Internal Violence in South Sudan

Internal Violence in South Sudan

Protracted civil war in South Sudan stemming from political and ethnic divisions


Tens of thousands of people have been killed and more than 1.6 million have been internally displaced since civil war broke out in South Sudan in December 2013. On August 26, President Salva Kiir and former vice president Riek Machar signed a peace agreement, under threat of international sanctions, following several rounds of negotiations, supported by the Interngovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD). The latest deal remains fragile, as clashes continue and both sides have blamed the other for violating the cease-fire. After the leaders failed to reach an agreement by the deadline in March 2015, South Sudanese lawmakers again postponed elections and extended President Kiir’s term; elections are now slated for 2018. The peace talks, which began in January 2014, have resulted in several agreements, but both parties to the conflict and other splintering factions repeatedly violate the cease-fires.

Armed groups, including the government’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), have committed widespread violence against civilians, especially women and children, humanitarian workers, and peacekeepers. As of July 2015, more than 166,000 people are seeking protection on UN bases, which have become displacement-like settlements known as Protection of Civilian sites, in areas such as Bentiu, Juba, and Malakal.

Ignited by a political struggle between Salva Kiir and Riek Machar, violence erupted between Presidential Guard soldiers in December 2013 and immediately took on an ethnic character. From the two largest ethnic groups in South Sudan, soldiers from the Dinka ethnic group aligned with President Kiir and those from the Nuer group supported Riek Machar. In the midst of chaos, President Kiir announced an attempted coup by Machar and violence spreading quickly to Jonglei, Upper Nile, and Unity states. Since then, armed groups have targeted civilians along ethnic lines, perpetrated rape and sexual violence, destroyed property and looted villages, and recruited children into their ranks, among other serious crimes.

Violence has prevented farmers from planting or harvesting crops, causing food shortages nationwide. In July 2014, the UN Security Council declared South Sudan’s food crisis the worst in the world. It warned that some four million people—a third of South Sudan’s population—could be affected and up to fifty thousand children could die of hunger.


In late December 2013, the UN Security Council authorized a rapid deployment of about 6,000 security forces, in addition to 7,600 peacekeepers already in the country, to aid in nation building efforts. In May 2014, the Security Council voted in a rare move to shift the mission’s mandate from nation building to civilian protection, authorizing UN troops to use force. Since reprioritizing protection, the United Nations Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS) has faced extreme challenges due to the deteriorated of the security situation and its complex relationship with the Government of the Republic of South Sudan, which is a belligerent to the conflict.

The United States was a lead actor in facilitating South Sudanese independence by providing diplomatic support and humanitarian aid. However, it has taken a back seat in peace talks as IGAD mediates between Kiir and Machar. The United States and Europe have imposed sanctions on commanders from both sides, but diplomats say real pressure for a deal needs to come from neighboring states.

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