Two and a half years after gaining independence from Sudan, the newly formed nation of South Sudan has erupted into violence that could potentially lead to civil war.
Tensions among the ethnic Nuer and Dinka groups have recently escalated and there have been reports of widespread violence and killing across the country. Ongoing political disputes are at the root of the current unrest. Media reports indicate the former Vice President, Riek Machar (an ethnic Nuer who was dismissed in July 2013), attempted a coup against President Salva Kiir (an ethnic Dinka) and has allegedly taken control of key parts of the country.
On 17 December, United Nations (UN) Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations, Hervé Ladsous, advised UN Security Council members that up to ‘400–500 people may have been killed and 600–800 wounded’ during the initial violence.
The situation worsened on 19 December 2013 when around 2,000 heavily armed ethnic Nuer attacked a UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) compound in Akobo, Jonglei state, killing 20 ethnic Dinka civilians, who were seeking UN protection and two Indian peacekeepers.
As at 21 December, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that ‘five of South Sudan’s ten states have been affected by armed violence’ and more than 62,000 people displaced, of which 42,000 are seeking refuge in UNMISS compounds. OCHA assessed the situation in the capital Juba as ‘stable but tense’. However, violence appears to be worsening in outlying areas such as Jonglei. OCHA also assessed that protection of civilians remains a concern ‘in all areas of South Sudan where armed violence has occurred or is ongoing’.
United Nations response
The UN Security Council issued a press statement on 20 December calling for an end to the violence and for the disputing parties to seek a political solution. UNMISS has moved non-critical staff from Juba, South Sudan to Entebbe, Uganda and relocated all civilian staff from the volatile area of Bor in Jonglei state to Juba. However, UNMISS head of mission, Hilde Johnson, stated that the UN is ‘not abandoning South Sudan’ and is planning to stay. The UNMISS mandate is constituted under Chapter VII of the UN Charter and provides for the protection of civilians, improved security and support of peacebuilding efforts. UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon is seeking support from regional leaders and others to reinforce the military capacity of UNMISS.
African Union response
The African Union’s (AU’s) Peace and Security Council has sent an Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) Ministerial Group to South Sudan to seek dialogue and mediate between the disputing parties. AU representatives urged the disputing parties to call an ‘immediate humanitarian truce’ and accept UNMISS to monitor a cessation of hostilities.
United States response
The United States (US) is the ‘pen-holder’ on Sudan-South Sudan issues and is in a position to influence the UN Security Council’s agenda. The US recently instigated the UN Security Council briefing and subsequent press release on the situation in South Sudan. On 19 December, President Obama made a plea to South Sudan’s leaders to ‘end the violence and work to resolve tensions peacefully and democratically’.
The US also deployed 45 combat ready military personnel to South Sudan to protect its embassy in the capital Juba. Based in Djibouti, the team of personnel are part of the joint East Africa Response Force (EARF), which was established as a result of the September 2012 attack on the US consulate in Libya.
Four US military personnel were wounded while attempting to evacuate US citizens from the town of Bor using military aircraft. The US President left open the possibility of expanding the US mission in South Sudan to ‘support the security of US citizens, personnel, and property, including’ the US Embassy. The US Department of State reported that approximately 380 US officials and private citizens had been evacuated to neighbouring countries, along with around 300 citizens from other nations.
Australia’s contribution to UNMISS is the largest of all its UN peacekeeping missions. At present, Australia provides around 25 people: approximately 11 Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel, 10 Australian Federal Police (AFP) officers and four law and justice specialists deployed via the Australian Civilian Corps (ACC).
The Australian Government issued a press statement on 21 December urging Australians to leave South Sudan via ‘commercial options’ from Juba airport. No further statements have been made at this time about the status of the Australian ADF, AFP and ACC missions in the country and whether they are likely to be bolstered, remain unchanged or withdrawn.
The European Union (EU) has as small presence in South Sudan through the provision of an Aviation Security Mission (EUAVSEC) training team. EUAVSEC was established in June 2012 to strengthen security at Juba International Airport and its mandate expires in January 2014. The EU expressed deep concern about the rapid escalation of violence in South Sudan and appealed to the disputing parties to work with the AU IGAD delegation to peacefully resolve the conflict.