South Sudan

Not Free
PR Political Rights -2 40
CL Civil Liberties 4 60
Last Year's Score & Status
2 100 Not Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.

header1 Overview

South Sudan, which gained independence from Sudan in 2011, descended into civil war in 2013, when a rift between President Salva Kiir and the vice president he dismissed, Riek Machar, triggered fighting among their supporters and divided the country along ethnic lines. A peace agreement reached in 2018 further delayed overdue national elections, instituting an uneasy power-sharing arrangement among political elites who have presided over rampant corruption, economic collapse, and atrocities against civilians, journalists, and aid workers.

header2 Key Developments in 2019

  • President Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar delayed the implementation of their 2018 peace agreement twice, extending their deadline to 2020.
  • Government forces launched an offensive in Central Equatoria State in an effort to neutralize armed groups that opposed the peace deal between January and April. In July, the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) reported that civilians suffered physical assaults, enslavement, rape, internal displacement, and the destruction of property during the fighting.

PR Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 0.000 4.004

Kiir was elected president of the semiautonomous region of Southern Sudan in 2010, and inherited the presidency when South Sudan gained independence in 2011. A revised version of Southern Sudan’s 2005 interim constitution, adopted at independence, gives sweeping powers to the chief executive. The president cannot be impeached and has the authority to fire state governors and dissolve the parliament and state assemblies. Kiir used these powers to dismiss six governors in May 2019. A permanent constitution was due to be passed by 2015, but a draft remained unpublished at the end of 2019.

Elections due in 2015 were postponed as a result of the civil war. A peace agreement reached that year extended Kiir’s mandate until April 2018. In July 2018, the parliament voted to further extend Kiir’s term to 2021, along with the mandates of his vice presidents, state legislators, and governors. The Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS), signed that September, initiated an eight-month interim period after which a Revitalized Transitional Government of National Unity (RTGoNU) headed by Kiir would be formed and serve a three-year term. Riek Machar would be first vice president, alongside four additional vice presidents who would also hold cabinet portfolios. The new government would include representatives from five political factions, with most members from the wing of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) that remained loyal to Kiir.

The deadline for implementing these new arrangements passed in May 2019. In September, Kiir and Machar extended their deadline to mid-November. In October, Machar’s faction of the SPLM announced that it would not join a unity government, claiming that the authorities failed in implementing the R-ARCSS. In November, both sides agreed to a 100-day delay, moving their deadline into 2020.

A2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 0.000 4.004

South Sudan has not held elections for its bicameral National Legislature since 2010, and its original mandate expired in 2015; that year’s peace agreement extended it to 2018. The R-ARCSS then extended the mandate until May 2022. The lower house, the Transitional National Legislative Assembly (TNLA), currently contains 400 seats and will contain 550 upon the formation of the transitional government; 332 will be affiliated with Kiir’s government, compared to 128 from Machar’s splinter faction of the SPLM, and the remainder from other groups. The upper house, the Council of States, was to be reformulated pending a review by a newly established body, the Independent Boundaries Commission (IBC). The IBC was tasked with deciding how many states South Sudan should have and where their borders should be, but it did not complete its work in 2019.

The R-ARCSS established a power-sharing formula for state and local government posts, with Kiir loyalists receiving a 55 percent share.

A3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 1.001 4.004

The R-ARCSS called for a new, impartial National Elections Commission (NEC) to be established by the end of the first year of the transition. It also mandated changes to the 2012 Electoral Act, to bring it in line with international standards. In September 2019, UNMISS reported that efforts to update the Electoral Act were complete.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 1.001 4.004

The SPLM dominates the political landscape, and most competition takes place within the movement, which splintered at the outbreak of the civil war. Kiir’s hostility toward dissent within the SPLM contributed to the conflict.

The R-ARCSS granted non-SPLM parties representation in the TNLA, but they lack the resources to operate effectively and the experience to formulate policy and set party platforms.

The agreement tasked a National Constitutional Amendment Committee with reviewing the Political Parties Act of 2012 to ensure that it meets international best practices. In September 2019, UNMISS reported that the committee’s review was completed.

