Memorandum on the South Sudan Civil War

(December 2014)


Two and a half years after gaining independence, the world’s newest nation became embroiled in a civil war, awash with guns after decades of conflict with Sudan. The belligerents are represented by President Salva Kiir – of the majority Dinka ethnic group – and his former deputy, Riek Machar – of the second largest Nuer group – who have incited mutual hatred against their respective groups following a political fall-out and amid much graver allegations of corruption. We are currently witnessing: the systematic targeting of civilians, the army splitting among ethnic lines, over 1.5 million fleeing their homes and, most recently, attacks on UN bases holding over 100,000 people, on both occasions with impunity.[1] Human Rights Watch has a crucial role to play in urging regional and international response, which has been muted thus far.

  1. Background

15 December 2013 marked the beginning of the civil war in South Sudan, the day on which fierce fighting broke out between rival units of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), but falling five months after President Salva Kiir had dismissed his entire cabinet amid an ostensible move to consolidate Dinka control of the government and a purging of both naysayers and virtually all Nuer politicians. The immediate catalyst can be traced to a weekend meeting of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) National Liberation Council where fighting erupted between rival units of the SPLA, but the government and SPLM in opposition – represented by Machar – hold fundamentally different views as to what happened. President Kiir alleges that Machar attempted to stage a coup, whereas Machar rebukes that the fighting was manipulated by Kiir to oust rivals from the government and to authorise the police to carry out atrocities against the Nuer in Juba. Armed actors, including the Nuer White Army, responded by attacking Dinka and other civilians in more than a dozen locations. Peace talks, brokered the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), have resulted in several ceasefires over the past 11 months, but all have so far broken down.


  1. The roots of the problem: is it deep-rooted or the result of particular circumstances?

Although the current crisis in South Sudan was ignited by the dismissal of Machar and his Nuer counterparts, the ethnic question, and more specifically a long history of fragmentation, lie at the heart of the civil war.

Society in South Sudan is multi-ethnic; while no group constitutes an overall majority, the Dinka (3.2 million) and the Nuer (1.6 million) combined make up 57% of the country’s population.[2] They have similar languages, a common culture and generally practice an economy based on agro-pastoralism. On the other hand, the rivalry between them is deep-rooted and evidenced by noted anthropologists.[3] Competition over water and land has engendered cycles of violence between the two groups, but it was a British colonial policy aimed at administering and ruling mobile semi-pastoral communities which formalised this divide. Indeed, the British tactic was to politicise ethnicity by identifying it with a particular homeland, to divide those with “indigenous” and therefore customary rights to land from those who would not be granted such rights, and to vest authority in an ethnic leader who was in turn accountable to the absolute power of the colonial state.[4] When South Sudan began organising its own government between 2005 and independence, they opted to replicate rather than reform this model. Ultimately, the politicisation of ethnicity led to increased fragmentation; across local authorities, those claiming “indigenous” rights to land and natural resources fought those they had been taught lacked such rights, who in turn sought to defend themselves and demand rights.[5] Jonglei – the largest and most densely populated of South Sudan’s ten states – is a powerful example of this administrative regime grounded in the idea of a hard border. Here, the majority ethnic group administers the border and emphasises its indigenous right, leading to inevitable clashes with smaller groups over previously shared resources.[6]

The context of the civil war has led to the militarization of defence units which were initially set up to protect property and capital. As Mahmood Mamdani articulates, the consequence of such a structure of local government has been that ‘inter-ethnic conflict in contemporary South Sudan is both a top-down and bottom-up affair’.[7] However, it is important not to label this internal conflict a mere rivalry between ethnic groups. The current crisis is the third major bloody battle to be instigated by politicians, and each time there are significant political, personal and ideological dimensions. At the founding of the SPLM in 1984-5, violence resulted from disagreement over whether to work towards an independent south, or a ‘New Sudan’ with black representation. Again in 1991, disagreement over the direction of the struggle, and particularly the then leader (John Garang), prompted Machar to form a breakaway faction (SPLM-Nashir) which became virtually an exclusively Nuer affair following Machar’s orchestration of the Bor Massacre in the same year, slaughtering at least 2,000 Dinka and for which he later accepted responsibility.[8]

This examination of the deep-rooted nature of the problem shows that ethnicity is a tool manipulated by political leaders to rally support from soldiers and armed civilians whose frustrations are also personal, political and ideological.

