps for fear of inviting reprisal attacks should they return to their homes. The fighting has also cut off humanitarian aid agencies, including Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), from civilians in Jonglei, an area that is difficult to access at the best of times.
The actions of one particular Murle rebel group in Jonglei State, led by David Yau Yau, have provoked serious retaliation from the SPLA. Yau Yau rebelled against the Government of the Republic of South Sudan (GRSS) after losing a 2010 election in Jonglei. Though he signed a ceasefire with the GRSS in June 2011, under the terms of which he integrated his militia into the SPLA, he again mutinied in April 2012. After a gruesome incident in which a Murle rebel group, believed to be Yau Yau’s, killed 85 unarmed Lou Nuer pastoralists in Wangar, the GRSS launched a large-scale military operation in March 2013 to rid Jonglei of the armed group. Regional tensions between Sudan and South Sudan have also played a role in this forceful response by the GRSS, as Khartoum has allegedly supplied Yau Yau’s militia with weapons and ammunition.
In late January 2014, after almost three years of hostilities, the GRSS and Yau Yau rebels signed a peace dealafter negotiations in Addis Ababa. Talks were facilitated by PAX (formerly known as IKV Pax Christi), a Dutch peace organisation and Coalition member. Under the terms of the agreement, the militia will maintain neutrality in the ongoing conflict between the Government and rebels, and the ‘area controlled by Yau Yau will be a ‘peace zone’ to which the [SPLA] will have access only by mutual agreement’. Shortly after the deal was signed, twenty eight people were killed in an attack in Jonglei state; although survivors say their attackers were Murle, they appear not to have made accusations against Yau Yau's militia. At the time of writing, it appeared that the ceasefire was holding.
The Government has received harsh criticism thus far for its counter-insurgency campaign in Jonglei. Despite early warnings of Lou Nuer mobilization, the SPLA failed to make any effort to stop their movement into ethnic Murle towns, leading many Murle and international observers to protest that the Government was taking sides in the conflict. An earlier report by the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) concluded that the Government had failed in its “responsibility to safeguard” its populations during the 2011-2012 cycle of attacks, despite UNMISS’s warnings.
Several civil society organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have documented large-scale human rights abuses and frequent targeting of civilians by SPLA forces during the campaign, including 24 cases of killings of nearly 100 Murle civilians. In addition, the SPLA has burned and looted homes and destroyed schools, churches, and aid agency compounds. As previously mentioned and documented by MSF, the ethnic clashes and abuses of soldiers have caused almost the entire civilian population in Pibor County (an area of Jonglei State) to flee, with many reluctant to return home. To date, the Government of South Sudan has yet to hold any of its soldiers accountable for these violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, exaggerating enmity between tribes and deepening animosity towards the government. Many in the international community noted that the inter-ethnic conflict – as well as the government’s response to the crisis and its failure to address the root causes of the crisis – had left South Sudanese civilians at risk of mass atrocity crimes.
Fears of atrocity crimes heightened in December 2013, when long-simmering political tensions between President Kiir and former Vice President Machar came to the fore. Tensions between the two have an ethnic dimension, as they are members of South Sudan’s two largest ethnic groups – President Kiir is Dinka, while former Vice President Machar is Nuer. The two leaders and their followers had previously competed for power during the SPLA’s fight for independence from Khartoum in the 1990’s. Though the factions of the SPLA had reconciled by the early 2000s, the infighting and human rights violations against civilians (committed by both sides) contributed to ethnic hatred and clashes between the Nuer and the Dinka.
When South Sudan seceded from Sudan in 2011, President Kiir sought reconciliation with the various communities comprising the new country; this process included granting amnesty to Machar for the Bor Massacre, and appointing him Vice President. Despite this promising beginning, by 2013 members of the expanded Sudan People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) party had accused Kiir of dictatorial tendencies and of allowing regional and ethnic lobbies to inform major party decisions. In response, President Kiir dismissed his entire cabinet in July 2013 and stripped Machar of his Vice Presidency.