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 0.000 4.004

If fully implemented, the R-ARCSS would eventually provide an opportunity for opposition groups to contest long-overdue elections. However, South Sudan’s last elections, in 2010, featured violence and intimidation against opposition parties and SPLM members whose loyalty to Kiir was in doubt.

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means? 0.000 4.004

The civil war has stifled ordinary politics and created a climate of fear. South Sudan’s military, the South Sudan People’s Defence Forces (SSPDF), exercises an overbearing influence on political affairs and public life. The autonomous National Security Service (NSS) also maintains a strong hold over South Sudanese politics. The activities of other armed groups tied to partisan and ethnic factions have created an inhospitable climate for political participation by civilians.

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 0.000 4.004

Under Kiir’s leadership, the SPLM has sidelined citizens who are not members of the Dinka ethnic group, of which he is a member. The exclusion of ethnic groups such as Machar’s Nuer has gone beyond the denial of political opportunities to include violent attacks, sexual exploitation, and the destruction of property.

In an attempt to address the chronic underrepresentation of women in political leadership positions, the R-ARCSS established a 35 percent quota for women in the planned RTGoNU.

C Functioning of Government

C1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 0.000 4.004

South Sudan’s government and legislature, which lack electoral legitimacy, are unable to exercise control over the country’s territory.

A clique of Dinka leaders surround Kiir and exert undue influence on decision-making. The UN Security Council has accused the group of deliberately sabotaging peacemaking efforts and stirring up ethnic hatred. In April 2019, a UN expert panel warned that the NSS was also resisting implementation of the security-related aspects of the peace agreement.

Although Sudan and Uganda helped to broker the 2018 peace deal, they have supported opposing sides in the civil war, with Khartoum at times backing Machar and Kampala defending Kiir. Observers raised concerns that the two neighboring powers would continue to wield undue influence following the accord.

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 0.000 4.004

Corruption is pervasive among political and military leaders. The state’s resources, including its oil revenues, are concentrated among an elite associated with the president. Military commanders have gained enormous wealth through corrupt procurement deals. President Kiir has facilitated corruption by appointing officials who were previously accused of embezzlement.

A September 2019 report from The Sentry, a US-based NGO, noted that Winnie Kiir, the president’s daughter, formed a mining venture with a Chinese investment group in 2016. That venture received exploration permits later that year, after residents in the covered territory were violently displaced by the military. In February 2019, the Guardian, a British newspaper, reported that funds earmarked for the implementation of South Sudan’s peace deal were used to renovate the homes of first president Taban Deng Gai and another individual expected to serve as a vice president.

C3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 0.000 4.004

Under the interim constitution, citizens have the right to access public information and records held by state entities. These rights are not respected in practice by the government, which is hostile to scrutiny and lacks functional capacity. This is notably true for revenue derived from the oil sector, which accounts for a majority of the government’s revenue. The April 2019 report to the UN Security Council also noted the lack of transparency in security spending.

Is the government or occupying power deliberately changing the ethnic composition of a country or territory so as to destroy a culture or tip the political balance in favor of another group? -4.00-4

Both sides in the civil war have committed atrocities against civilians from rival ethnic groups, but government-aligned forces have been responsible for the worst attacks. In July 2019, UNMISS reported that government forces in Central Equatoria State bragged of raping women and girls in areas aligned with opposition militias during their offensive, which took place between January and April, in order to alter the region’s ethnic composition.

The UN and the African Union (AU) have documented numerous other incidents of murder, torture, rape, looting, displacement along ethnic lines, and forced starvation. Both organizations have accused Kiir’s leadership of planning and coordinating such attacks. UN observers have noted the use of hate speech by senior officials, including Kiir himself.

CL Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 0.000 4.004

South Sudan’s transitional constitution guarantees freedom of the press, but this right is not respected in practice. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), at least six members of the media have been killed in the course of their work since 2015. Defamation is prosecuted under criminal law, stifling free speech.

