Since the conflict between the government and opposition forces began in 2013, security forces, opposition forces, armed militias affiliated with the government and the opposition, and civilians committed conflict-related abuses and violations around the country. Despite an August 2015 peace agreement, patterns of abuse intensified after renewed fighting broke out in July 2016 and continued throughout the year. While both sides of the conflict committed abuses, the United Nations and international NGOs reported government forces were responsible for an increasing number of conflict-related abuses against civilians. As conflict spread to the central and east Equatorias region (which prior to 2016 had been mostly spared from violence), government soldiers reportedly engaged in acts of collective punishment and revenge killings against civilians assumed to be opposition supporters, often based on their ethnicity. The UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, established by the Human Rights Council, reported on a pattern of ethnic cleansing and population engineering.
Atrocities included unlawful killings, rape and gang rape employed as a weapon of war, arbitrary detention and torture, enforced disappearances, explosive remnants of war, forced displacement, the mass destruction of homes and personal property, widespread looting, and use of child soldiers.
Casualty totals were difficult to estimate because the belligerents typically did not maintain accurate records. The number of IDPs and refugees increased to approximately four million at year’s end. Humanitarian aid workers were increasingly targeted, harassed, and killed.
Killings: Government forces and armed militias affiliated with the government, often prompted by opposition ambushes of government soldiers, engaged in a pattern of collective punishment of civilians perceived to be opposition supporters, often based on ethnicity. There were many instances of such killings similar to the following: NGOs reported government forces and armed militias affiliated with the government on April 10 went house to house in ethnic Fertit and Luo neighborhoods of Wau town, killing 16 civilians and injuring at least 10 others. Some Wau residents stated armed militias affiliated with the government blocked fleeing civilians from accessing the PoC sites during the April 10 fighting, according to international media. International observers noted the attack on civilians likely occurred in response to opposition forces killing two high-ranking SPLA soldiers.
In Mondikolok, a small town near the Ugandan border, government soldiers killed six persons on January 22 when they indiscriminately shot at civilians in a marketplace. According to a Human Rights Watch investigation, in January government soldiers allegedly shot and killed a man and his two children, ages five and 10, in their home in Romogi. Amnesty International reported government soldiers also allegedly killed six men in the village of Kudupi by locking them in a house and setting it on fire, shooting anyone attempting to escape. The United Nations reported government forces shot and killed an 18-year-old woman and wounded five other civilians when two soldiers began indiscriminately shooting at a funeral in Yei in early January. In Yei alone, the UNMISS Human Rights Division documented 114 cases from July 2016 to January 2017 where government forces and allied militias killed civilians perceived to be opposition supporters. The number of victims was presumed to be much larger, given limitations of access for human rights documenters.
Opposition forces also reportedly engaged in unlawful killings of civilians. On April 19, three civilians were injured after opposition forces attacked Raja, the capital of Lol state. On June 4, Human Rights Watch reported opposition soldiers near Nimule attacked a convoy of civilian cars and buses that were being escorted by SPLA vehicles.
Scorched earth tactics typical of the way all the armed forces conducted operations included: killing and raping civilians; looting cattle and goods; destroying property to prevent the return of those who managed to flee, followed by repeated incursions into an area to ensure those who fled did not return; and frequently obstructing humanitarian assistance. These actions multiplied the number of displaced civilians, who often were forced to travel great distances in dangerous circumstances to reach the shelter, food, and safety of UN-run PoC camps or to hide in marshes where they risked drowning or starvation. In January the United Nations documented evidence, including evidence gathered by satellite imagery, of more than 18,000 structures burned by government forces in Central Equatoria, causing thousands of civilians to flee across the border into Uganda. UN agencies and international NGOs that interviewed victims reported widespread killings and sexual violence, largely committed by government forces.
Remnants of war also led to the killing and maiming of civilians. According to the United Nations, children were killed or maimed in 12 incidents involving unexploded remnants of war from January to March. Remnants of war were often left behind in schools used by government and opposition forces, and armed actors affiliated with both. The United Nations reported in November an estimated six million citizens lived in areas of land mines and other explosive remnants of war.
