South Sudan’s conflicts are not just between communities

Next week the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council (HRC) will decide whether to renew the mandate of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan (CHRSS) – presently the only credible mechanism to collect and preserve evidence of human rights violations and crimes under international law in South Sudan with a view to ensuring accountability. Next month, the UN Security Council (UNSC) will reconvene to consider the implementation of the arms embargo it imposed on South Sudan’s territory in 2018, which expires on 31 May 2023. As the HRC and UNSC member states prepare their positions, they need to reflect carefully on the nature of the violent conflicts in South Sudan that continue to have a devastating impact on civilians. Violent conflicts in South Sudan almost always involve human rights violations and abuses and crimes under international law. They are a primary cause of the dire humanitarian situation in the country.

The South Sudanese government claims that the high levels of violence that continue to destroy civilians’ lives is all “inter-communal violence”, or solely between opposition groups, suggesting that it has no connection at all to the armed conflict that broke out in 2013 or the peace deals brokered to end it. It also suggests that the government plays no role in much of this violence and related violations. This narrative ignores that conflicts in South Sudan are caused by ethno-political wrangling and competition amongst the elite over access to power and financial resources and driven by a winner-takes-all mentality that is critical to winning zero-sum politics. This narrative conveniently overlooks the government’s use of local armed actors as proxies to fight their battles, including weakening the opposition, and pays no heed to the government’s complicity in the entrenched impunity fuelling these cycles of violence.

Facts on the ground belie the claim of the South Sudanese government. Looking just at 2022, the renewed violence in Unity, Upper Nile and parts of Jonglei states makes this clear.

The latest cycle of violence that erupted in 2022 in southern Unity State, resulted in yet another round of horrific human rights violations and abuses, and was “driven by the ferocity of national political competition and abetted by impunity for past violations” according to the CHRSS. One of the politicians alleged to be most responsible for the violations in southern Unity State in 2022 is the same individual implicated in violations, documented by Amnesty International, that were perpetrated in the same areas in 2018.

Conflicts in South Sudan are caused by ethno-political wrangling and competition amongst the elite over access to power and financial resources.

Tigere Chagutah, Regional Director, Amnesty International

The most recent violence in Upper Nile State and parts of Jonglei, involving attacks against civilians documented by the CHRSS and presented earlier this month at the ongoing session of the HRC, was triggered by the breakdown of the SPLA-IO breakaway faction known as the Kitgwang group caused by disagreement between two generals over integrating their forces with the army under Chapter 2 of the peace deal. Government actors, who had been pitting feuding elites against each other to weaken the opposition, were quick to marginalize one of the generals. Ethnic armed militias and community defence forces aligned to the generals and government clashed and attacked civilians, including by shelling civilians who had gathered in displacement sites and engaging in sexual violence. This resulted in yet another round of the conflict-related violence that civilians in Upper Nile have endured for decades, further exacerbating an already dire humanitarian situation. The army gave free passage to the general who sided with them even as his forces moved to attack civilians. Since the start of the conflict in 2013, no one has been held to account for crimes under international law. Last week, an analyst warned of renewed armed conflict in this area.

Much of the violence currently plaguing South Sudan is clearly not “inter-communal violence” or solely between opposition groups. The South Sudanese government is further endangering its people by continuing to push this narrative and failing to hold perpetrators to account. By characterizing the current violence as “inter-communal”, or fighting between opposition groups, the government misleads institutions such as the African Union and the UN and increases its chances to continue to evade consequences for its actions.

The government does not want any scrutiny into what is happening in the country.

Tigere Chagutah

The government opposes the renewal of the CHRSS’s mandate. It has also repeatedly called on the Security Council to lift the arms embargo and has actively tried to block and delay the establishment of the Hybrid Court for South Sudan (HCSS) which it committed to in the 2015 and 2018 peace agreements. Clearly, the government does not want any scrutiny into what is happening in the country.

South Sudan plans to hold elections in December 2024 for the first time in the country’s history. The lead up to this will likely see heightened political disputes, competition, and defections – developments that can quickly turn into deadly confrontations in South Sudan. Civilians will continue to be at high risk of attacks and not just by other communities, but as a result of wars instigated by political and security elites and fought through proxy actors.

This is the time for AU and UN Member States to increase pressure on South Sudan, and not look away or further relax scrutiny. It would be a mistake for the UN Security Council to lift the arms embargo, for the Human Rights Council to not renew the mandate of the CHRSS, and for the African Union to not establish the HCSS.