The government is particularly sensitive to coverage of events in neighboring Sudan and of the peace process. In late January 2019, Michael Christopher, editor in chief of the Al-Watan newspaper, temporarily fled the country after he was summoned by the South Sudan Media Authority to explain the newspaper’s coverage of events in Sudan. In March, the authority suspended the newspaper’s publication. In late July, the NSS detained Christopher and John Agok Awel, a radio journalist, who were separately traveling to Kenya; both were released without charge in August. In late October, the South Sudan Media Authority revoked the accreditation of a Canadian journalist who reported on the peace process for the Associated Press news agency, forcing her to leave the country.

In September 2019, the UN Commission on Human Rights in Sudan reported that the NSS seized printing presses in an effort to restrict critical coverage of the government.

D2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 1.001 4.004

The interim constitution guarantees religious freedom, but houses of worship—used as places of refuge for civilians—have been attacked by gunmen seeking members of rival ethnic groups. In 2018, government forces attacked a Christian college in Yei, killing at least 10 people. Churches were looted and damaged during government-led offensives in Central Equatoria in early 2019.

D3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 1.001 4.004

There are no formal government restrictions on academic freedom. However, the education system was seriously disrupted by the civil war, with many schools closed or commandeered for military use. Some schools have reopened in recent years, but some teachers have not returned due to poor pay or delays in receiving their pay.

D4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 0.000 4.004

The NSS has extensive, unchecked powers to conduct surveillance, monitor communications, and infiltrate nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). According to the UN, agents have used these powers to intimidate, detain, and murder journalists, opposition activists, civil society representatives, non-Dinka citizens, and members of faith-based organizations, forcing many to flee the country.

South Sudanese have also been subjected to enforced disappearances in recent years. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) recorded 451 disappearances in the first eight months of 2019. In April, a UN panel reported that two government critics who disappeared in Kenya in 2017 were forcibly repatriated to South Sudan and executed; in December, the US Treasury Department sanctioned five people it claimed were responsible for the deaths. In September 2019, the UN reported that members of the youth-led Red Card Movement (RCM) went into hiding to avoid capture by NSS personnel.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom of assembly? 1.001 4.004

The government restricts freedom of assembly, despite commitments made in the interim constitution. Planned protests by RCM members were cancelled in May 2019 after Kiir and other government officials warned of deadly consequences if they went forward. In the following weeks, NSS agents detained activists with purported links to the RCM.

E2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 0.000 4.004

The government has adopted a hostile stance toward NGOs. A 2016 law requires NGOs to get written permission from the authorities to conduct activities and hold a bank account in South Sudan, and at least 80 percent of staff must be South Sudanese.

Kiir has accused UN agencies—without foundation—of siding with his rivals. Humanitarian operations have been consistently blocked, workers deliberately targeted, and food supplies looted and extorted at checkpoints. Since the war began, more than 100 aid workers have been killed. In October 2019, three UN staff members were killed when they were caught in the crossfire between government forces and the National Salvation Front (NAS), an armed organization that opposes the peace deal, in Yei River State. The government has also used fees and other bureaucratic barriers to complicate the acquisition of work permits for aid workers and prevent importation of supplies. UNMISS recorded 124 incidents between January and September 2019 where their forces were prevented by the government from assisting civilians.

E3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 1.001 4.004

A 2018 labor law provides for the right to participate in trade unions, bargain collectively, and strike under certain conditions. However, the law has not been effectively implemented, and legal protections for workers are poorly enforced in practice. The country’s limited union activity has historically been concentrated in the public sector.

F Rule of Law

F1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there an independent judiciary? 0.000 4.004

Judicial independence exists in theory but not in practice. A Supreme Court judge who resigned in 2017 complained of continual interference from the executive. There is a severe shortage of judges, partly due to poor pay and working conditions.

F2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 0.000 4.004

Unlawful arrests and detentions are routine in South Sudan, according to UN observers. Under the National Security Service Law, which took effect in 2015, the NSS has almost unlimited powers to detain and interrogate suspects. The NSS also extrajudicially operates detention facilities.

Authorities arbitrarily arrest individuals suspected of affiliating with armed organizations that oppose the peace deal, including the NAS.