Abductions: Abductions, particularly of women and children, took place in both conflict and nonconflict zones, as government and opposition forces and affiliated armed militia groups recruited children and women against their will. The United Nations and international NGOs reported multiple accounts of government soldiers or other security service members arbitrarily detaining or arresting civilians, sometimes leading to unlawful killings. For example, on May 21, government soldiers allegedly abducted nine civilians outside of Yei town. Police located all nine bodies in June and reported the victims were likely hacked to death by machetes.
Physical Abuse, Punishment, and Torture: Government, opposition forces, and armed militias affiliated with the government and the opposition tortured, raped, and otherwise abused civilians in conflict areas. UNMISS reported finding six corpses, allegedly ethnic Zande, blindfolded and with hands tied alongside the road near Tambio town in Western Equatoria.
Sexual and gender-based violence and conflict-related sexual violence were widespread. Rape was used widely as a weapon of war. According to Amnesty International, some rapists also mutilated victims or raped them with foreign objects. Following the April 3 attack by SPLA soldiers in Pajok, during which 14 civilians were killed, the UNMISS Human Rights Division reported three incidents of sexual violence. For example, in April opposition soldiers abducted a young woman in Eastern Equatoria twice and allegedly repeatedly raped and beat her. Human rights groups noted most cases of sexual- and gender-based violence went unreported.
UN officials who interviewed survivors reported gang rape was common. Men were also victims of sexual violence, but on a far reduced scale. Amnesty International reported male survivors of sexual violence described rape, castration, and forms of torture. NGOs noted sexual violence against men was used to humiliate and terrorize victims.
Child Soldiers: Following the outbreak of conflict in 2013, forced conscription by government forces, as well as recruitment and use of child soldiers by both government and antigovernment forces, increased. During the year there were widespread reports government forces were recruiting child soldiers. Opposition forces and affiliated armed militias also recruited child soldiers. Girls were recruited to wash, cook, and clean for government and opposition forces.
International organization experts estimated 17,000 child soldiers had been recruited in the country since the conflict began in 2013 and blamed government, opposition, and militia forces.
The August 2015 peace agreement mandated specialized international agencies work with all warring parties to demobilize and reintegrate child soldiers from the SPLA, the SPLA-IO, the Nuer White Army, and other groups, usually those involved in community defense. UNICEF warned renewed fighting undermined the progress it had made in demobilizing and reintegrating child soldiers, and it acknowledged some of the children had been rerecruited.
Also, see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
Other Conflict-related Abuse: Throughout the year the environment for humanitarian operations grew increasingly difficult and dangerous as the geographic scope of humanitarian need expanded. Armed actors, including government and opposition forces, continued to restrict the ability of the United Nations and other international and nongovernmental organizations to safely and effectively deliver humanitarian assistance to populations in need. Access was impeded by direct denials, bureaucratic barriers, and renewed fighting in areas of the country where humanitarian needs were highest. Despite repeated safety assurances, armed elements harassed and killed relief workers, looted and destroyed humanitarian assets and facilities, and imposed bureaucratic impediments on relief organizations. On multiple occasions fighting between armed forces put the safety and security of humanitarian workers at risk, prevented travel, forced the evacuation of relief workers, and jeopardized humanitarian operations, including forcing organizations to suspend operations entirely in areas of active conflict. During the year relief organizations reported more than 683 humanitarian access incidents, including 101 in August. Delayed flight safety assurances, insecurity, and movement restrictions often prevented relief workers from traveling to conflict and nonconflict areas. Humanitarian personnel, independently or through a UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) access working group, negotiated with government and opposition forces and other armed groups to address access problems; however, these negotiations were often protracted and caused significant delays in the delivery of assistance.
