Understanding South Sudan’s Postwar Struggle for Democracy and Accountability

In Brief

Understanding South Sudan’s Postwar Struggle for Democracy and Accountability

In the wake of its civil war, South Sudan has struggled to build democratic institutions and deliver justice for human rights abuses and atrocity crimes.

What is the state of democracy efforts in South Sudan?

Prospects for a viable democracy in South Sudan, which achieved independence from Sudan in 2011, have deteriorated amid worsening corruption, mismanagement, human rights violations, and power-grabbing maneuvers. President Salva Kiir is in an uneasy power-sharing government with his chief adversary, Vice President Riek Machar, under terms laid out in a 2018 peace deal that sought to end the bloody civil war that ignited between their factions in 2013. The country’s leadership has repeatedly backpedaled on promises to establish a democratic government, which would include a permanent constitution and free elections.

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Advancing human rights undergirds all democracy-building endeavors. On that score, South Sudan has a long journey ahead. Since 2016, investigations by the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan have reflected dire, life-threatening conditions on almost all fronts—including voter disenfranchisement, violations of freedoms, censorship, state-imposed famine, economic crimes, forced displacement, corruption, exploitation of local conflicts, and illegal arms sales.

How much of the 2018 peace deal has been implemented?

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The 2018 agreement, officially known as the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan, mandated Kiir and Machar to form a transitional unity government by May 2019. However, establishment of the transitional government was delayed until February 2020, after officials failed to implement crucial provisions related to security arrangements and territorial boundaries. Though its eventual creation constituted a significant milestone in the implementation of the 2018 deal, progress beyond this has been sluggish. 

The government successfully launched a population estimation survey that will guide the design of a full census in 2022, which will gather data to steer policy planning and investments to support sustainable development. But other measures have been ignored. Kiir failed to ensure, as the deal stipulates, that women comprise at least 35 percent of appointed government officials. Kiir also has circumvented a central provision of the deal that requires the president to consult the other parties in the transitional government before appointing senior officials. This month, for example, the president unilaterally dismissed and replaced the governor of the central bank without any stated justification. The government also postponed general elections until 2023, blaming the lack of a permanent constitution.

Critical financial reforms have also lagged. The government failed to complete a comprehensive review of the legislation governing South Sudan’s central bank that was intended to pinpoint ways to make the bank more efficient and effective. Such reforms are dearly needed to help stabilize the economy during a time of deepening crisis due to the prolonged conflict, the COVID-19 pandemic, and declining oil revenue.

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The 2018 agreement thus remains on life support, awaiting meaningful implementation.

What are the prospects for accountability for the civil war’s atrocities?

Both the 2015 peace deal and its 2018 successor call for the establishment of three accountability mechanisms to address human rights abuses and atrocity crimes: the Commission for Truth, Healing, and Reconciliation (CTHR); the Hybrid Court for South Sudan (HCSS); and the Compensation and Reparations Authority (CRA). So far, progress on each has been scant.

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An artist is painting a South Sudan flag on a woman's cheek, after The Great South Sudan Run, at John Garang Mausoleum, during the country's 10th anniversary since independence, on July 9, 2021 in Juba, South Sudan.
An artist paints the South Sudan flag on a woman’s cheek during celebrations for the country’s tenth anniversary of independence, in July 2021 in the capital, Juba. Andreea Campeanu/Getty Images

The CTHR is on hold, as the transitional government has refused to draft the legislation required to initiate it. The creation of the hybrid court is the responsibility of the African Union Commission (AUC), but South Sudanese officials are supposed to devise the corresponding legislation. And given the government’s continued opposition, the AUC has been hesitant to unilaterally establish it. Meanwhile, President Kiir has obstructed the creation of the CRA, which observers view as the least-developed mechanism from the agreement.

As a result, while perpetrators enjoy impunity for their human rights abuses and atrocity crimes, victims continue to suffer without any recognition or reparation from the government. The UN human rights investigators concluded that there has been “no concrete progress in realizing any accountability, national healing, or reconciliation in South Sudan.”

Moreover, after six years of South Sudan’s refusal to set up the hybrid court, the U.S. Department of State has reallocated most of the $5 million that then President Barack Obama assigned to fund the court in 2015. This is a discouraging sign for accountability for the country’s thousands of victims and an indication of the ongoing difficulties in bringing perpetrators to justice.

What role should outside governments play going forward?

If external actors hope to improve South Sudan’s democracy and human rights situation, they should keep diplomatic pressure on Juba to fully implement the 2018 deal. The African Union, in particular, should move forward with establishing the Hybrid Court for South Sudan to promote accountability. The UN Human Rights Council should also support these efforts by renewing the mandate of the South Sudan commission for 2022 so it can continue to shed light on the distressing conditions.  

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