Well over 50,000 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. Under the threat of international sanctions and following several rounds of negotiations supported by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), President Salva Kiir signed a peace agreement with rebel leader and former Vice President Riek Machar on August 26, 2015. As the first step toward ending the civil war, Machar returned to Juba on April 26, 2016 and was sworn in as vice president, after spending more than two years outside of the country. Soon after his return, violence broke out again between government forces and opposition factions in July 2016, displacing tens of thousands of people yet again. After Machar fled the country, Kiir replaced him as vice president with General Taban Deng Gai. After intense fighting in July 2016, the UN Security Council authorized a 4,000 strong regional protection force, which after being blocked by the South Sudanese government, will deploy in summer 2017.
The August 2015 peace deal has collapsed and the future of the transitional government remains to be seen. After signing the agreement in August 2015, violence continued and both sides to the conflict blamed the other for violating the cease-fire. The peace talks, which began in January 2014, resulted in several agreements, but both parties to the conflict and other splintering factions repeatedly violated 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 August 2016, around 200,000 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 that led to the Machar’s removal from as vice president, violence erupted between presidential guard soldiers in December 2013 and immediately took on an ethnic character. Soldiers from the Dinka ethnic group, one of the two largest ethnic groups in South Sudan, aligned with President Kiir and those from the Nuer ethnic group, the other largest ethnic group, supported Riek Machar. In the midst of chaos, President Kiir announced that Machar had attempted a coup and violence spread quickly to Jonglei, Upper Nile, and Unity states. Since the outbreak of conflict, armed groups have targeted civilians along ethnic lines, committed rape and sexual violence, destroyed property and looted villages, and recruited children into their ranks.
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. The conflict in South Sudan is categorized by the UN as a “Level 3” humanitarian emergency, based on the scale, urgency, and complexity of needs.
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 UN Mission in the Republic of South Sudan has faced extreme challenges due to the deterioration 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 facilitator of South Sudanese independence, which was voted for in a 2011 referendum that was held in the southern part of Sudan, excluding the contested area of Abyei, providing diplomatic support and humanitarian aid. Prior to the outbreak of the civil war in 2013, the United States strongly supported and advocated for Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), which became the new country’s government. However, the United States 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 to be implemented must come from neighboring states.