  1. Who is causing the problem and what is the rationale?


Cause of the problem: fault on both sides


Identifying the catalyst for the crisis in South Sudan – fighting between rivals factions of the SPLA on December 15 – goes some way to explaining who is causing the problem, for it is a story of mutual responsibility. On both sides, the issues motivating the leaders to mobilise their followers are as follows: 1) parity of ethnic representation within government; and 2) opposing views on the way in which such power should move.

Ethnicity as a rationale

What we know is that Salva Kiir’s dismissal of his entire parliament in July 2015 inflamed simmering tensions, and set the stage for fighting in December. The evidence collected is that Kiir’s army and police commanded attacks on the Nuer in Juba in the final few weeks of December.[9] They sought out Machar supporters but often conflated ethnicity with support for Machar so as to identify who should be killed.[10] The rationale on Kiir’s side – to crush what he called an attempted coup – is evident. However, there has been disregard for civilians’ lives on both sides and the rationale for the continued violence is ethnicity as a presumption of political leanings. Indeed, from Machar’s side, the UN has condemned the Bentiu Massacre during April 2014, during which hundreds of civilians were killed by Machar’s rebel forces.[11] Despite denial from the ex-Vice President and his commanders, and their counter accusations that government soldiers carried out the killings as they fled the town, the UN has observed that the killings continued even two days following the town’s capture by rebels, who allegedly boasted of ‘mopping and cleaning up’ the town.[12]

Wealth as a rationale


The long history of ethnic tensions in South Sudan goes some way to explaining the rationale for the conflict: there is an ongoing desire for revenge on both sides, but there is an equally strong awareness of the bounty victory. South Sudan resembles a kleptocracy and 98% of government revenue comes from oil production.[13] Predicating the survival of the country on this income made conflict inevitable; when income shrinks, both sides are pitted against each other to retain wealth. For politicians hoping to stay in power, or those hoping to wrest power from them, and for spoilers hoping to carry away looted goods, the stakes are high. Indeed, disaffection is widespread among many politicians and young warriors, who often rise up simply to have their ‘share of the cake’; overthrowing Kiir might just be a means of gaining access to the oil fields his government controls. The web of motivations is further complicated by community pressure to militarise and the aforementioned self-defence mechanisms in place since before independence.

For many others in South Sudan, hopes of wealth overstate the rationale because their offering of support to Machar is often partly motivated by a desire to escape poverty and increasing vulnerability. The hope of receiving some food and protection compounds loyalty to Machar (particularly in Leer, his birthplace) as well as the oft-cited desire to avenge government torching at the beginning of the conflict.[14]

Regional interests as part of the problem

What must not be overlooked is the role of regional players in this war, as they too may be contributing to the problem. Indeed, most IGAD member states have significant financial interests in South Sudan, particularly in the expansion of oil pipelines.

Uganda has been an historical ally of the SPLM, and has recently built a lucrative relationship with South Sudan, becoming a major trading partner to the detriment of Sudan’s geopolitical and economic interests.[15] This in part explains its instalment of over 4,000 troops in South Sudan twenty-two days before an official agreement was signed on 10 January 2014.[16] Whether pre-empting further Sudanese involvement in the crisis or fearing political opponents in South Sudan, it has become clear that Uganda backs a military solution to the crisis, despite widespread calls for a political solution. Moreover, it seems unlikely that Uganda – having snubbed two term limits on presidency at home (Yoweveri Museveni has been in power for 28 years) – will support some of the crucial elements of necessary political reform. Most egregious of all, the alleged use of cluster bombs by Uganda’s UPDF in South Sudan suggests it is a major aggravator in this crisis and should force the international community and IGAD to reassess its legitimacy as a mediator.[17]

