After decades of armed conflict in Africa’s longest civil war, a Comprehensive Peace Agreement was reached between the government of Sudan and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A) in January 2005 granting the southern region of Sudan regional autonomy and representation in a national power-sharing arrangement with the Sudanese government in Khartoum. The United Nations established a Mission in Sudan (UNMIS) to support the implementation of the agreement which included plans for a referendum on independence for the south. When the referendum was held in January 2011, nearly 99% opted for independence, and the country became formally independent from Sudan on 9 July 2011.
Despite a border dispute with Sudan over the region of Abyei, a dispute with Sudan over the status of areas of South Kordofan, and challenges from several non-state armed groups operating in the country, including the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), South Sudan concentrated on state building and national consolidation for the first two years following its independence. UNMIS, renamed the UN Mission on South Sudan (UNMISS), remained largely focused on the tensions between Sudan and South Sudan in 2011, but became increasingly concerned with inter-communal violence in South Sudan beginning in 2012.
In December 2013, South Sudan’s President since independence, Salva Kiir, alleged that the country’s then former Vice President, Riek Machar (whom Kiir had sacked during a cabinet re-shuffle in July 2013), was involved in a coup attempt against his government. Machar denied the charge, claiming that Kiir was attempting to establish a dictatorship in the country and fighting broke out between forces loyal to the two leaders in the national capital, Juba, on 15 December 2013. The UN Security Council convened several special meetings on the crisis beginning on 17 December 2013, concerned about potential inter-communal tensions (Kiir is Dinka, while Machar is Nuer). UNSCR 2132 (24 December 2013) authorized the enhancement of UNMISS military and police capacity in the country and endorsed the IGAD initiative to mediate the conflict. Tensions between the government and UNMISS developed in January 2014, due to UNMISS refusal to allow government forces to pursue alleged rebels in its compounds harboring around 70,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs). The International Crisis Group reported more than 10,000 fatalities and OCHA estimated as many as 468,000 people had been displaced with more than 190,000 sheltering in neighboring countries.
Meetings were convened between the two sides in Addis Ababa in January 2014 and a ceasefire deal was brokered by IGAD on 23 January 2014, but the ceasefire was violated by both sides. Talks resumed on 25 March, but fighting continued in different parts of the country and the humanitarian situation deteriorated. Ceasefire violations continued in April, with an increasingly inter-communal aspect. The situation appeared to be moving toward civil war, which UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay, warned had genocidal potential. The UN condemned actions on both sides. UNSCR 2155 on 27 May 2014 revised the UNMISS mandate to focus on the protection of civilians, monitoring and investigating human rights violations, creating enabling conditions for the delivery of humanitarian assistance and supporting the ceasefire agreement. In separate negotiations, it was agreed that the IGAD force would be under UNMISS command.
A UN Security Council Presidential statement on 8 August 2014 expressed its readiness to consider, in consultation with relevant partners, including IGAD and the AU, “all appropriate measures, including targeted sanctions, against those who take action that undermines the peace, stability, and security of South Sudan.” The explicit threat of UN sanctions had no immediate effect, and by October 2014, there were more than 1.4m internally displaced persons and 458,000 refugees. IGAD-mediated talks were at an impasse. Machar and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) in Opposition complained that IGAD mediation was strongly biased against their interests, and they refused to sign onto documents maintaining Kiir in office for another 30 months. Peace talks faltered in November, fighting resumed, and at the time of the December 2014 one-year anniversary of the start of the conflict, more than 1.9m people were displaced (1.5m of them internally), and neighboring countries were strained by the refugee inflow.
Regional actors have played an important role since the start of the crisis. IGAD deployed ceasefire monitors in early February 2014, and the AU’s Peace and Security Council issued a communiqué and subsequently declared its intent to “take appropriate measures” (threatening sanctions) against those who incite or perpetuate violence or undermine UNMISS’ protection mandate. In a 12 June 2014 communiqué, the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) reiterated its readiness to implement targeted sanctions and other measures, upon IGAD’s recommendation, on any party that continues to undermine the peace process and fails to uphold its commitments.
There were internal debates in the Security Council about whether to apply sanctions – Russia and China wanted IGAD to act first, while the US was reportedly wary of an arms embargo on all parties to the conflict at the time, because it could tip the balance in favor of the opposition. A Tanzanian negotiation initiative in Arusha, complementary to the IGAD efforts, resulted in another ceasefire agreement between Kiir, Machar and other opposition figures on 21 January 2015, but once again, skirmishes continued.