Expected Council Action
In February, the Council is scheduled to hold a meeting, likely in consultations, to discuss the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), as well as the broader situation in South Sudan, in accordance with resolution 2132 of 24 December 2013. (The Council requested the Secretariat to report on the implementation of this resolution, which increased the troop and police ceiling of UNMISS, in 15 days and at least every 30 days thereafter.) Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Edmond Mulet is expected to brief. It is possible that Special Representative of the Secretary-General and head of UNMISS Hilde Johnson will participate via video teleconference.
Given the severity and fluidity of the situation in South Sudan, it is possible that other meetings on the issue may be held in February. At press time, no outcome was anticipated, but this could change depending on how the Council decides to address developments in South Sudan during the month.
Key Recent Developments
The outbreak of violence in South Sudan on 16 December was the culmination of a political crisis within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM). Tensions within the party had reached a boiling point in the days before the conflict erupted. On 6 December, former Vice President Riek Machar, who was sacked by President Salva Kiir during a July 2013 cabinet reshuffle, and other SPLM officials held a press conference to criticise Kiir for “dictatorial tendencies”.
On 16 December, after clashes within the presidential guard in Juba, Kiir alleged that a coup had been attempted by Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) forces loyal to Machar. Machar denied the allegation but subsequently took charge of the ensuing rebellion. Eleven high-ranking SPLM officials were detained by Kiir at the outset of the crisis.
The clashes quickly expanded in Juba and then beyond the capital. The human toll was significant with the International Crisis Group estimating on 9 January that close to 10,000 people had been killed. From the outset, while the fighting was sparked by a political dispute, it took on an ethnic component, with members of the Dinka and Nuer communities committing atrocities against one another in a spiralling cycle of retaliatory violence. (Kiir is a Dinka, and Machar is a Nuer.) The capitals of Jonglei (Bor), Unity (Bentiu) and Upper Nile (Malakal) states, key strategic towns that witnessed heavy fighting, were the sites of large-scale destruction of property, killings and displacement. Control of these towns changed hands several times, although they all appeared to be under of the control of government forces by the time a ceasefire deal was brokered by the Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) on 23 January.
Tensions rose between the government of South Sudan and UNMISS during the conflict. Government forces in Juba temporarily confiscated UNMISS weapons and ammunition on 15 January. On 19 January, high-level government officials accompanied by troops threatened to break into the UNMISS base in Bor, believing that the UN was harbouring armed rebels there. UNMISS repelled the attempted intrusion and denied the allegations. Following the incident, Kiir accused UNMISS of acting like a “parallel government”.
In an apparent attempt to quell these tensions, South Sudan sent a letter to the Security Council on 23 January in which it affirmed “its willingness to work closely with the leadership of UNMISS, as they provide critical support to the people and Government of South Sudan during this time” (S/2014/46).
On 16 January, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimated that the violence had displaced roughly 468,000 people, while about 83,900 had sought refuge in neighbouring countries, including Uganda (45,239), Ethiopia (20,264), Sudan (10,000) and Kenya (8,430). As of 27 January, almost 76,000 internally displaced persons were protected in eight UN bases across the country, including roughly 36,000 in two facilities in Juba and 27,000 at a base in Malakal. Many of them are fearful of being targeted by inter-ethnic violence if they try to return home.
In addition to the refugee crisis, there were other regional implications to the conflict. Uganda, which initially sent in troops to evacuate its nationals and protect infrastructure, including the airport and presidential palace in Juba, admitted on 16 January that its troops were fighting alongside the government against the rebels, particularly in and around Bor. When President Omar al-Bashir of Sudan met with Kiir in Juba on 6 January, media reports initially suggested that Bashir and Kiir were negotiating the creation of a joint force to defend oil fields in South Sudan near the border with Sudan. The parties subsequently dismissed these reports, but it was also reported, accurately it appears, that the parties had agreed to consider the potential deployment of approximately 900 oil technicians from Sudan to work on South Sudan oil facilities vacated by foreign workers at the start of the conflict. At press time, it did not appear that this plan had come to fruition.
After weeks of negotiations in Addis Ababa with IGAD mediation, a breakthrough was reached on 23 January, when the parties committed to a cessation of hostilities. They also signed an agreement on the status of the detainees, recognising a commitment to “undertake every effort to expedite the release of the detainees” and agreeing to the establishment of “an all-inclusive National Reconciliation Process in which the detainees and other political actors, civil society organizations, traditional and religious leaders have a significant role to play”.
Council members have been focused on the crisis from the beginning. They were briefed on South Sudan under “any other business” on 17 December. They held further consultations on the matter on 20, 23 and 30 December 2013 and on 9 and 23 January. They also issued several press statements (SC/11221, SC/11227, SC/11236 and SC/11244) condemning the fighting and calling for dialogue and a cessation of hostilities. On 23 January, Council members issued another press statement (SC/11261) following consultations on South Sudan welcoming the cessation of hostilities, condemning violations of the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) by South Sudan and welcoming the decision by the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) to establish a commission to investigate human rights violations during the conflict.
Most significantly, the Council adopted resolution 2132 on 24 December 2013. The resolution increased the troop ceiling of the mission from 7,000 to 12,500 troops and the police level from 900 to 1,323, specifically in order to help enhance the protection of civilians and provide humanitarian assistance. The additional troops and police, as well as force enablers, were to come temporarily to UNMISS through inter-mission cooperation. On 9 January, Ladsous said that transfer of assets and personnel to UNMISS would take four to six weeks. At press time, efforts to meet troop and police ceilings authorised in resolution 2132 were ongoing. As of 23 January, three formed police units (approximately 140 police per unit), 350 troops, two military utility helicopters and one C130 transport plane had been transferred to UNMISS.