As far as Sudan to the north is concerned, there have been allegations on the part of the SPLM that opposition forces have been using Sudanese territory to carry out military operations and attacks.[18] A war-stricken South Sudan is beneficial to Sudan in the short to medium term as it prevents the emergence of a strong oil-rich state friendly to Uganda. Ethiopia, on the other hand, has continually avoided direct involvement in the South Sudanese conflict and, indeed, has emphasised that Uganda’s role is entrenching regional tensions and endangering IGAD mediation.[19]

Collective responsibility answers the ‘who’ question

Nevertheless, in one rare glimmer of hope offered in October 2014, the warring factions signed a text in Arusha, Tanzania stating: “The parties acknowledge a collective responsibility for the crisis in South Sudan that has taken a great toll on the lives and property of our people”, underlying the shared culpability but hitherto failure to bring an end to the bloodshed.[20]

  1. Segment of the population targeted and characteristics of the violations suffered

The violence, which started between military factions, has become widespread and civilians are being targeted, often by ethnicity. Radio Bentiu FM has come under criticism for allegedly broadcasting appeals for men to rape women and girls according to ethnic background or assumed political leanings.[21] Indeed, Zainab Bangura, the UN Special Representative, has reported a widespread level of sexual violence by armed men, both on the government and rebel sides, and notes that some victims are dying from their injuries.[22] According to South Sudanese hospital officials, 74% of the victims of such violence are under the age of 18, and in October it was reported that a two year old was among the victims.[23]

The UN has been unequivocal in its condemnation of the rebels and ‘the targeted killing of civilians based on their ethnic origins and nationality’ in Bentiu, for example.[24] The characteristic of violence have been particularly brutal, with the White Army slaughtering and raping in Malakal and Bor, and going so far as to attack hospitals in both towns, shooting ‘patients in their beds’.[25] Frightful claims of hate speech coming from the UN, including rebel commanders on local radio inciting “vengeful sexual violence against women from another community” have led some observers to draw parallels with Rwanda.[26]

Although it is clear why certain segments of the population are being victimised, the extent of the crisis is such that nearly half of South Sudan’s population now requires emergency assistance. The violence has displaced 1.5 million people within the country, of which more than 100,000 are sheltering in unsanitary conditions in UN bases. 450,000 have left the country, fleeing to neighbouring Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda.[27] One important reason for this exodus is the continued blocking, by both sides of the conflict, of lifesaving humanitarian assistance by road or river. Agencies such as the International Committee of the Red Cross have resorted to airlifting, for the first time in almost two decades, which is a powerful sign of how quickly the situation is deteriorating.[28] Such manoeuvres are not feasible in the longer term and greatly limit the number of people who can be reached. Indeed, their aid workers on the ground have reported children in camps with hair turning red – a sign of life-threatening malnutrition. They have warned that 50,000 children could die this year from hunger alone, if emergency aid cannot reach them.

A disarmament advocacy group, Cluster Munitions Coalition, has also stated that antagonists are using cluster bombs – internationally banned weapons. However, South Sudan has still not signed the 2008 Convention on Cluster Munitions, which went into effect on August 1 2010, has been signed by 113 countries. The danger is that these bombs maim and destroy indiscriminately, by not distinguishing between civilians and armed groups. Ninety-four per cent of its casualties are victims, nearly half of whom are children. These were first discovered in South Sudan’s Jonglei State in February.[29]

  1. Extent and effectiveness of previous efforts to address the problem

Peace-keeping efforts have been brokered mostly by IGAD, but with contributions from US Secretary of State, John Kerry, and UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, with the latter urging both sides to cease all military operations and reminding them of obligations to respect international humanitarian law and protect civilians.[30] All ceasefire agreements to date have fallen apart, however, and even peacekeeping negotiations aimed at allowing access for humanitarian deliveries have likewise faltered. The US has followed through on threats to sanction individuals involved in the fighting, by placing travel restrictions and asset freezes on General Peter Gadet, who defected to the rebels.[31]

