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South Sudan

Events of 2023

A group of women walk along a dike protecting Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), and their host community, from further flooding on November 28, 2023, in Bentiu, South Sudan. The ongoing war in Sudan has caused displacement of over 3.3 million people, including refugees and returnees who had fled into South Sudan.

© 2023 Photo by Luke Dray/Getty Images

South Sudan continued to face a dire human rights and humanitarian crisis. Conflict between government, opposing forces, and their respective allied militias, as well as intercommunal violence, in pockets of the country resulted in the deaths, injuries, and displacement of thousands of civilians. 

Authorities failed to ensure accountability for grave violations. Impunity continued to fuel violence, with civilians bearing the brunt of widespread attacks, systematic sexual violence against women and girls, the ongoing presence of children in fighting forces, and state-sponsored extrajudicial killings.

The government failed to meet critical milestones set out by the peace deal, including legislative and institutional reforms ahead of the end of the transitional period and general elections set for December 2024. The country ratified a number of international conventions, including a ban on cluster munitions use, and took steps to limit in law the powers of the National Security Service (NSS), but crackdowns on activists continued throughout the year.

The humanitarian situation worsened, driven by the cumulative and compounding effects of years of conflict, intercommunal violence, food insecurity, the climate crisis, and displacement following the April outbreak of conflict in Sudan. An estimated 9.4 million people in South Sudan, including 4.9 million children and over 300,000 refugees, mostly driven south from the Sudan conflict, needed humanitarian assistance.

During the year, South Sudan lobbied against various forms of international scrutiny, including an arms embargo imposed by the United Nations since 2018, targeted sanctions and travel bans by the UN and other countries, and the investigative and evidence collection mandate of the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan.

Attacks on Civilians and Aid Operations

From January to March 2023, the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) documented 920 incidents of violence against civilians, during which 405 civilians were killed, 235 injured, 266 abducted, and 14 subjected to conflict-related sexual violence. Between April and June 2023, it also documented 222 incidents of violence affecting 871 civilians (including 128 children), during which 395 were killed, 281 injured, 166 abducted, and 29 subjected to conflict-related sexual violence.

As of August, 22 aid workers were killed as South Sudan remains one of the most dangerous places for aid workers.

According to the UN, in January, violence between Lou Nuer and Murle communities in Jonglei and greater Pibor Administrative Area linked to revenge killings and cattle raiding, led to at least 308 people being killed, 131 injured, 299 abducted, and 4 subjected to sexual violence by organized armed groups and community defense militias.

Authorities have neither investigated nor prosecuted officials accused of instigating and facilitating attacks on civilians and civilian properties in villages in Leer, Koch, and Mayendit counties between February and May 2022. The president launched an investigation, which was finalized by April; but at time of writing, the findings are not public, and no prosecutions of implicated officials are underway.

Child Marriage

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that around 52 percent of girls in South Sudan are married before they turn 18. An estimate for boys was not provided.

Refugees and Returnees

The conflict in Sudan that broke out in mid-April had forced over 300,000 people to flee into South Sudan as of October 27. The majority were South Sudanese refugee returnees. The South Sudanese government allowed access for emergency assistance, but it insisted that no settlements or sites for internally displaced people should be established along the border and that South Sudanese returnees should “return to their places of origin,” giving many very limited options. Refugees and returnees experienced poor living conditions in overcrowded humanitarian-run reception or transit centers with limited access to food or water and with poor sanitation, putting them at risk of disease. The situation created further pressure on aid agencies, making the operating environment in South Sudan very challenging.

Civic and Political Space

Civic and political space continued to shrink. Authorities also violated due process and custodial safeguards of accused people. In early January, the NSS arrested six media workers with the state broadcaster, South Sudan Broadcasting Corporation (SSBC), in relation to a leaked video showing President Salva Kiir urinating on himself. Later that month NSS also arrested SSBC staff member Garang John and held him at the NSS Juba headquarters, also known as the “Blue House.” All journalists were held in poor conditions and were never charged or allowed access to a lawyer or their families while in detention. They were eventually released at different periods between mid-February and late March.

