How Impunity Paves the Way to Widespread Violence in South Sudan
International Justice and Human Rights Researcher
Global Human Rights Defence
South Sudan became one of the world’s newest countries by gaining its independence from the north in 2011. Yet, the country did not experience a long history of peace. In December 2013, the dismissal of Vice President Riek Machar Teny, along with all his cabinet ministers, by South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir Mayardit caused the escalation of tension between the two main ethnic groups in the country: the Dinka, the country's president largest ethnic group, and the Nuer, the ethnic group of the former vice-president Machar. (Aljazeera, 2013; Howden, 2013; Center for Preventive Action, 2022) Since then, widespread acts of violence against civilians perpetrated by both government and opposition troops, and those aligned with them, have been reported as possibly amounting to war crimes and/or crimes against humanity, including killings, rape and sexual violence, and forced displacement. (O’Grady, 2018; Center for Preventive Action, 2022)
In September 2022, the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) released a report addressing gross abuses of international human rights law and serious violations of international humanitarian law in Unity state. Covering the timespan between February 11th and May 31st, 2022, the Report recorded violence and incursion committed during clashes between joint Government Forces and affiliated armed groups on one hand, and elements of Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army in Opposition (SPLM/A-IO (RM)) on the other. (UN News, 2022a) According to the data gathered, the clashes affected around 28 villages and settlements, causing the killing of 173 civilians and injuring of 12. The degree of violence was atrocious, with unarmed innocent civilians being killed “as a result of random shooting, while others died of fatal injuries and beheading by machetes and bayonets, and by being intentionally thrown into huts (locally known as tukuls) and set on fire. The attackers also burnt alive children and older persons who could not flee their homes. Children were also intentionally drowned in the swamps by the attackers”. (UNMISS, OHCHR, 2022) In addition, 26 women and 11 children were reported to be abducted, while the cases of rape or gang rape amounted to 131: girls as young as eight years old experienced such cruel treatment and “a nine-year-old girl was gang raped to death”. Such systematic and widespread acts of Conflict-Related Sexual Violence deployed as a tactic of war, along with the destruction, pillaging and burning of “civilian objects and private property, humanitarian facilities, and supplies designated as lifesaving assistance and support for vulnerable populations” caused the forced displacement of an estimated 44,000 civilians. (UNMISS, OHCHR, 2022)
On September 26th, 2022, Yasmin Sooka, Chairperson of the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, warned the international community of the need to monitor the Revitalised Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan, signed by the government and Machar’s opposition party in 2018 and recently extended of a two-year term on August 4th, 2022. The monitoring is crucial considering that none of the three proposed transitional justice bodies – the Commission on Truth, Reconciliation and Healing, the Hybrid Court or the Compensation and Reparation Authority - have come into being, thus excluding “large numbers of people who have suffered from having a say in the future justice system. Nor can you cherry pick between the different transitional justice bodies – they all have to work together to bring closure to the people of South Sudan,” said Commissioner Barney Afako. (UN HRC, 2022)
After almost a decade of conflict, the dire humanitarian crisis, along with climate change-driven negative impacts and the Covid-19 pandemic, caused an estimated 8.9 million people in need of humanitarian assistance in 2022, with around 8.3 million people expected to experience severe food insecurity. (World Bank, 2022) As of August 2022, refugees and asylum-seekers from South Sudan amount to 2,340,870, with women and children being the most affected, (Operational Data Portal, 2022) In this context, supporting the transition in South Sudan is indispensable to avoid the suffering of millions of South Sudanis. Achieving peace is a long process that requires strong support from the international community, but mostly it requires criminal accountability to guarantee safety and peace in the country. However, in many areas, includingin Unity State and rural parts of Western Equatoria, “there is no formal court to deal with serious crimes like murder and rape, only customary courts”. That is, the establishment of the Hybrid Court is determinant to bring justice. (UN News, 2022b)
Sources and Further Readings:
Aljazeera (July 24, 2013), South Sudan president fires cabinet, Aljazeera News, retrieved on September 28th, 2022, from https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2013/7/24/south-sudan-president-fires-cabinet.
Center for Preventive Action (May 12, 2022), Civil War in South Sudan, Global Conflict Tracker, retrieved on September 28th, 2022, from https://www.cfr.org/global-conflict-tracker/conflict/civil-war-south-sudan.
Howden D. (December 23, 2013), South Sudan: the state that fell apart in a week, The Guardian, retrieved on September 28th, 2022, from https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/23/south-sudan-state-that-fell-apart-in-a-week.
O’Grady S. (July 10, 2018), South Sudanese troops raped and killed hundreds in recent attacks, U.N. investigation finds, The Washington Post, retrieved on September 28th, 2022, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2018/07/10/south-sudanese-troops-raped-and-killed-hundreds-in-recent-attacks-u-n-investigation-finds/.
Operational Data Portal (August 31, 2022), South Sudan Refugee Situation, retrieved on September 28th, 2022, fromhttps://data.unhcr.org/en/situations/southsudan.
The World Bank (April 21, 2022), The World Bank in South Sudan, The World Bank, retrieved on September 28th, 2022, from https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/southsudan/overview#1.
UN High Commission for Human Rights (March 21, 2022), Conflict-related sexual violence against women and girls in South Sudan, Conference room paper of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, Human Rights Council Forty-ninth session, A/HRC/49/CRP.4, retrieved on September 28th, 2022, from https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/2022-03/A_HRC_49_CRP_4.pdf.
United Nations (September 6, 2022a), South Sudan: Human rights violations in Unity state committed with ‘impunity’, UN News, retrieved on September 26th, 2022, from https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/09/1126091.
United Nations (September 26, 2022b), South Sudan violence proliferating, warn independent rights experts, UN News, retrieved on September 26th, 2022, from https://news.un.org/en/story/2022/09/1127981.
UN HRC (September 26, 2022), UN experts warn that South Sudan’s peace process needs urgent attention to prevent violence escalating, ReliefWeb, retrieved on September 28th, 2022, from https://reliefweb.int/report/south-sudan/un-experts-warn-south-sudans-peace-process-needs-urgent-attention-prevent-violence-escalating.
UN Mission in South Sudan, UN High Commission for Human Rights (September 6, 2022), Attacks against civilians in southern Unity State, South Sudan, February – May 2022, UNMISS, OHCHR Report, retrieved on September 9th, 2022, from https://unmiss.unmissions.org/attacks-against-civilians-southern-unity-state-south-sudan-february-%E2%80%93-may-2022.