Freedom in the World 2021 - South Sudan

Not Free
/ 100
Political Rights -2 / 40
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.


South Sudan, which gained independence from Sudan in 2011, entered a civil war in 2013, when a rift between President Salva Kiir Mayardit and the vice president he dismissed, Riek Machar, triggered fighting among their supporters and divided the country along ethnic lines. A 2018 peace agreement 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.

Key Developments in 2020

  • The government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army in Opposition (SPLM/A-IO) participated in a cease-fire agreement in January, though it collapsed in April. Cease-fire discussions resumed in October.
  • Parties to the Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (R-ARCSS) implemented a power-sharing agreement in February. Ministerial posts were allocated in March, while Kiir and Machar reached an agreement on allocating gubernatorial posts in 10 states in June.
  • Public gatherings were restricted under COVID-19 measures, while South Sudanese faced ill-treatment and arbitrary arrest from authorities enforcing pandemic-related restrictions. South Sudanese authorities reported 3,540 cases and 63 deaths to the World Health Organization (WHO) by year’s end.

Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 0-4 pts
Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 0 / 4

Kiir was elected president of the semiautonomous region of Southern Sudan in 2010 and remained president 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. A permanent constitution has not been published.

Elections due in 2015 were postponed due to the civil war. A peace agreement reached that year extended Kiir’s mandate until April 2018. That July, the parliament voted to further extend Kiir’s term to 2021, along with the mandates of his vice presidents, state legislators, and governors.

In February 2020, parties to the R-ARCSS implemented the peace agreement’s power-sharing arrangements, with Kiir serving as president of the Revitalized Transitional Government of National Unity (RTGoNU) and Machar as first vice president. In March, ministerial posts were allocated among the previous government, the SPLM/A-IO, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement–Former Detainees, the South Sudan Opposition Alliance (SSOA), and the Other Political Parties coalition.

A2 0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 0 / 4

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 when it is seated; 332 will be allocated to the Kiir government, 128 will be allocated to the Machar-led SPLM faction, and the remainder will go to other groups. In December 2020, South Sudanese leaders reached an agreement on reconstituting the TNLA, though it was not formed by year’s end. The upper house, the Council of States, has yet to be reformulated.

In June, Kiir and Machar reached an agreement on allotting gubernatorial positions in 10 states among the government, the SPLM/A-IO, and the SSOA.

A3 0-4 pts
Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 1 / 4

The R-ARCSS called for a new, impartial National Elections Commission 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 2019, the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) reported that efforts to update the Electoral Act were complete.

The South Sudanese subnational makeup was in flux during 2020. In February, Kiir offered to revert to the country’s previous 10-state map to replace the current 32-state arrangement while creating 3 administrative areas. However, a national dialogue that ended in November recommended a 32-state allotment.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 0-4 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 / 4

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.

Fragmentation within factions is known to occur. Several SPLM/A-IO members left the faction after ministerial posts were allotted in March 2020.

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 2019, UNMISS reported that the committee’s review was completed.

B2 0-4 pts
Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 0 / 4

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

B3 0-4 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 / 4

The civil war has stifled ordinary politics and created a climate of fear. The country’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 0-4 pts
Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 0 / 4

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.

While the R-ARCSS established a 35 percent quota for women in the RTGoNU, ministerial appointments made in March 2020 did not meet it. Only 25 percent of ministers are female.

C Functioning of Government

C1 0-4 pts
Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 0 / 4

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

A clique of Dinka leaders surrounds Kiir and exerts 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 2020, a UN expert panel noted that the NSS did not participate in the reunification process of the South Sudanese military.

Sudan and Uganda helped broker the 2018 peace deal but supported opposing sides during the civil war and have maintained subsequent involvement in South Sudanese affairs. Between September 2019 and February 2020, Sudanese general and transitional-government member Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo accompanied Machar to one-on-one meetings with Kiir. An April 2020 report from a UN expert panel noted that the Ugandan military maintained a presence in the state of Central Equatoria, while the Sudanese intelligence apparatus sent weapons to the NSS.

C2 0-4 pts
Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 0 / 4

Corruption is pervasive among political and military leaders. State resources, including 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.

An April 2020 report from a UN expert panel noted that the NSS benefited from oil revenue, while the NSS and the SSPDF materially benefited from defending oil fields. In September, the UN Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan reported that South Sudanese officials misappropriated at least $36 million in public funds since 2016.

C3 0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 0 / 4

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 receipts. An April 2020 UN expert-panel report stated that South Sudanese natural resources were illicitly extracted due to nontransparent management. The experts also reported that a 2019 open-tender process did not improve the transparency of oil-related transactions.

Add Q
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

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. The UN and the African Union (AU) have documented numerous 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.

Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 0 / 4

The transitional constitution guarantees freedom of the press, but this right is not respected in practice. The government censors, harasses, and arrests journalists, especially those critical of the government. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), at least six have been killed in the course of their work since 2015, though none were killed in 2020. Defamation is criminally prosecuted, stifling free speech.

