“To be frank, we are running out of adjectives to describe the horror.” – Yasmin Sooka, Chairwoman of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan


  • Salva Kiir, president of South Sudan
  • Riek Machar, vice president of South Sudan

What – South Sudan is currently in the midst of a civil war created by ethnic tensions and a power struggle between the president and vice president of the country. Since December 2013, when violence broke out, at least 50,000 people have been killed and 2.3 million displaced from their homes. In addition, 6 million are at risk from food shortages. A UN envoy reported numerous atrocities after a 10-day visit in late November, including ethnic cleansing, burning villages, starvation, and gang rape. The report warns that the conflict in South Sudan could degenerate into conditions reminiscent of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, noting that villagers across the country have stated a willingness to engage in violent conflict to regain control of tribal/ethnic lands.

How – The conflict began with political, violent clashes between forces loyal to the president and vice president which then quickly escalated into ethnic-based violence.

Why – South Sudan, and Sudan, have a multitude of ethnic groups (South Sudan alone has more than 60) with histories of violence against one another. Political fighting between the president and vice president, who are from the two largest ethnic groups in South Sudan, sparked violence along ethnic lines. In addition, tensions of land boundaries and revenge killing have intensified the conflict.

General Background – South Sudan became an independent state in 2011 following a 22-year civil war in Sudan waged between the government (predominantly Muslim, operating in the north) and southern rebels (predominantly Christian). It was agreed upon in a 2005 peace treaty that a referendum would be held on the independence of South Sudan, which passed overwhelmingly in January of 2011. However, ethnic tensions which existed far before the referendum reappeared following the vote for independence, particularly between the two largest groups, the Dinka and Nuer. The president, Salva Kiir (Dinka), and vice president, Riek Machar (Nuer), built the makings of a coalition government which fell apart rapidly in 2013, when Kiir fired Machar following public criticism from the vice president. Forces loyal to both men clashed in December 2013 and since then, a conflict initiated as a fight for power has become divided between ethnic lines. Both sides blame the other for sparking violent conflict. Kiir escalated violence further by ordering state lines redrawn in October 2015, sparking fights over which groups controlled which land. There was one peace agreement in 2015 which has since fallen apart.

What’s Next – Despite the UN commission’s warning that the country is past the point of return, potential for international action is slim. The US is supporting an arms embargo and targeted sanctions on South Sudan but there is no guarantee that this motion will pass through the Security Council. The uncertainty stems from a lack of consensus from surrounding African nations, all of whom hold personal interests in South Sudan. The reluctance to be further involved in the conflict, combined with a lack of agreement, means there is no end to the violence in sight.

Additional Reading: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/inpictures/2016/12/run-children-south-sudan-161215045946302.html