On February 4, NSS agents and Kenyan police officers abducted Morris Mabior Awikjok, a critic and refugee from Kenya, and renditioned him to South Sudan. At time of writing, he continued to be held in solitary confinement and incommunicado detention at the NSS headquarters in Juba.

In October, the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan reported “entrenched systematic repression” of the media, human rights defenders, and civil society by the state, including through media censorship, intolerable restrictions on civic and political activities, and continued attacks on journalists and human rights defenders.

Legislative Developments

South Sudan passed a series of national laws linked to the implementation of the peace deal and ratified several international instruments. In January, parliament passed the act for a constitution-making process, but progress toward the creation of a new constitution stalled due to a lack of commitment and delays in setting up related mechanisms, among other factors.

The Ministry of Justice prepared legislation for the Commission for Truth, Reconciliation and Healing and for the Compensation and Reparations Authority, but at time of writing, the legislation has yet to be presented before parliament. No steps were taken to establish the Hybrid Court for South Sudan provided for under the peace deal.

In June, South Sudan ratified the African Union (AU) Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa (the Maputo Protocol) with reservations on several provisions, including those discouraging polygamy and on sexual and reproductive health, particularly the right to decide whether to have children, the number, and spacing and the rights to contraceptives and safe abortion care. 

South Sudan also acceded to the international Convention on Cluster Munitions on August 3.

In September, South Sudan enacted a National Elections Act which empowers the president-elect, after the conclusion of parliamentary elections, to nominate additional members to the legislature. In November, the political parties council and national elections and constitutional review commissions were reconstituted.

Authorities revised the National Security Service Act (2014), limiting but not removing the agency’s overly broad and vague powers. At time of writing, the bill is undergoing parliamentary review. Human Rights Watch has documented abuses by the NSS and has called for accountability for members of the service and for the agency’s powers of arrest, detention and surveillance to be limited.

South Sudan criminalizes consensual same-sex relations with up to 10 years imprisonment.

Key International Actors

Between February 3 and 5, Pope Francis, the leader of the Catholic church, alongside the archbishop of Canterbury, and the moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland conducted an ecumenical visit to South Sudan. The faith leaders called on South Sudanese actors, including within the church, to shun violence and be more vocal against injustice.

In March, the UN Security Council renewed the mandate of UNMISS for another year. In April, the UN Human Rights Council voted to renew the mandate of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan for another year.

In October, the government decided to postpone the visit of the UN Special Rapporteur on the human rights of internally displaced persons on short notice. According to the expert, the government cited critical recent UN reports as the reason for the postponement.

In March, the European Union sanctioned Gatluak Nyang Hoth, the commissioner for Mayendit county, and Gordon Koang Biel of Koch county, under its human rights sanctions regime for “widespread and systematic use of sexual violence as a war tactic.” The two men were also sanctioned by the United Kingdom in December 2022. In July, the EU added James Mark Nando, a major general in the army, to its sanctions list on the same grounds.

In May, the UN Security Council renewed sanctions on South Sudan until May 31, 2024—including targeted sanctions (assets freezes and travel bans) and an arms embargo—and the mandate of the Panel of Experts until July 1, 2024. China and Russia, which have long opposed the South Sudan sanctions regime, and African members of the council, Ghana, Mozambique, and Gabon, all abstained. The council also decided that the supply, sale, or transfer of non-lethal military equipment was exempt from the arms embargo and that actions impeding or distorting pre-election preparatory activities are a new criterion for designating sanctions.

In June, the AU Peace and Security Council called for the lifting of the arms embargo to enable implementation of the peace deal.

Also in June, the United States imposed the first US sanctions issued with a dedicated focus on conflict-related sexual violence on two South Sudanese officials: James Nando, a major general in the army, and Alfred Futiyo, governor of Western Equatoria, affiliated with the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army in opposition.

Under the 2018 peace agreement, the AU Commission has the responsibility to establish the Hybrid Court for South Sudan. However, it failed to do so and seems reluctant to move ahead with the court’s creation or press for greater action by the South Sudanese authorities to establish the court together with the AU Commission.