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South Sudan's President Salva Kiir (2nd R) and his former deputy turned rebel leader Riek Machar (2nd L) shake hands as they make a last peace deal at the 33rd Extraordinary Summit of Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in Addis Ababa on September 12, 2018. © © YONAS TADESSE/AFP via Getty Images

(Nairobi) – South Sudanese leaders should address chronic insecurity, rights abuses, and the worsening humanitarian situation during the country’s extended transition period, Human Rights Watch said today. Regional and international partners should enhance pressure and leverage to ensure that institutional reforms are completed, the rule of law is restored, and that there is significant progress on protecting human rights.

On August 4, 2022, parties to the September 2018 peace deal agreed to extend it for another 24 months starting in February 2023, when the original deal is expected to expire. President Salva Kiir, who signed the extension alongside four other political groups, said that the extension will allow for unification of the armed forces, creation of a new constitution, and time to prepare for elections to avoid a return to war.

“The last four-and-a-half years in South Sudan have been characterized by repression, violence against civilians, and attacks that have undermined efforts to complete the transition,” said Nyagoah Tut Pur, South Sudan researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The extension needs to be accompanied by a dramatic shift in the attitude of South Sudan’s leadership and concrete steps toward improving the country’s human rights situation.”

The extension takes place against a backdrop of widespread insecurity and a heavy climate of repression. Between the localized and intercommunal conflicts in some parts of the country, floods, chronic underdevelopment, and the impact of Covid-19, South Sudan residents face a dire humanitarian situation, with 60 percent of the population facing food insecurity.

South Sudan descended into violent conflict in 2013, where all sides to the conflict committed abuses against civilians. A peace deal signed in 2015 for a unity government collapsed in 2016 and spread further conflict. That deal was “revitalized” by warring parties in 2018 and was set to end in February 2023. But sporadic violence has continued.

“The extension of the peace agreement should not be used to extend suffering and betray the hopes of South Sudanese people,” Pur said. “Regional and international partners should be ready to take bold action to ensure that leaders remedy their past failures and pave the way for justice, democracy, and sustainable peace.”

During the extended transition, the authorities should address the following human rights violations and other issues previously proposed by Human Rights Watch and partners.

Ensure Justice for Serious Crimes

While large-scale conflict between signatories to the peace deal and rebel forces outside the deal has reduced since 2018, civilians have continued to experience conflict-related abuses in parts of Central Equatoria, Unity, and Upper Nile states. For instance, cases of sexual violence, according to the UN, have increased by 218 percent since last year.

In the most recent bout of violence, the UN peacekeeping mission in South Sudan and the ceasefire monitoring unit documented attacks, killings, and sexual violence following clashes between government forces and their allied militias and Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA/IO) in Leer, Unity state, in April. A government committee set up to investigate human rights concerns associated with the attacks has yet to start work, and no one has been held to account.

In 2021, the UN peacekeeping mission documented the killings of 440 civilians and rapes of 64 women and girls in Tombura, Western Equatoria by SPLA/IO and the army, but no one has been held to account. Senior government officials and rebels have routinely been allowed to go free after instigating and financing violence between and within communities.

Senior government officials have openly rejected calls for accountability for serious crimes committed by various groups, including government and rebel forces, across South Sudan during the conflict and after the signing of the 2018 peace deal.

Under the roadmap extending the peace deal, the country’s leaders have made commitments to create a Commission on Truth, Reconciliation and Healing (CTRH) by September and a Compensation and Reparations Authority (CRA) by November. Consultations on the CTRH legislation have been finalized and a report presented to the justice minister. Similar consultations are pending on the CRA.

But South Sudanese leaders have failed to provide clear timelines for the creation and the beginning of operations for a hybrid court to prosecute the most serious violations since the current conflict began in 2013. The development of the court has stalled since a plan to create it was first introduced in the previous peace deal.

The authorities, through the military courts, have focused on prosecuting lower-level officials, misrepresenting the extent of the atrocities.