That a major fissure within the SPLM had occurred became apparent during planned meetings of the SPLM’s party leadership in December 2013. Senior members of the party pulled out of the conference, citing “undemocratic leadership”, while others held competing press conferences demanding action by Kiir. Following a leadership meeting on 15 December 2013, fighting broke out between Nuer and Dinka members of the presidential guard, who claimed loyalty to either Machar or Kiir. The fighting spread to military headquarters, subsequently igniting clashes throughout Juba and in Unity and Jonglei States.
Kiir accused Machar of an attempted coup, arresting several senior political and military figures. Though it is unclear whether Machar did in fact attempt to seize power – he denies the claim – by 18 December he had publicly called for Kiir to be overthrown, accusing him of trying to incite inter-ethnic violence. By 23 December 2013, forces claiming loyalty to the ex-Vice President had taken control of the capitals of Jonglei and Unity States, as well as the oil fields in Unity and Upper Nile States.
The fighting has disproportionately affected civilians, with hundreds of civilian deaths reported in the first days of the fighting, including by rifle and artillery fire. In the first five days, it was estimated that up to 500 people were killed. Human Rights Watch reported on 19 December 2013 that Dinka soldiers in Juba specifically targeted Nuer civilians to shoot, while Nuer soldiers in turn sought out Dinka civilians to kill. Particularly disturbing are reports of the massacre of 200-300 Nuer men in Gudele on 16 December. On 19 December, 2000 Lou Nuer youth stormed a UN base in Akobo, Jonglei State, killing two UN peacekeepers and 20 civilians, leading Amnesty International to note that “the fact that these attacks were carried out by armed youths is a disturbing sign that this conflict is moving beyond fighting between soldiers and into widespread inter-communal violence.” On 24 December, UNMISS human rights investigators discovered three mass graves in two sites in South Sudan, with most of the victims reportedly Dinka SPLA soldiers.
A week after the rebel takeover of the town of Bentiu in Unity state on 15 and 16 April 2014, the United Nations confirmed the targeted killings of 200 non-Nuer civilians. The United Nations strongly condemned attacks on a hospital, mosque and church and decried the radio broadcasts of hate speech inciting violence. As a result of the attacks, more than 22,000 people sought protection at the UNMISS site in Unity state. However, on 17 April 2014 a Dinka attack on the UN compound in Bor killing 58 people and injuring close to 100 raised questions about whether IDPs are safe in UN compounds. The Secretary General, Security Council, and several Western states stressed that the attack may constitute a war crime and UNMISS emphasized the need for reinforcements to protect those sheltering in the camps.
In November 2014, the International Crisis Group estimated the death toll had passed 50,000 people, although no organization can confirm it as no official count exists. The latest Report of the Secretary-General on South Sudan from 18 November 2014, estimates that aid agencies have reached 3.4 million of the 3.8 million in need of humanitarian assistance in 2014. According to the report, since the beginning of the conflict, over 1.9 million people have fled their homes. 1.4 million of whom are internally displaced persons (IDPs), while the rest are refugees in foreign countries. Some 100,000 people have sought shelter in UNMISS bases. Furthermore, the conflict has resulted in great suffering for women who have experienced sexual violence perpetrated by both sides on an unprecedented scale, as the Special Representative of the Secretary General (SRSG) on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Zainab Bangura, stated in a press release after her visit to South Sudan in October 2014. According to Bangura, 74 percent of the victims were below the age of 18, with the youngest victim a 2-year-old child.
In October 2014 aid agencies issued warnings that famine again loomed in South Sudan, possibly increasing the number of people facing starvation in the country by 1 million. Oxfam’s country director in South Sudan attributed the rising food insecurity to the violence in the country, saying that “this is a man-made crisis, not one caused by the vagaries of the weather.”
