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Human Rights, Democracy and Rule of Law in South Sudan: Making the Case



South Sudan’s vote to become an independent state in 2011 should have served as a shining example of freedom and self-determination. Instead, it tragically has turned into a humanitarian catastrophe. Since December 2013, South Sudan has been mired in violent conflict between rival tribes, beginning with those centered around President Salva Kiir and former First Vice President Riek Machar, but which has now drawn in other ethnic groups. As a result, out of a population of 12.5 million, over 1.7 million South Sudanese have fled the country, nearly 1.9 million are displaced internally, and an estimated 100,000 have been killed. Of those that remain, at least 100,000 people are dying of starvation, and a further one million people are on the brink of starvation. The 2015 power-sharing agreement, as well as numerous other cease fire agreements that have been negotiated by the African Union, the United Nations, the United States, and other western actors have been violated and ultimately fallen apart. The violence has become so widespread, bringing in many of the country’s other ethnic groups, and the atrocities so horrific, that the United Nations is concerned that the country is on the verge of genocide.

The U.N. Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan issued a report in March 2017 which described systemic human rights violations in South Sudan, including killing and torture on the basis of ethnicity by government soldiers; hate speech by government leaders, including President Kiir; sexual violence; arbitrary arrest, detention, torture, and murder of journalists; widespread recruitment of child soldiers; censorship of the media; closure of newspapers; and restrictions on and closure of human rights and humanitarian organizations. Homes and villages have been burned down, civilians massacred, and women gang-raped. Experts fear that by the war’s fourth anniversary this December, nearly half the population will have either starved or fled the country.

Not surprisingly, South Sudan is not able to perform even the basic functions of a state, including providing social services, ensuring security, or administering justice. Its economy has collapsed, going from making billions of dollars in crude oil generation at the time of independence, when oil prices were high, to nearly no government revenue and massive inflation after oil prices plummeted, resulting in soaring food prices and famine. While senior officials drive expensive cars and made fortunes during the years of prosperity, citizens have reaped no benefits and teachers and other civil servants are barely being paid. South Sudan is ranked 163 out of the 168 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index.

The United States – which played a key role in South Sudan’s becoming an independent nation — has provided more than $11 billion in humanitarian, peacekeeping and reconstruction assistance to South Sudan since 2005, an investment that is at risk of becoming meaningless under the current state of violence and lawlessness. U.N. peacekeepers have largely failed to protect civilians outside of the 232,000 taking refuge directly on U.N. Mission in the Republic of South Sudan (UNMISS) compounds. Moreover, South Sudan is facing the largest refugee crisis in Africa and the third largest in the world, after Afghanistan and Syria, which is placing a huge burden on neighboring countries and the international community. It is critical that the U.S., along with its partners in Africa and elsewhere, find a way to end this war so that the South Sudanese people may live in peace and have their basic needs met.



Recommendations for the U.S. administration and the Congress on working with South Sudan on democracy, rule of law, and human rights include:

  • Denouncing the violence and appalling humanitarian situation in South Sudan forcefully and directly at the most senior levels and announcing a clear U.S. policy for how to address it.
  • Supporting the establishment of an executive mandate for the African Union, with the support of the U.N., to temporarily administer South Sudan until institutions are established that can manage politics nonviolently and the networks that are underlying the conflict are broken up. This would require the support of the security services, armed groups and major tribes, as well as the departure of both Kiir and Machar from political leadership. Such an approach is not unprecedented. International administrations have been installed in East Timor, Kosovo, Cambodia, and other countries that have suffered severe conflict.
  • Continuing to work with local civil society, church, and other civic leaders who have not been discredited throughout the political turmoil to come together in support of outside intervention to stabilize South Sudan.
  • Recommending that the U.N. Security Council impose a strict arms embargo as a means of reducing the number of weapons available to both sides of the conflict, as well as impose targeted sanctions on senior officials found to have engaged in atrocities.
  • Supporting the creation of a hybrid court for South Sudan by the African Union with South Sudanese and African judges, which was part of the 2015 peace agreement and would begin the process of establishing accountability for the atrocities committed.
  • Supporting the investigative mandate recently given to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan, and encouraging human rights organizations to assist with the collection of evidence of human rights violations in anticipation of future trials of human rights offenders.
  • Demonstrating the seriousness with which the United States takes the worsening crisis by ensuring a strong focus on South Sudan by the Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs and considering appointing a senior, experienced official to the office of Special Envoy for South Sudan and Sudan.
  • Recommending that Congress call for an end to hostilities; support an international effort to end the flow of weapons and bring stability to South Sudan; and organize CODELS to South Sudan to review the situation on the ground.
  • Supporting a free and independent media so that information, especially regarding humanitarian services, is made available to all.
  • Once the violence has ceased, exploring the viability of establishing a Governance and Economic Management Assistance Program (GEMAP) in South Sudan, similar to the model implemented in Liberia. This would provide oversight of the country’s key ministries and agencies to strengthen financial accountability, transparency, and budget management.
  • Recognizing that establishing sustainable institutions with peace and prosperity will require generational change, meaning the U.S. and the international community should support the development and training of young leaders across all sectors of society, such as through the Young African Leaders Initiative.


* The Democracy & Human Rights Working Group is a nonpartisan initiative bringing together academic and think tank experts and practitioners from NGOs and previous Democratic and Republican administrations, seeking to elevate the importance of democracy and human rights issues in U.S. foreign policy. It is convened by Arizona State University’s McCain Institute for International Leadership. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the positions of individual members of the group or of their organizations.


Photo: Steve Evans

Publish Date
June 10, 2017