The humanitarian operating environment became more volatile, increasingly jeopardizing the safety of humanitarian workers throughout the country. The most common forms of violence against humanitarian workers included robbery and looting, harassment, armed attacks, commandeering of vehicles, and physical detention. Since the start of the conflict in December 2013, the United Nations reported at least 85 humanitarian staff members had been killed in the country, 18 of them during the year. For example, unidentified armed actors on March 25 attacked a humanitarian convoy traveling from Juba to Pibor town, Jonglei, resulting in the deaths of seven aid workers--four South Sudanese and three Kenyans. The attack represented the single deadliest incident for aid workers since the conflict began. The aid workers were employees of a local NGO, the Grassroots Empowerment and Development Organization.
On April 10, unidentified armed actors killed three local World Food Program (WFP) workers in Wau, Western Bahr el Gazal State. The WFP reported two of the workers were hacked to death with machetes and one was shot and killed. As a result, the WFP temporarily suspended humanitarian operations in Wau, with the exception of relief activities in and near the PoC site.
Looting of humanitarian compounds and other assets was also common. During the week of July 17, unidentified armed actors looted a WFP warehouse in Tonj East that contained 245 metric tons of food commodities. The UN agency notified local authorities, who declined to take action to stop the attackers.
Restrictions on humanitarian operations took other forms as well. In early September staff from at least six NGOs and donor representatives with diplomatic passports reported NSS authorities operating at Juba International Airport denied them travel permission because they did not yet have work permits. Work permits often take up to six months to be issued, and previously NGOs had been permitted to travel with the receipt as evidence of a work permit in process. Diplomats were denied travel permission supposedly for lack of permission from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, although there was no requirement for diplomats to obtain permission to travel in the country. The South Sudan Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC) released a circular on September 5 requiring NGO staff whose work permits had not yet been issued as well as short-term visitors, such as consultants, to obtain a signed travel approval from the RRC 72 hours in advance of the planned travel. Relief actors reported the RRC released the circular without notice or consultation with NGOs, prompting confusion regarding the required travel procedures.
In addition to physical security challenges, bureaucratic access constraints seriously affected humanitarian workers’ ability to deliver timely aid to populations in need. The government raised annual international NGO registration fees in May from approximately 61,000 South Sudanese pounds (SSP) ($500) to 427,000 SSP ($3,500) due to the increasing demand of humanitarian needs in the country. Humanitarian organizations expressed concern that the registration fee increase extorted money from NGO workers and could hinder the response efforts of smaller relief organizations.
Humanitarian organizations also experienced delays in and denials of tax exemptions and were forced to purchase relief supplies on the local market, raising quality concerns. Government authorities began requesting international NGO staff pay income tax and threatened national staff into paying income tax at the state level.
Continuing conflict and access denial to humanitarian actors was the leading contributor to households facing famine conditions. It was difficult to accurately gather information and assess areas due to insecurity. For example, in August SPLA-IO forces detained two WFP-contracted volunteers conducting a food security and nutrition monitoring survey in Yei County’s Minyori town. The SPLA-IO detained the volunteers for more than a week on alleged charges of espionage and tortured them while in custody.
NGOs reported that government obstruction of impartial humanitarian assistance was greater in opposition-held areas, which, consequently, experienced a greater level of food insecurity. During the year, Amnesty International alleged the government was using food as a weapon of war.
Abyei is a disputed region between Sudan and South Sudan that, according to agreements between the two governments, is to be jointly administered until a referendum on the final status of the area is held. After South Sudanese independence, the United Nations established the UN Interim Security Force for Abyei (UNISFA). The security situation in Abyei was calm but unpredictable throughout the year. UNISFA reported some progress in communities returning property/livestock or receiving compensation for stolen property/livestock. The mission also noted a peaceful reverse migration of Misseriya communities. Crime remained a problem, but there was a decrease in thefts and break-ins at UN and UNISFA compounds.
UNISFA and NGOs continued to provide humanitarian assistance to more than 130,000 vulnerable persons in Abyei. The conflict in South Sudan undercut the provision of aid, including by forcing the temporary relocation of international staff to Juba; looting of supplies procured in South Sudan and subsequent cost increases for those supplies; and delays in NGO activities. An estimated 1,000 displaced South Sudanese transited Abyei toward Sudan.