Since the beginning of the conflict, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) has led the efforts to engage the warring parties in negotiations to stop the fighting. IGAD has led six rounds of peace talks between the warring parties since January 2014, resulting in four cessation of hostilities agreements (each of which has been broken). Each round of peace talks has been marked with tensions and disagreements resulting in significant setbacks and delays.
The first round of talks began on 4 January 2014 in Ethiopia and was focused on reaching a cessation of hostilities agreement, a release of detainees and a process of dialogue. After a significant delay over the issue of political prisoners, a Cessation of Hostilities (CoH) agreement was finally signed on 23 January 2014. By 25 January 2014, however, both sides were reported to have breached the truce.
The second round of talks took place in March 2014 but did not yield any significant outcomes except the authorization of an IGAD Protection and Deterrent Force (PDF) intended to monitor and enforce the ceasefire. A small group of 90 Ethiopian peacekeepers was deployed in July as part of the PDF.
Another new ceasefire, achieved during the next round of peace talks in April 2014, was also short-lived as accusations emerged 5 days later that both sides had violated the truce in Unity, Jonglei, and Upper Nile states. On 22 May, 2014 a new round of fighting displaced more than 2000 people in Upper Nile State.
The new aim of the peace talks that began on 9 June 2014 focused on the formation of a transitional unity government. However, such an objective proved very difficult to accomplish given the diverging views of both sides on what the new government should look like. IGAD was forced to adjourn the subsequent round of peace talks scheduled for 20 July 2014 because the rebels boycotted the negotiations accusing IGAD of “unfair inclusivity” in the selection of stakeholders’ process. The fifth round of peace talks failed again because of the opposition’s refusal to take part in the talks, bringing the process to a standstill and dimming any hopes that a comprehensive agreement would be reached.
Finally, on 10 November 2014 the two warring parties committed once again to abide by the CoH agreement signed in January 2014, with the most recent document including an implementation matrix. IGAD threatened to take strict actions if the two sides failed to abide by the agreement, giving both sides of the conflict 15 days to hold consultations with their constituents in order to work out the details of a power-sharing accord. Nevertheless, though the deadline has passed and UNMISS has reported heavy fighting between the government and opposition forces, IGAD has yet to take any punitive action against the warring parties.
Peace negotiations have also been complicated by the presence of Ugandan troops in South Sudan; as a member of IGAD, its presence in South Sudan may cast doubt on the mediator’s impartiality. These forces entered the country shortly after fighting in mid-December 2013, ostensibly to rescue and evacuate Ugandan citizens. President Museveni of Uganda denied reports that his troops were actively engaged in combat until 15 January 2014, when he acknowledged their role in suppressing a ‘rebellion’. In early February 2014, Ethiopia – the host of the peace talks – has expressed fears of the conflict spilling over and has called for Ugandan troops to withdraw. The GRSS has defended Uganda’s involvement as ‘legitimate’. Government officials insist that Uganda deployed troops in accordance with a ‘status of forces’ agreement signed even before South Sudan’s independence. Rebels have accused Uganda of taking sides in the conflict by supporting the GRSS, so they have insisted that it withdraw its troops as a condition for renewed peace talks. On 29 November 2014 South Sudanese rebels met with the Ugandan president to discuss the possibility of a peaceful solution to the conflict. The Ugandan army has indicated that they are willing to withdraw as soon as an African force arrives. However, IGAD has not deployed a Protection and Deterrence Force (PDF) that Uganda deems sufficient to remove its troops from South Sudan.