On 17 December, just two days after the fighting broke out in Juba, Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson presented the “Rights up Front” initiative to member states during an informal session of the General Assembly. It has been argued that this initiative—which focuses on how to enhance the UN system’s efforts to protect civilians from human rights violations—has positively informed the Secretariat’s response to the crisis in South Sudan.
Human Rights-Related Developments
On 24 December, High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay called on both sides to protect civilians and refrain from instigating violence based on ethnic grounds. She said that mass extrajudicial killings, the targeting of individuals on the basis of their ethnicity and arbitrary detentions have been documented. Pillay noted the discovery of a mass grave in Bentiu in Unity State and said that there were reportedly two mass graves in Juba.
Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights Ivan Šimonović travelled to South Sudan from 14-17 January to assess the human rights situation in the country, visiting Juba, Bor and Bentiu. In a press statement on 17 January, Šimonović said that the conflict had reached the threshold of an internal armed conflict with mass atrocities committed by both sides. He told the media he had received reports of mass killings, extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances, sexual violence, widespread destruction of property and the use of children in the conflict. He asserted that the worst affected communities were in Juba and in areas that have changed hands several times, as Bentiu and Bor.
He stressed the need for an independent fact-finding mission and accountability while welcoming the key role played by UNMISS in protecting civilians in the past few weeks and the reinforcement of its human rights monitoring capacity. (The UN currently has 90 human rights investigators in South Sudan.) Speaking at a press conference in New York on 20 January, Šimonović highlighted the approach adopted by UNMISS of providing protection to civilians seeking shelter in its compounds. He stressed that the number of victims would have been much higher had the UN not opened its compounds to some 70,000 people seeking protection. But, he admitted, such an unprecedented protection effort was bringing a number of humanitarian and security challenges.
A key issue is the need for UNMISS to continue to protect civilians and ensure that humanitarian access is provided. In spite of the 23 January cessation of hostilities, Johnson mentioned to Council members in consultations on the same day the risk that some armed groups might continue to fight against the government, thus signalling the ongoing instability of the security situation and the potential risk to civilians.
Another key issue is the ongoing violations of the SOFA between UNMISS and South Sudan—as well as misconduct towards humanitarian actors by both government and opposition forces—given that such acts place UNMISS personnel and humanitarian partners at risk and inhibit their ability to fulfil their responsibilities.
Also an important issue is whether UNMISS’s mandate should be adapted moving forward to emphasise the protection of civilians as the main priority of the mission.
A potential related issue, if the security environment remains unstable, is whether the strength of the mission should be expanded on a more permanent basis, as the current inter-mission cooperation is a temporary measure. This would require increasing the budget and recruiting additional troops and police for the mission.
Another key issue is how the Council can support justice and reconciliation efforts in South Sudan to help the country heal from the recent violence and avoid a relapse into conflict.
The state-building process has made little progress since South Sudan became independent in 2011. The impact of efforts to conduct an inclusive constitutional review process, to reform the security sector and to combat corruption has been limited.
Existing political and ethnic tensions have been exacerbated by the conflict. Since the fighting erupted in mid-December, several analysts have emphasised its fundamentally political nature. This view is supported by the evidence. Kiir’s political opponents were embittered by his authoritarian governing style, and the conflict never fit the simplistic characterisations as a Dinka-versus-Nuer dispute. The government forces represent several ethnic groups, as do the rebels opposing them. Additionally, five of the 11 SPLM officials detained by Kiir are Dinka, while Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin is a Nuer. On the other hand, the fighting did take on an ethnic dimension, suggesting that significant efforts will be needed to promote healing, reconciliation and the creation of a stronger sense of national identity among the various ethnic communities.
Options for the Council include:
- requesting a report from UNMISS specifically on violations of international human rights and humanitarian law committed during the crisis;
- imposing targeted sanctions against those responsible for such crimes;
- signalling the imperative for progress in the constitutional review process and urging enhanced political dialogue in South Sudan; and
- conducting a visiting mission to South Sudan, where the Council has not been since 2011, to meet with key stakeholders to get their input about how the Council can best support efforts toward national reconciliation and to emphasise the Council’s resolve to stay engaged with the situation.
Council members may also consider altering the mandate of UNMISS to prioritise the protection of civilians; the provision of humanitarian access; and human rights monitoring and reporting. Along these lines, it could also expand the force structure of UNMISS to enable it to fulfil protection tasks more robustly.
The Council has been unified in its concern about the magnitude of the fighting, the inter-communal aspects of the conflict and the reports of gross human rights violations. There is also a widespread belief on the Council in the importance of protecting civilians and holding accountable those who have committed atrocities. Members have been alarmed as well by a recurring pattern of misconduct by government forces, which began well before the recent conflict erupted, and they are unified in their condemnation of SOFA violations.
The US is the penholder on South Sudan.
UN Documents on South Sudan
|Security Council Resolution|
|24 December 2013 S/RES/2132||This was the resolution that increased the military and police capacity of UNMISS.|
|Security Council Press Statements|
|23 January 2014 SC/11261||This welcomed the signing of the cessation of hostilities agreement.|
|10 January 2014 SC/11244||This reiterated support for IGAD’s mediation and welcomed the AU PSC’s decision to establish a commission of investigation.|
|30 December 2013 SC/11236||Called for an immediate cessation of hostilities and for President Salva Kiir, former Vice President Riek Machar and other political leaders to engage urgently in direct talks without preconditions.|
|20 December 2013 SC/11227||Expressing grave alarm at the security and humanitarian crisis in South Sudan, strongly condemned the fighting and targeted violence against civilians and called on President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar to call for a cessation of hostilities and begin a dialogue.|
|17 December 2013 SC/11221||This was on the outbreak of violence in South Sudan.|