One aspect of the UN peacekeeping mission which has attracted controversy, and arguably retarded the peace progress, has been the decision to commit UN peacekeepers to the protection of the oil industry. Indeed, even officials in the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations warned that this may undercut the UN’s neutrality, placing them on the side of the South Sudanese government. A researcher for the South Sudan Law Society said that “the UN is walking a thin line between neutral peacekeeper and proxy military force for the government of South Sudan”.[32] It is not difficult to see how the intervention of regional and international powers – including Uganda’s aforementioned military involvement – seems to favour one side of the conflict, to the real detriment of non-government actors. In addition, the peacekeeping mission itself, with just 12,500 peacekeepers, is reportedly hugely ‘overstretched’ given the scale of the current crisis.[33]

All peace agreements have proposed retaining Kiir as President and restoring Machar as Vice-President, but the talks generally collapse over how this power is to be distributed. In January 2014, a ceasefire agreement was signed between the rebels and government, but was broken over the issue of political prisoners.[34] The rebels demand that they be released was later supported by the United States, and with this issue resolved, on May 2014, an IGAD-brokered peace agreement was signed by Kiir and Machar in Addis Ababa, accepting that there was no military solution and that a transitional unity government should be formed to usher reconciliation. Yet upon his return to South Sudan, Kiir immediately denounced the agreement, citing threats of arrest from the Ethiopian prime minister directed at both himself and Machar, which again raised the problem of regional interests in this crisis.[35] A government spokesman demanded the removal of the Ethiopian chief mediator over accusations he was pursuing “regime change” sought by the Norway, the UK and the USA.[36]

Peace talks brokered once again by IGAD in Addis Ababa in June 2014 broke down amid complaints from the government that the executive secretary called Kiir and Machar “stupid” for believing fighting was the way to win the civil war.[37] The opposition added that it had withdrawn from peace talks due to lack of representation, “So many voices are not represented here”, said opposition leader Mar Nyout. They added that the selection of delegates was “faulty” and demanded a “transparent and inlusive process”.[38] However, later in the month, Kiir and Machar agreed to form a transitional government within sixty days. Disagreement soon re-emerged, however, as the government rejected proposals including a discussion on federalising the government, the new parameters for a constitution and cross sector government reforms.[39]

One positive sign emerged from Arusha peace talks in October 2014, which resulted in the previously stated admission of ‘collective responsibility’. Indeed, the talks appear to have been more effective than those held previously, and this has been attributed to the fact that the talks were held in Tanzania, which has less direct interest in the South Sudan crisis, and to the intense pressure which came from the UK, US and Finland to bring the parties together. The talks might portend the brokering of more successful efforts, including participation from South Africa as a mediator; indeed, contributions from Jacob Zuma’s African National Congress were especially noted.[40]

However, this past week it has emerged that the eight session, Phase II of IGAD Peace Talks, scheduled for 25 November, 2014, have been adjourned indefinitely, citing a “lack of political will to bring the crisis to an end”.[41] It is clear therefore that Human Rights Watch must propose a course of action sensitive to both the complex web of motivations and the many factors which have so far impeded an end to widespread human rights violations.

  1. Course of action

Our immediate course of action must be devised to help bring an end to human rights violations, and as such it should focuses on measures which can be taken immediately. The key players in the crisis must also be identified, namely: the UN Security Council, the African Union, IGAD, UNMISS, UN Human Rights Council, the US, EU Member States and countries contributing troops. Below, the needs of the South Sudanese people are identified, with a proposed course of action. The targeted institutions are parenthesised.

The South Sudanese people need:

  1. An immediate end to the flow of arms

Human Rights Watch should lobby for the establishment of not only a comprehensive arms embargo on South Sudan, but a UN monitoring body which would report on its implementation (UN Security Council, African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council, IGAD).


  1. A return of the leaders to the negotiating table

We must emphasise the need for sanctions targeting individuals responsible for violations of international humanitarian law and the proposed embargo (UNSC, AU Peace and Security Council, IGAD).