The African Union has been vocal since the conflict began, expressing its deep concern on 17 December 2013, and calling for a humanitarian truce and dialogue shortly after. On 31 December 2013, the AU took a stronger stance, threatening targeted sanctions against those inciting violence, continuing hostilities and undermining peace talks. The conflict in Sudan dominated the agenda at the AU summit in the end of January, along with the crisis in the Central African Republic. By far the most important action taken by the organisation thus far, however, must be the AU Peace and Security Council’s decision on 30 December 2013 to establish a commission of inquiry. International Crisis Group (ICG) analyst Casie Copeland notes that it is in the commission’s mandate to make recommendations for accountability and justice, as well as report on human rights violations, thereby providing the AU with an opportunity to ‘define action in situations of mass atrocities elsewhere on the continent’. Adama Dieng, Special Advisor for the Prevention of Genocide, has highlighted the need for the commission to ‘do it right’ in South Sudan. The commission submitted its first preliminary report on 27 June 2014. In the report, the commission requests more time to verify the crimes it had found and determine whether they constitute international crimes. A final report of the commission is pending. On 5 December 2014, the AU released a communique expressing their deep concern over the failure of South Sudan’s warring parties to abide by the latest IGAD-mediated ceasefire agreement and warning that strict measures will be taken if the violence continues.
When the crisis began, UNMISS took an ‘unprecedented’ role in the protection of civilians, opening its bases in South Sudan to civilians ‘irrespective of ethnicity and affiliation’. This move has been praised by many, including Oxfam, and was received as a welcome change from previous practice in situations such as the Rwandan genocide. Relations between President Kiir’s government and UNMISS came under strain in mid-January when South Sudan’s Information Minister and his armed guards were barred from entering the United Nations compound in Bor, leading to threats against UN staff. While UNMISS insisted that only unarmed civilians were permitted to enter the compound, the GRSS accused the UN of hiding rebels and guns at the camp, and of setting up a ‘parallel government’. UNMISS has been careful to stress their impartiality.
On 8 May 2014, UNMISS released a comprehensive report on the situation in South Sudan revealing that “gross violations of human rights and international law have occurred on a massive scale” and civilians have often been targeted along ethnic lines. In particular, the report found “reasonable grounds to believe that the crimes against humanity of murder, rape and other acts of sexual violence, enforced disappearance, and imprisonment” have been committed by both sides of the conflict.
In response to the crisis, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 2132 on 24 December 2013, nearly doubling the troop size of UNMISS to 14,000. On 18 March 2014, the Security Council met to discuss shifting the focus of the UNMISS mandate from state building to protection of civilians, as recommended by the Secretary General. Thus, on 27 May 2014, the Council passed Resolution 2155 changing the focus of UNMISS’s mandate, making the task of protecting civilians a priority. On 25 November 2014, with Resolution 2187 the Security Council voted unanimously to renew the mission’s mandate until 30 May 2015 and authorized UNMISS to use “all necessary means” to protect civilians, monitor and investigate human rights, and support humanitarian assistance efforts.
In response to the rampant sexual violence as a result of the conflict, SRSG Bangura met with President Salva Kiir who signed a joint communique committing South Sudan’s army to an action plan containing specific steps for tackling the issue. She also met with opposition leader Riek Machar to discuss measures that they can take to prevent sexual violence by opposition forces.
On 24 December 2013, the former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, announced that ‘mass extrajudicial killings, the targeting of individuals on the basis of their ethnicity and arbitrary detentions’ had been ‘documented’ in South Sudan. In addition, the UN Special Advisers for the Prevention of Genocide and the Responsibility to Protect warned that “targeted attacks against civilians and against United Nations personnel, such as those that have occurred in Juba and Jonglei, could constitute war crimes or crimes against humanity”. In January 2014, following a four-day trip to South Sudan, Ivan Simonovic, Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights, stated that both the GRSS and rebels were responsible for ‘mass atrocities’ and called for an independent fact-finding mission. Furthermore, in a statement from 14 May 2014, the Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, said that elements which could be categorized as risk factors of genocide and other atrocity crimes were present in the country. In a donor conference in May 2014 in Norway member states pledged $600 million in aid for South Sudan but the amount still fell short of the $1.8 billion the UN projected as necessary to avoid famine.
International Criminal Court (ICC)
Although some have called for the International Criminal Court (ICC) to take action on South Sudan, the court has made clear that it cannot launch an investigation in the country without a Security Council resolution to that effect, as South Sudan is not within the ICC’s jurisdiction. South Sudan has been urged to ratify the Rome Statute. On 7 February 2014, President Kiir said that he would welcome and facilitate an ICC investigation; however, at the time of writing there had been no further dialogue on the matter.
