"Blessed are the Peacemakers"
Since civil war broke out in South Sudan in December 2013, over 50,000 people have been killed—possibly as many as 383,000, according to a recent estimate—and nearly four million people have been internally displaced or fled to neighboring countries. 2018 brought an increase in regional and international pressure on President Salva Kiir and opposition leader and former Vice President Riek Machar to reach an agreement to end the conflict, including targeted sanctions from the United States and a UN arms embargo.
After almost five years of civil war in South Sudan, Kiir and Machar participated in negotiations mediated by Uganda and Sudan in June 2018. Later that month, Kiir and Machar signed the Khartoum Declaration of Agreement that included a cease-fire and a pledge to negotiate a power-sharing agreement to end the war. Despite sporadic violations over the ensuing weeks, Kiir and Machar signed a final cease-fire and power-sharing agreement in August 2018. This agreement was followed by a peace agreement to end the civil war signed by the government and Machar’s opposition party, along with several other rebel factions. The agreement, called the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan, included a new power-sharing structure and reinstated Machar as vice president.
In late October 2018, Machar returned to South Sudan for a nationwide peace celebration to mark the end of the civil war. However, reports of continued attacks and violations, coupled with the collapse of multiple previous peace deals, highlight concerns that the fragile peace may not hold.
In December 2013, following a political struggle between Kiir and Machar that led to Machar’s removal as vice president, violence erupted between presidential guard soldiers from the two largest ethnic groups in South Sudan. Soldiers from the Dinka ethnic group aligned with Kiir and those from the Nuer ethnic group supported Machar. In the midst of chaos, Kiir announced that Machar had attempted a coup and violence spread quickly to Jonglei, Upper Nile, and Unity states. Since the outbreak of conflict, armed groups have targeted civilians along ethnic lines, committed rape and sexual violence, destroyed property and looted villages, and recruited children into their ranks.
Under the threat of international sanctions and following several rounds of negotiations supported by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), Kiir signed a peace agreement with Machar in August 2015. As the first step toward ending the civil war, Machar returned to Juba in April 2016 and was once again sworn in as vice president, after spending more than two years outside of the country. Soon after his return, violence broke out between government forces and opposition factions, once more displacing tens of thousands of people. Machar fled the country and was eventually detained in South Africa. In 2017 and 2018, a series of cease-fires were negotiated and subsequently violated between the two sides and other factions.
In late December 2013, the UN Security Council authorized a rapid deployment of about 6,000 security forces, in addition to 7,600 peacekeepers already in the country, to aid in nation-building efforts. In May 2014, the Security Council voted in a rare move to shift the mission’s mandate from nation-building to civilian protection, authorizing UN troops to use force. Since reprioritizing protection, the UN Mission in the Republic of South Sudan has faced extreme challenges due to the deterioration of the security situation and its complex relationship with the government of the Republic of South Sudan. The UN authorized the deployment of an additional four thousand peacekeepers as part of a regional protection force in 2016, although their arrival was delayed until August 2017.
Violence has prevented farmers from planting or harvesting crops, causing food shortages nationwide. In July 2014, the UN Security Council declared South Sudan’s food crisis the “worst in the world.” Famine was declared in South Sudan during the first few months of 2017, with nearly five million people at risk from food insecurity. The country again faced critical food shortages in early 2018, with aid agencies warning that more than seven million people could be at risk of severe food insecurity during summer months.
The United States was a lead facilitator of South Sudanese independence, which was decided in a 2011 referendum, providing diplomatic support and humanitarian aid. Prior to the outbreak of the civil war in 2013, the United States supported and advocated for the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), which became the new country’s government. Though largely taking a back seat in mediation efforts run by IGAD and neighboring countries, the United States and its international partners have an interest in ensuring a lasting settlement to the conflict in South Sudan, addressing the humanitarian crisis caused by the war, and preventing destabilizing regional spillover.