South Sudan | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Freedom in the World 2017

South Sudan


Freedom Status: 
Not Free

Freedom in the World Scores

(1=Most Free, 7=Least Free)

Quick Facts

Press Freedom Status: 
Not Free

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South Sudan’s civil liberties rating declined from 6 to 7, and it received a downward trend arrow, due to the collapse of a peace deal, the resumption of civil war, and egregious human rights abuses carried out against civilians, in many cases by government forces.


South Sudan, which gained independence from Sudan in 2011, has been ravaged by civil war since late 2013, when a rift between President Salva Kiir and his recently dismissed vice president, Riek Machar, triggered fighting among their supporters and divided the country along ethnic lines. Overdue national elections have yet to be held, and the incumbent leadership has presided over rampant corruption, economic collapse, and atrocities against civilians, journalists, and aid workers.

Key Developments: 
  • A cease-fire between armed factions loyal to President Kiir and First Vice President Machar unraveled in July. Heavy fighting broke out in the capital, signaling the resumption of the civil war.
  • Machar himself fled the country, traveling to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sudan before resurfacing in South Africa. He urged followers to continue the war. Machar was replaced as vice president by Taban Deng Gai.
  • After existing UN peacekeepers failed to protect civilians from atrocities by the combatants, the UN Security Council in August authorized a new Regional Protection Force that would have a stronger mandate to secure Juba. It had yet to deploy at year’s end.
Executive Summary: 

An August 2015 agreement to end South Sudan’s civil war, already threatened by cease-fire violations and signs that the two sides were rearming themselves for further clashes, broke down completely in July 2016, apparently due to bad faith by the signatories and their inability to control armed supporters. Fighting erupted in Juba between forces loyal to President Kiir and First Vice President Machar, amid conflicting  accounts of what triggered the violence. Within days, several hundred people had been killed, and pro-Machar forces had been routed. Machar, who accused Kiir of trying to kill him, fled Juba and later emerged in Sudan and South Africa, where he called on supporters to continue the fight.

As the violence escalated in Juba, peacekeepers with the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) failed in their mandate to protect civilians. Soldiers from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA)—South Sudan’s military—and other forces aligned with Kiir murdered and raped people on the basis of their ethnic origin and attacked foreign aid workers and diplomats. In August, the UN Security Council authorized a new Regional Protection Force of 4,000 troops to supplement 13,000 UNMISS peacekeepers; the new force would be able to take more aggressive measures to secure Juba and the surrounding area. Kiir’s government initially resisted the move, but formally accepted it in November under the threat of a UN arms embargo. The first troops had not yet deployed as of December.

The fighting in 2016 was not confined to the capital. Widespread violence affected the greater Upper Nile region, Western Bahr el-Ghazal State, and parts of the country that were previously spared the worst of the conflict, including greater Equatoria. Civilians were deliberately targeted for attack by combatants on all sides, who committed repeated acts of murder, rape, torture, and looting, according to multiple reports by the United Nations, the African Union (AU), and other observers. In one of the worst incidents, civilians taking shelter at an UNMISS base in Malakal were attacked by SPLA troops and allied militias in February. At least 30 people were killed.

By late 2016, nearly 1.9 million citizens were internally displaced, including 200,000 people who were taking shelter at UNMISS bases. More than 300,000 refugees had fled to Uganda alone since the resumption of large-scale violence in July, contributing to a total of almost 1.5 million South Sudanese refugees in neighboring countries. In December, the World Food Programme (WFP) estimated that 3.6 million people were in immediate need of food assistance, partly as a result of the conflict. 

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