Under the peace agreement, all political prisoners are to be released; some were in 2018, while others remain in custody. In June 2019, activist Peter Biar Ajak and five other individuals were handed long sentences for orchestrating protests inside a detention center notorious for squalid conditions and prisoner mistreatment. Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that the detainees were denied a fair trial, in part because they were not informed of the charges against them, and because they were not allowed to speak to lawyers.

F3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 0.000 4.004

Physical mistreatment and abuse are widespread within the criminal justice system. Detainees often face torture or sexual assault in custody. Authorities also conduct regular executions, including of people who were children when convicted. At least nine people were executed in 2019.

An estimated 400,000 people have died during the South Sudanese civil war according to a 2018 report by the London School of Tropical Hygiene and Medicine. While the conflict was less deadly in 2019, violence continued in parts of the country. Government forces raided at least 17 villages in Central Equatoria during their January-to-April offensive. According to UNMISS, civilians were murdered, homes torched, property looted, and schools and clinics ransacked. The government meanwhile failed to protect communities from similar attacks by antigovernment forces. Authorities are also unable to control rampant local conflict, intercommunal violence, and cattle raiding.

There is near-total impunity for perpetrators of wartime violence and sexual abuse. The 2015 and 2018 peace agreements mandated the establishment of an AU-led hybrid court to prosecute these offenses. In September 2019, the UN reported that the government had not signed the statute approving its creation.

F4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 0.000 4.004

International monitors have documented repeated, deliberate attacks by government forces against members of non-Dinka ethnic groups, most of them civilians. The perpetrators have not been brought to justice. The UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan has concluded that these activities amount to a campaign of ethnic cleansing by the government.

The interim constitution includes guarantees on gender equality, but women are routinely exposed to discriminatory customary practices and gender-based violence. While same-sex sexual conduct is not explicitly illegal in South Sudan, “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. LGBT+ people face widespread discrimination and social stigma, including harassment and abuse by security forces.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 0.000 4.004

South Sudan’s interim constitution enshrines free movement and residence, as well as the right to an education. In reality, civil war, multiple local conflicts, and poor-to-nonexistent service delivery have made it impossible for many people to exercise these basic rights. Illegal roadblocks prevent the free movement of people and goods.

In its July 2019 report, UNMISS noted multiple instances where government forces forcibly removed civilians from their villages to areas under their control in Central Equatoria.

An estimated 1.8 million people were internally displaced as of September 2019, including over 180,000 who sought shelter in UNMISS bases. Approximately 2.5 million South Sudanese refugees live in neighboring countries.

G2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 0.000 4.004

Disputes over land use and ownership are frequent causes of armed conflict in South Sudan, and the return of an estimated 600,000 refugees have exacerbated the problem. Property rights are weak and not respected in practice. Customary practices often deny women their legal rights to property and inheritance.

Legitimate enterprise is stymied by chronic levels of criminality fueled by a war economy that allows armed groups and influential politicians to prosper through corrupt business deals and activities, including the illicit extraction of natural resources like gold and timber.

G3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 0.000 4.004

Rape and other forms of sexual violence have been used extensively as weapons of war against both men and women, without legal consequence for perpetrators. The UN’s April 2019 report noted multiple incidents of sexual violence committed by armed groups against civilians in the states of Central Equatoria and Unity.

Domestic violence is not addressed by the law. A 2017 study by International Rescue Committee (IRC) found that 65 percent of the women and girls surveyed had experienced physical or sexual violence, with 33 percent suffering sexual violence by a nonpartner.

Customary law puts women at a disadvantage in matters of divorce and child custody. Forced and early marriages are common, with about half of girls marrying by age 18, and spousal rape is not a crime.

G4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 0.000 4.004

The collapse of the national economy has led to rampant inflation that puts the prices of essential goods out of reach for ordinary people.

Trafficking in persons for forced labor and sexual exploitation is widespread, with rural women and girls, the internally displaced, and migrants from neighboring countries among the most vulnerable to mistreatment. The use of child soldiers is also a serious problem. In September 2019, the UN warned that child recruitment was increasing, and that more girls were forced to provide labor, including sex work.

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  • Global Freedom Score

    1 100 not free