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NAIROBI, 25 August 2014 (IRIN) – The government of South Sudan signed an Action Plan with the UN in 2012 to end the use of child soldiers but there is evidence the ongoing conflict is eroding any gains achieved.
“The current conflict is threatening to erode all the gains so far made in ending the use of child soldiers in South Sudan. The use of child soldiers in South Sudan is something we will raise in our next meeting at the highest levels of the UN,” Leila Zerrougui, The UN special representative of the Secretary-General for children and armed conflict, told IRIN.
On 21 August, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said: “By the end of 2013, the UN secretary-general reported that before the current conflict, the SPLA [Sudan People’s Liberation Army] had made tangible progress in ending its use of child soldiers. When the current armed conflict broke out, however, child recruitment increased.”
In the statement, HRW quoted witnesses as saying the government had used children as combatants during recent clashes in Bentiu, capital of Unity State, and in the neighbouring town of Rubkona.
“Ten people who fled the fighting [in Rubkona] told HRW in Bentiu that they saw dozens of children in military uniform, armed with assault rifles, deployed with government soldiers and firing on opposition positions. On 12 August HRW saw 15 soldiers who appeared to be children around the government’s Rubkona military base and airstrip,” the HRW statement said.
“South Sudan army and government officials in Bentiu admitted to HRW that their forces included children under 18, but claimed that since the conflict began children have come to them looking for protection and work,” HRW added.
Children are being used as soldiers by both the government and the opposition in the ongoing conflict in South Sudan, aid and human rights agencies say.
The UN’s Zerrougui said: “I’m not surprised by the reports about the use of child soldiers by both sides in South Sudan because I was there in June and saw children on the streets carrying guns. I remember even David Yau Yau – the leader of the South Sudan Democratic Movement/Army, an armed group with a large number of children in its ranks, and who has since been appointed administrator of the Greater Pibor Administrative Area – came to receive me in Gimuruk and some of those accompanying him were children.”
South Sudan’s army spokesperson Phillip Aguer told IRIN it was checking on the number of children within its ranks.
“We have a policy not to recruit children and we are verifying those within our ranks so that they can be released to aid agencies for rehabilitation. The information I have is that they could be about 149 but we are still verifying,” Aguer, told IRIN.
In April, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) reported that more than 9,000 children were being used as child soldiers in South Sudan’s conflict.
“UNICEF is greatly concerned by these reports because they are based on very reliable observations of children wearing military uniforms and carrying guns. There are at least 9,000 children being used as fighters by military and armed groups when even the national laws prohibit this, including voluntary recruitment,” Doune Porter, chief of strategic communications for UNICEF in South Sudan, told IRIN.
“Local community leaders are at times doing the recruitment on behalf of the armed groups. They tell the parents the children are going to fight the enemy, which refers to other tribes. Parents easily give in but in some cases, it is done forcefully”
Porter said UNICEF and other international organizations are currently carrying out awareness campaigns in communities where children are most likely to get recruited into armed groups.
“While that campaign to create awareness is important, we are also trying to engage with the government and those involved in the practice to stop. In a conflict such as this, leadership plays an important role in ending such practices,” Porter added.
2012 Action Plan in jeopardy
In the Action Plan the government had committed to end the recruitment and use of children in government armed forces, and other grave violations against children.
According to the Office of the Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, the Action Plan resulted in the release of more than 1,000 children, command orders banning child recruitment and use, as well as the creation of an SPLA unit dedicated to the protection of children.
In June, the government of South Sudan renewed its commitment to the Action Plan at a ceremony attended both by President Salva Kiir and Zerrougui.
At the ceremony, South Sudan Defence and Veterans’ Affairs Minister Kuol Manyang Juuk said: “Children do not belong in our army and I personally commit, on behalf of my government, to fully implement all provisions of the Action Plan.”
The South Sudan Liberation Army, a former rebel group which has since been absorbed into the SPLA, included hundreds of child soldiers within its ranks who were never formally demobilized.
In May 2014, former Vice-President Riek Machar, who now heads the opposition forces, signed a commitment with the UN special representative of the secretary-general for children in armed conflict to “take all measures to prevent grave violations against children immediately”, including the use of children as combatants. Machar also pledged to appoint a high-level contact to work with the UN to address violations against children.
An NGO official anonymously told IRIN that the recruitment of children has been most rampant in Upper Nile, Jonglei and Unity states which have been the most affected by the war.
While stressing the need to engage community leaders to end the practice, she said: “Local community leaders are at times doing the recruitment on behalf of the armed groups. They tell the parents the children are going to fight the enemy, which refers to other tribes. Parents easily give in but in some cases, it is done forcefully,” she said.
She added that in areas worst affected by the conflict, such as Bentiu, lack of schools mean children are often idle, making it easier for them to be lured into armed groups.
In December 2013 troops loyal to the country’s feuding leaders, Salva Kiir Mayardit and Riek Machar, began a protracted and deadly civil war which has left millions uprooted and their homes and livelihoods destroyed.