In January 2020, the NSS detained radio journalist Ijoo Bosco for reporting on US sanctions against then first vice president Taban Deng Gai. Bosco was released several days later after reportedly apologizing. In February, security agents in Maridi State detained journalist Isaac Van for reporting on corruption allegations against a local football association, but Van was released without charge. In March, the NSS closed the English-language newspaper Agamlong after it published an article criticizing a government official. In December, the United Nations reported that at least five journalists were arbitrarily arrested and detained during a September-to-November reporting period.

D2 0-4 pts
Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 1 / 4

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.

D3 0-4 pts
Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 1 / 4

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 pay. Planned activities on campuses require NSS permission, and the agency is known to send undercover agents to universities. As a result, self-censorship occurs in educational institutions.

In February 2020, the University of Juba suspended academic Taban Lo Liyong after he wrote an opinion article on state boundaries.

D4 0-4 pts
Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 0 / 4

The NSS has extensive, unchecked powers to conduct surveillance, monitor communications, and infiltrate nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). According to the United Nations, 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.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 0-4 pts
Is there freedom of assembly? 1 / 4

The government restricts freedom of assembly, despite commitments made in the interim constitution. The authorities also banned public gatherings as part of their COVID-19 response.

E2 0-4 pts
Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 0 / 4

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. Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that least 14 aid workers were killed in South Sudan in 2020, while a UN December 2020 report noted the deaths of at least 124 aid workers since 2013.

In June 2020, the NSS arrested and detained Monday Moses, executive director of the Organization for Non-Violence and Development, after he participated in a campaign calling for government transparency. Moses was released two weeks later.

E3 0-4 pts
Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 1 / 4

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 0-4 pts
Is there an independent judiciary? 0 / 4

Judicial independence exists in theory but not in practice. There is a severe shortage of judges, partly due to poor pay and working conditions.

In July 2020, the East African Court of Justice ruled that Kiir’s 2017 dismissal of judges by decree was unlawful. In September, Kiir issued a directive inviting the 14 affected judges to apply for reinstatement.

F2 0-4 pts
Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 0 / 4

Unlawful arrests and detentions are routine according to UN observers. Under the National Security Service Law, the NSS has almost unlimited powers to detain and interrogate suspects. The NSS, which extrajudicially operates detention facilities, is known to hold detainees arbitrarily and incommunicado. Authorities arbitrarily arrest individuals suspected of affiliating with armed organizations that oppose the peace deal, including the National Salvation Front.

Under the peace agreement, all political prisoners are to be released; some were in 2018, while others remain in custody. In 2019, activist Peter Biar Ajak and five other individuals received long sentences for orchestrating protests inside a detention center notorious for squalid conditions and prisoner mistreatment. HRW reported that the detainees were denied a fair trial, in part because they were not informed of the charges against them and were not allowed to speak to lawyers. Ajak was pardoned and released in January 2020.

A UN June 2020 report noted that authorities enforcing COVID-19-related measures engaged in arbitrary arrests, ill-treatment of detainees, and extortion.

F3 0-4 pts
Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 0 / 4

An estimated 400,000 people have died during the South Sudanese civil war. While several groups, including the government and the SPLM/A-IO, committed to a cease-fire in January 2020, that deal failed in April, with fighting resuming in several areas. Cease-fire discussions resumed in October.

South Sudanese face intercommunal violence. In September 2020, UN Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada al-Nashif warned that such incidents were far more prevalent in the first seven months of the year than over the same period in 2019, and that intercommunal violence was increasingly militarized in nature. Al-Nashif also noted that civil-defense groups were armed and co-opted by other groups. Cattle raids and attacks by armed youth groups were reported during the year.

Physical mistreatment and abuse are widespread within the criminal justice system. Detainees often face torture or sexual assault in custody. Authorities conduct regular executions, including of people who were children when convicted. Three people were executed in 2020 through November.

South Sudanese are also subjected to forced disappearance. In August 2020, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reported that it was searching for over 5,000 disappeared people in the country.

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. Little progress was made on establishing the court during the year, however.

F4 0-4 pts
Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 0 / 4

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.

While the interim constitution includes gender-equality guarantees, women are routinely exposed to discriminatory customary practices and gender-based violence (GBV). A June 2020 UN report noted that women, as well as people living with disabilities, were disproportionately affected by COVID-19 mitigation efforts.

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’ imprisonment. LGBT+ people face widespread discrimination and social stigma, including harassment and abuse by security forces.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 0 / 4

The 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 rights. Illegal roadblocks prevent the free movement of people and goods.

In September 2020, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reported that 1.6 million people were internally displaced in South Sudan, while 2.3 million refugees live abroad.

G2 0-4 pts
Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 0 / 4

Disputes over land use and ownership are frequent causes of armed conflict in South Sudan, and the return of refugees has 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 0-4 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 / 4

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. A September 2020 UN report noted that the SSPDF, NSS, militias, and other armed groups all engaged in sexual violence.

Domestic violence is not legally addressed. A 2017 International Rescue Committee (IRC) study found that 65 percent of the women and girls surveyed 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. Spousal rape is not a crime.

G4 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 0 / 4

Economic collapse 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 2019, the UN warned that child recruitment was increasing, and that more girls were forced to provide labor, including sex work.