In addition, we can encourage the US, EU Member states and other governments supporting the peace process to impose travel bans and asset freezes, which have proven effective in the past, and could quickly pressure Salva Kiir, for example, to return to the negotiating table.

III. More troops and peacekeepers on the ground

Human Rights Watch must remind contributing countries and the UN Security Council of the urgent need for deployment of additional troops, first authorised by the former in December 2013, as well as supplies of the appropriate equipment and support, and respecting the mandate of the UNMISS.

  1. Management of external interests hampering the peace process

The UN and IGAD have to face the reality of military involvement by countries with direct political stakes in the crisis. However, Human Rights Watch can encourage these organisations to learn from the protracted efforts to end hostilities in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where eventually the involvement of South Africa and Tanzania (which did not have direct political interests in the country) gradually facilitated a political solution.[42] Indeed, in South Sudan, the replacement of troops from countries like Sudan and Uganda must be the introduction of troops from countries not directly linked, with both the political will and mandate to oversee vital reforms highlighted above.

  1. The unhindered distribution of humanitarian relief

Call on UN agencies and NGOs to refocus attention on the distribution of humanitarian relief so that aid is neither diverted nor manipulated to target and attack civilians (UN agencies and NGOs providing humanitarian assistance).

  1. The suspension of all military assistance to the security sector

Advocate for the suspension of military or other assistance to South Sudan’s security sector, as well as emphasising the need to fund capacity building for accountability mechanisms. Research and consultation into procedures such as the vetting of security forces is also an important step (US, EU member states and governments supporting the peace process).

VII. An increase in support for civil society

Persuade contributing governments, including those of IGAD, to support South Sudanese civil society groups with training and funding for the documentation and reporting of violations of human rights and humanitarian law (US, EU member states and governments supporting the peace process). Indeed, peace talks must not solely be held between the political elite. Religious groups, community-based organisations and women’s associations must be accounted for.

VIII. An improvement in UN reporting and access

Human Rights Watch must reiterate calls for the establishment of a Special Rapporteur for South Sudan (UN Human Rights Council) in order to ensure a more regular and public reporting on the situation in South Sudan, and on appropriate measures for both civilian protection and accountability.

  1. The Way Forward: Longer-term goals

Finally, it must be reiterated that the course of action has been devised with short-term goals, specifically to help bring an immediate end to human rights violations occurring today. Many international NGOs and civil society groups in South Sudan are calling for the international community to hold accountable all perpetrators of violence, notably their pursuit through the International Criminal Court.[43] A return to power sharing has also been proposed, but there are compelling reasons why neither step, in isolation or even combined, would be a sensible course of action for Human Rights Watch to pursue in the shorter term. Firstly, it has already been observed that the perpetrators of atrocities in South Sudan enjoy the support of large swathes of the country, not least owing to the documented political fragmentation. These leaders are not the same as normal criminals, and extradition to the ICC at this stage would risk resulting in more political violence. Recent attempts to pursue the Kenyan President, Uhuru Kenyatta, through the ICC illustrate the relative ease with which powerful leaders can thwart this process.[44] Next door in Sudan, there is evidence that Omar al-Baashir’s indictment by the ICC has only served to heighten his popularity.[45] It would be foolhardy to push for a course of action in the name of justice which may not only lionize Salva Kiir or Riek Machaar, but risks further bloodshed. Power sharing (without reform) would also be a mere stopgap. Jok Madut Jok, a leading South Sudanese intellectual, told the New York Times in January that “the two men will eventually sit down, resolve their issues, laugh for the cameras, and the thousands of civilians who have died will not be accounted for”.[46] That such crimes would be forever unaddressed contradicts the very principles of justice advocated by Human Rights Watch, and this memorandum does not refute the need for justice to be served in the longer term. Its aim, however, has been to highlight that the political solution eluding South Sudan cannot be reached without the involvement of its democratically elected President Salva Kiir, and former Vice President Riek Machar, which the course of action is intended to precipitate.

