South Sudan Crisis Explained

Restrictions on Freedom of Expression

Authorities harassed, detained, and interrogated journalists and editors. In July, the head of the state television was arrested for not broadcasting a presidential speech. The same month, authorities blocked at least four websites for publishing “subversive” information. In September, former newspaper editor Nial Bol told media that he narrowly escaped an attack by two government soldiers who raided his home in Juba.

South Sudanese authorities restricted international journalists from covering the conflict, including by refusing to grant them visas or accreditation, and accusing them of publishing articles critical of the government. The government blocked numerous independent online news sites, including Sudan Tribune.

In August, an American journalist was killed in fighting while embedded with opposition rebels in the town of Kaya, bordering Uganda. The government initially accused him of fighting with the rebels.

Political and Legislative Developments

Implementation of the 2015 peace agreement effectively stalled, and the government used repressive tactics to silence opponents. In January, a year after a controversial decree created 28 states, President Kiir created four more states, bringing the number to 32. The creation of new states has contributed to inter-communal tensions in several locations.

In March, Kiir replaced legislators aligned with former Vice President Riek Machar with those aligned with Taban Deng Gai, whom Kiir appointed as first vice-president in the transitional unity government in July 2016. Riek Machar remained in exile at time of writing.

In May, Kiir sacked Paul Malong, the army chief of staff, and placed him under house arrest in Juba. Malong was allowed to leave the country in November, following a standoff between the army and his guards. A former deputy chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Thomas Cirillo, resigned in February, accusing the government of “ethnic cleansing,” and started a new armed rebel movement, the National Salvation Front, which fought against Sudan People’s Liberation Movement-in-Opposition forces in Central Equatoria.

Kiir launched a national dialogue process in May over objections from key opposition figures who declined to join. Kiir also announced plans to hold elections in 2018, originally slated for 2017 despite UN and Africa Union (AU) warnings that the country’s conflict and conditions are not conducive to holding a free and fair election.

Accountability and Justice

The government did little to end widespread abuses against civilians, or investigate and hold accountable individuals and commanders. Government investigations into violent episodes since the beginning of the conflict rarely led to credible prosecutions for human rights abuses.

The army established a court martial to try 13 soldiers for gang rape and other crimes committed during an attack on an international humanitarian compound in Juba in July 2016. The trial is a test of the government’s commitment to accountability for human rights violations.

In July, a meeting of South Sudanese and AU officials in Juba to plan for the hybrid court was a step toward ensuring justice for the most serious crimes committed during the country’s conflict, but much remains to be done. The government adopted a memorandum of understanding with the AU, but it had not endorsed the court’s statute at time of writing.

Key International Actors

In June, the regional Inter-Governmental Authority on Development, IGAD, embarked on efforts to “revitalize” the 2015 Agreement on Resolution of Conflict in South Sudan, ARCSS, which it had brokered with support from the US, United Kingdom, Norway, and the European Union.

Simultaneously, Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni pursued efforts to unify the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, although several opposition figures did not participate.

In March, the UN Human Rights Council renewed and strengthened the mandate of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, tasking it with gathering evidence and determining responsibility for violations with a view to providing accountability. The UN Mission in South Sudan, UNMISS, sheltered over 230,000 civilians in six sites, the highest number since the crisis started.

A UN “Regional Protection Force,” mandated in the summer of 2016 by the UN Security Council, to protect Juba, began to deploy in August.

In September, the US imposed sanctions on three government officials: the former chief of staff, the army’s deputy chief of staff, and the minister of information. The US also sanctioned three companies owned or controlled by former vice president Machar, and warned of UN sanctions and a UN arms embargo. However, Russia and China opposed the idea, along with other members of the Security Council, including from Africa. In November, Canada imposed sanctions on the same three government officials.

On May 18, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on South Sudan condemning abuses, including sexual violence and use of child soldiers, calling for accountability and supporting the establishment of a hybrid court. The European Parliament called on the EU to pursue an international arms embargo. The Troika and EU condemned government abuses.


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