On March 19 2014, frustrated by the delay of the IGAD mediated talks, the United States issued a statement on the behalf of Britain, Norway and the European Union, threatening to impose targeted sanctions on any party that undermined the peace process. President Barack Obama then signed an executive order allowing for asset seizure and visa bans. By December 2014, the U.S., Canada, and the EU had imposed limited sanctions, such as asset and travel bans, against military commanders on both sides for human rights violations and obstructions of the peace process. In early November 2014 the US indicated that it will seek to pass a draft resolution in the Security Council calling for sanctions targeting the two South Sudanese leaders at the core of the conflict, President Salva Kiir and his rival Riek Machar. There is no clear timetable as to when the draft resolution will be circulated. In response, South Sudan warned that sanctions would fuel the confrontation more and established a high-level panel tasked with lobbying the Security Council against the imposition of sanctions.
In an effort to promote reconciliation within the SPLM, Tanzania hosted internal SPLM dialogue in Arusha from 12 October to 18 October. The rival parties admitted responsibility for the deadly violence and pledged measures to stop it. On 20 October high level officials representing the SPLM and the SPLM/A-IO signed a framework agreement committing themselves to intra-SPLM dialogue. Although the Arusha talks are separate and distinct from the IGAD peace process, the two are mutually reinforcing.
Civil society organizations, including Amnesty International, the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, International Crisis Group, and the Sudan Consortium, called on the international community to facilitate mediation efforts and to ensure that the GRSS protects vulnerable populations. MSF has described the ‘speed and scale’ of violence in South Sudan as ‘unprecedented.’ Human Rights Watch published reports in January, February, and August, providing much needed information about ongoing mass atrocities. Between December 2013 and August 2014, Human Rights Watch interviewed over 400 victims, producing a report that described “extraordinary acts of cruelty that amount to war crimes and in some cases potential crimes against humanity” perpetrated by both sides of the conflict. Civil society groups have made repeated calls for sanctions and an arms embargo on South Sudan. On 4 November 2014, more than 50 NGOs signed a petition urging members of IGAD to impose a comprehensive arms embargo on the country. Then, on 8 December 2014, the International Federation for Human Rights released a report urging IGAD, the AU, and the SC to establish an arms embargo and take a firm stand against those impeding the peace process. On 9 December 2014 Human Rights Watch released an open letter to the UN Security Council calling for an arms embargo on South Sudan as well as travel bans and asset freezes against all individuals violating human rights and the arms embargo in the country.
VI. Looking Forward
There is no way to predict what is going to happen in the future, but several actors have the potential to contribute to the solution or worsening of the conflict. First, even though the Security Council has renewed and changed the focus of the UNMISS mandate to protection of civilians in an effort not to undermine the peace process, it has refrained from taking more forceful actions, such as imposing sanctions or an arms embargo. Given the most recent failure of both sides to uphold the any ceasefire agreement, it is unclear whether the Security Council will take any further action to bring a peaceful solution to the conflict.
Second, the presence of Ugandan troops in South Sudan could lead to more tension as the rebels accuse them of taking sides and demand their withdrawal before peace talks can resume. Uganda recently met with rebel forces but has refused to withdraw until a sufficiently large PDF force is able to take their place. Other regional actors, such as Tanzania’s efforts to promote reconciliation within the SPLM and the African Union’s Commission of Inquiry could contribute to finding a political solution of the crisis.
Third, it remains to be seen how IGAD will react to the most recent violations of the ceasefire agreement from 9 November. Despite warnings that it would impose sanctions and deploy a regional peacekeeping force, it has not taken any further action yet. While sanctions may keep the parties at the negotiating table, it is unclear how much progress will be made. Despite these difficulties, a political solution is the only way to bring peace to South Sudan, as analysts have been saying since January.