Rosalind Marsden
Associate Fellow, Africa Programme
Key international actors must step in to press for a political solution and stronger security arrangements to prevent a return to civil war.
South Sudanese civilians flee fighting in an United Nations base in the northeastern town of Malakal on 18 February 2016. Photo by Getty Images.South Sudanese civilians flee fighting in an United Nations base in the northeastern town of Malakal on 18 February 2016. Photo by Getty Images.

As South Sudan marks five years of independence, the regionally-brokered August 2015 peace agreement is under severe threat. In the five day period 7-11 July, nearly 300 people are reported to have been killed in South Sudan’s capital, Juba, and tens of thousands have fled their homes as a result of fighting between the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) loyal to President Salva Kiir and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army-in Opposition (SPLA-IO) loyal to First Vice President Riek Machar. On 10-11 July, the SPLA used helicopter gunships and artillery against Machar’s military base and heavy fighting took place around the airport and elsewhere in Juba. A ceasefire was declared on 11 July, which seems to be holding in the capital, although there has been some fighting in other parts of the country.

Immediate and decisive action will need to be taken if civilians are to be protected and the peace deal salvaged, if indeed this is still possible. South Sudan already faces economic collapse and a humanitarian emergency with over 5 million people short of food.

Eight months after signing the peace agreement, Machar returned to Juba in April 2016 to join the Transitional Government of National Unity as first vice president, accompanied by a 1,400-strong protection force as agreed under the peace deal. The presence of rival forces in the national capital without any joint security oversight mechanism or moves towards unification has been a source of tension, particularly given the lack of political progress in implementing the peace agreement. In December 2013 a power struggle between Kiir, an ethnic Dinka, and Machar, an ethnic Nuer, sparked fighting between their respective forces in the presidential guard, escalating quickly into a 20-month civil war that left tens of thousands dead and 2 million displaced. Both sides mobilized support on ethnic lines. The renewed outbreak of violence in Juba has prompted concerns that this might be repeated. 

There is fury in New York at the blatant disregard shown for the safety of civilians and the UN. The UN’s two bases in Juba and a Protection of Civilians site where 30,000 internally displaced people, mainly ethnic Nuer, have been sheltering, were caught in the crossfire and at times directly targeted, causing several civilian casualties and the deaths of two Chinese peacekeepers and a UN national staff member. Soldiers are reported to have prevented civilians from seeking refuge in UN compounds.In a strongly-worded statement, Ban Ki-Moon laid the blame squarely on South Sudan’s political leadership for failing to protect their own people and called on the UN Security Council to adopt an arms embargo, impose sanctions on perpetrators of violence and strengthen the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) so that they can do more to protect civilians.

The latest fighting in Juba is a major setback to the peace process. The only hope is that the shockwaves caused by recent events will trigger serious efforts by the international community to address South Sudan’s crisis. Key steps now under consideration include:

  • Immediate measures to strengthen the protection of civilians, including safe passage for civilians fleeing the fighting and humanitarian access to those in need. Regional countries are being urged to open their borders to refugee flows. The UN Security Council has stressed the need for UNMISS to take a robust approach to delivering its protection of civilians chapter 7 mandate and expressed its readiness to reinforce the mission.
     
  • Accountability for those responsible for attacks on civilians and the UN. The UN secretary-general has called for sanctions and the US has expressed determination that appropriate measures should be taken to ensure accountability. The UN Panel of Experts could be tasked to identify the perpetrators of violence, particularly those with command and control responsibilities, and spoilers bent on obstructing peace and destabilizing South Sudan. However, consideration of sanctions would also need to be coordinated with political objectives and effective enforcement would require the cooperation of regional countries.
     
  • A comprehensive arms embargo, which the UK and France have been pushing in the UN Security Council for some time, is now back on the table. This would be a positive step, particularly if accompanied by a concerted information-gathering effort to identify who is responsible for resupply.
     
  • A review of security arrangements in Juba. Recent catastrophic events have exposed the shortcomings of the transitional security arrangements for Juba envisaged in the 2015 peace agreement. It is hard to see how two security forces who have fought each other in a brutal civil war and have just shelled each other in the streets of Juba can be jointly responsible for the security of the capital. It is a pity that an earlier version of the peace agreement which would have put Juba under the control of a third force was watered down in the face of government resistance. The Inter-Governmental Authority on Development (IGAD) has called for, among other things, the establishment of a regional ‘intervention brigade’ to secure Juba and this is now under active discussion, although it is not yet clear how its command structure would relate to that of UNMISS.    

It is not clear who is behind the violence. The fact that Kiir and Machar were meeting in the presidential palace on 8 July when one of the episodes of gunfire started, that both appeared unable to explain what was happening and that fighting escalated despite their joint appeal for calm suggests that neither were in full control of their forces.

Many uncertainties remain but the outlook is grim for South Sudan. Even if the ceasefire holds in Juba, which is now de facto controlled by the SPLA, there is a risk that fighting might continue or get worse in the rest of the country  and that there could be further reprisals against civilians.  Machar has now left Juba after his base was overrun by the SPLA but his spokesman has stressed that he is not planning a return to war. Kiir has assured the chairman of the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Commission that he still wants to implement the peace agreement.

A political solution is urgently needed to save the peace deal and avoid empowering hardliners around Kiir and Machar who want renewed military confrontation. This will require strong external engagement by those international and regional actors with the greatest influence on the parties such as the Troika (US, UK and Norway), China, the African Union and IGAD leaders who brokered the peace deal but have been largely absent during the implementation phase.

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