[1] Oxfam, South Sudan Crisis Appeal,

[2] John A. Akec, South Sudan Tribune,, 5 January 2014

[3] ‘South Sudan: grim legacy of neglect’, Open Democracy,, 22 December 2013

[4] Mahmood Mamdani, New Vision,, 12 February 2014

[5] Ibid

[6] Sharon Hutchinson, A Guide to the Nuer of Jonglei State,

[7] Mahmood Mamdani, New Vision,, 12 February 2014

[8] Riek Machar in tears as he admits to 1991 Bor Massacre, London Evening Post,, 16 August 2011

[9] Sudan and South Sudan, Security Council Report,

[10] South Sudan: Ethnic Targeting, Widespread Killings, Human Rights Watch,, 16 January 2014

[11] Bentiu massacre is game-changer in South Sudan conflict, The Guardian,, 22 April 2014

[12] UNMISS condemns targeted killings, Relief Web,, 21 April 2014

[13] South Sudan and Sudan, Global Witness,

[14] South Sudan’s armies gear up as fighting season approaches, The Guardian,, 27 October 2014

[15] Is South Sudan for Sale?, South Sudan News Agency,, 13 January 2014

[16] Questions raised on Uganda’s army mission in South Sudan, The East Africa,, 18 January 2014

[17] Uganda used cluster bombs in South Sudan: UN Report, South Sudan News Agency,, 12 May 2014

[18] South Sudanese rebels accused, Radio Tamazuj,, 8 October 2014

[19] The Crisis in South Sudan: A Game of Regional Chess, ISS Africa,, 26 May 2014

[20] South Sudan Warring Parties Admit Responsibility for Civil War, VOA News,, 21 October 2014

[21] South Sudan Sexual Violence Rampant, Reuters,, 20 October 2014

[22] South Sudan: U.N. Official Expresses Concern Over Level of Sexual Violence, New York Times,, 10 October 2014

[23] 74% rape victims in S. Sudan below 18: UN, Eye Radio,, 21 October 2014

[24] UNMISS Press Release,, 21 October 2014

[25] South Sudan Hospital Patients Shot in their Beds, BBC News,, 20 January 2014

[26] Is South Sudan the Next Rwanda?, World Mag,, 23 April 2014

[27] UK increases support for humanitarian crisis in South Sudan, UK government,, 25 September 2014


[28] South Sudan: Massive airdrops feed tens of thousands, ICRC,, 19 May 2014

[29] Banned Munitions Still in Use, Report Says, New York Times,, 30 July 2014

[30] Statement attributable to the Spokesman for the Secretary-General on South Sudan, United Nations,, 30 October 2014

[31] US Imposes First Sanctions in South Sudan Conflict, New York Times,, 6 May 2014

[32] UN Peacekeepers to Protect China’s Oil Interests in South Sudan, Foreign Policy,, 16 June 2014

[33] The Christmas Fighting Season, The Economist,, 29 November 2014

[34] South Sudan Peace Talks, The Guardian,, 27 January 2014

[35] The South Sudan Peace Deal You Didn’t Hear About Is Already Collapsing, Think Progress,, 12 May 2014

[36] Ibid

[37] South Sudan Peace Talks on Hold After Mediator Calls President ‘Stupid’, Think Progress,, 18 June 2014

[38] South Sudan pricey peace talks break down before they start, ENCA,, 16 June 2014

[39] South Sudan Rivals 60 Days to form Transition Government, VOA News,, 19 June 2014

[40] South Sudan Peace Deal Offers Glimmer of Hope, The Guardian,, 23 October 2014

[41] Statement By Political Parties Leadership Forum Of South Sudan, Gurtong,, 22 November 2014


[42] Expanded Role for UN Troops in DRC, VOA News,, 14 November 2013

[43] South Sudan: UN report on conflict echoes urgent Amnesty International call for accountability, Amnesty International,, 8 May 2014

[44] Uhuru Kenyatta’s ICC prosecution close to collapse as lawyers demand acquittal, The Telegraph,, 8 October 2014

[45] Omer Hassan Ahmed Al-Bashir, Sudan Tribune,

[46] The crisis in South Sudan: swapping partners, Sudan Tribune,, 7 January 2013



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