South Sudanese authorities and the African Union have a responsibility to ensure justice and should without delay increase their engagement to facilitate creating the court and building support within South Sudan. Discussions on creation of the Truth Commission and Reparations Authority should be broad and inclusive. Ensuring that these three institutions work to complement one another has the potential to enhance justice and respect for human rights in South Sudan, Human Rights Watch said.

Cultivate Civic Space and End Repression

Authorities have continued to infringe on freedom of expression and freedom of association and assembly, arresting and detaining critics, human rights defenders, and journalists.

Among those unlawfully detained are Kuel Aguer Kuel, a politician, and Abraham Chol Maketh, a clergyman, both held since late 2021 on several dubious criminal charges related to the exercise of freedom of expression. Human Rights Watch has called on judicial authorities to take the two men before a court or unconditionally release them.

The UN also documented how in March unidentified armed individuals abducted a journalist in Juba, transferred him to an undisclosed location, interrogated and forced him to confess his affiliation to the reform movement, People’s Coalition for Civil Action, and the rebel group National Salvation Front.

In the most recent incident, on August 7, the police and National Security Service agents arrested and detained seven people in Konyo Konyo market in Juba who were protesting the rising cost of living. The security agents shot at protesters, injuring one person on the leg, and beat others. The police arrested Diing Magot, a freelance journalist with Voice of America, who was interviewing the protesters. Lawyers who spoke to Human Rights Watch said she was unlawfully detained for eight days in the Malakia police station but not charged.

Reform the National Security Service

The National Security Service has broad powers of arrest, detention, and surveillance. Human Rights Watch has documented how the agency operates with near-total impunity without meaningful judicial or legislative oversight.

Since 2013, the agency has abducted, tortured, and forcibly disappeared hundreds of people on the basis of their ethnic affiliations or in reprisals for their opinions with the clear aim of crushing criticism of those in power. Since the peace agreement was signed, the agency has on numerous occasions harassed journalists, shut down media outlets, restricted the media’s ability to print or publish stories deemed critical of the government, and unlawfully held people in poor conditions leading to deaths in custody.

In April 2019, the constitutional review commission submitted proposed amendments to the National Security Service (NSS) Act to the Justice Ministry for deliberations and for presentation before the National Assembly. The proposed bill is currently before the presidency but has yet to be presented before parliament.

The amendments would limit, but do not eliminate, the agency’s powers of arrest and detention. They retain the agency’s surveillance powers, without sufficient oversight, and permit an overly broad charge of “crimes against the state” as a basis for arrest. The proposed law defines the crime as “any activity directed at undermining ... the government” and references the same crime in the 2008 Penal Act, which is equally vague.

South Sudan’s leaders should revise the law to genuinely limit the agency’s role and powers. They should order all unauthorized detention sites closed and release detainees or hand them over to legitimate law enforcement officials for charge and trial. They should also hold those responsible for serious NSS abuses over the years to account.

End Summary Executions

South Sudan’s underinvestment in the criminal justice system and general impunity by public and security officials have contributed to a decline of the rule of law. Human Rights Watch has documented patterns of summary executions by government and military officials, often in response to suspected crime.

International and African human rights law, as well as South Sudanese law, prohibit in all circumstances and at all times cruel and degrading punishment or disciplinary measures, and any inhumane treatment of detainees.

In June 2022, the army executed three civilians including a child in Kajokeji on suspicions of killing a soldier. None of the three had been charged or subjected to the judicial process. Although authorities arrested six soldiers and promised to investigate in June, Human Rights Watch is unaware of any prosecutions or sentences.

In April and May 2021, security forces executed by firing squad at least eight suspected criminals, including two children, as part of their anti-crime campaign in Warrap state. None of the suspects had ever been investigated by judicial authorities. Human Rights Watch called for an investigation into the killings but none were opened.

On August 8, state and army officials executed three unarmed rebel soldiers by firing squad and burned another to death in Mayom, Unity state. Media sources report that the four were arrested and deported from neighboring Sudan and were part of a South Sudanese rebel group that had attacked and killed several people in Mayom in late July. These killings could amount to war crimes and the government should credibly investigate those responsible and hold them to account.

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