Understanding the South Sudan crisis

In 2017, South Sudan’s civil war entered its fourth year, spreading across the country with new fighting in Greater Upper Nile, Western Bahr al Ghazal, and the Equatorias, featuring highly abusive government counterinsurgency operations. The government continued to restrict media, suppress critics, and unlawfully detain people for perceived opposition.

Since the start of the conflict, almost 2 million people have been internally displaced, and another 2 million have sought refuge in neighboring countries, with 1 million in Uganda alone. More than 230,000 people are sheltering in six United Nations bases in towns across the country. Famine was declared in conflict-affected areas in the former Unity state in the first half of the year.

The war began as a political conflict between President Salva Kiir and his then Vice President Riek Machar in December 2013. A power sharing agreement, signed between the two parties in August 2015, did not end the fighting; following clashes in Juba in July 2016, Machar went into exile, where he remains.

Both sides have committed abuses that qualify as war crimes, including looting, indiscriminate attacks on civilians and the destruction of civilian property, arbitrary arrests and detention, beatings and torture, enforced disappearances, rape including gang rape, and extrajudicial executions. Some abuses may also constitute crimes against humanity.

Lack of accountability continued to fuel the violence, while progress on establishing the hybrid court envisioned in the 2015 peace agreement was slow. The United States imposed sanctions on three government officials in September.

People with disabilities and older people in South Sudan face greater risks of being caught in fighting and greater challenges in getting necessary humanitarian assistance.

Attacks on Civilians

A range of human rights abuses took place during fighting in the former states of Upper Nile, Jonglei, Western Bahr el Ghazal, and in the Equatorias.


In April, following clashes near Wau town and ambushes by opposition fighters, government forces attacked ethnic Fertit and Luo civilians in Wau town, killing at least 16 and forcing thousands to seek shelter at a displaced persons camp adjacent to the UN peacekeeping mission’s base.

The same month, government soldiers killed at least 14 civilians during an attack against the town of Pajok, in Eastern Equatoria. Throughout the year, government forces also conducted highly abusive counter-insurgency operations across the Equatorias, causing hundreds of thousands of people to flee to Uganda.


The UN described South Sudan as one of the world’s most dangerous places for aid workers—at least 83 killed since the conflict started in December 2013, with 16 in 2017 alone. In March, six aid workers were killed during an ambush on a convoy destined for Pibor. In September, a driver for the International Committee for the Red Cross was killed in the former state of Western Equatoria, prompting the organization to suspend operations there. Both sides obstructed delivery of aid—notably in famine affected areas of Unity and in Upper Nile—and attacked and looted humanitarian supplies and valuables in dozens of locations.

Sexual Violence

Both government troops and opposition fighters were implicated in sexual violence against civilians in several locations, especially in and around Yei and Kajo Keji in the former state of Central Equatoria.

In April, the UN secretary general’s report on conflict-related sexual violence noted a marked rise in cases of sexual violence by men in uniforms in South Sudan over the last two years, suggesting an increase in frequency as the conflict persists.

Little was done to hold soldiers accountable for sexual violence. Charges of rape of foreign aid workers are included in the ongoing trial of government soldiers for crimes committed during a July 2016 attack on an international humanitarian compound.

Arbitrary Detentions and Enforced Disappearances

In August, South Sudanese authorities announced they had released 30 political prisoners since May; but during operations in the Equatorias, security forces arrested and detained individuals because of their perceived opposition to the government. Human Rights Watch documented clear patterns of arbitrary detention, abuse and torture by government forces since the conflict began.

In January 2017, a prominent lawyer, rights activist and civil society leader, Dong Samuel, and opposition humanitarian affairs officer, Aggrey Idri, were abducted and detained in Nairobi, Kenya, and forcibly deported to South Sudan. Kenyan authorities and South Sudanese authorities have denied knowledge of their fate, but credible sources told Human Rights Watch the men were detained in South Sudan. Their case amounts to an enforced disappearance, prohibited in all circumstances under international law.

The government brought charges against James Gadet Dak, a former spokesman for Machar’s rebel group who had refugee status, for his public criticism of the government. He was forcibly deported from Kenya in late 2016 in violation of international refugee protections and detained in Juba.

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