NEWS. Human Rights Watch released a report which focus on the use of thousands of child soldiers in the conflict happening in South Sudan. These children are fighting under commanders from both government and opposition forces and thousands more children still remain at extremely high risk of recruitment. HRW urges South Sudanese leaders to help end the widespread use of child soldiers by suspending and investigating commanders who have recruited children. Since the beginning of the South Sudan conflict in December 2013, neither government nor opposition leaders have ended the use of child soldiers despite their promise to do so.
Both the government Sudan People’s Liberation Army (the SPLA) and the rebel Sudan People’s Liberation Army-in Opposition have fought with children. The report from Human Rights Watch is based on interviews from both 2014 and 2015, with 101 children associated with armed forces and groups from Dinka, Nuer and Shilluk tribes, mostly from the three states of Unity, Jonglei and Upper Nile. Currently, neither side has punished commanders for the recruitment and use of child soldiers. The children were extremely young, starting at around 13 years old, and most of time, were between 15 and 17 years old.
Using child soldiers can boost forces at a low cost
The outbreak of the conflict happened in December 2013, when soldiers loyal to President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar, now the rebel leader, fought in Juba, the capital. The start of this civil war led to reverse all the progress that had been done since the end of the civil war in 2005. Since 2005, some actions have been taken by the government and UN efforts to raise awareness about the use of children as soldiers and point the finger at the violation of international standards. It made significant progress in ending the practice by releasing child soldiers, and establishing in the 2008 Child Act a minimum age of 18 for any voluntary recruitment into armed forces.
But the 2013 conflict shattered these efforts. When the fighting began, large numbers of children were used as soldiers, due to their ability to boost forces at a low cost. As Daniel Bekele, Africa Director at HRW explains, “Commanders have deliberately and brutally recruited and used children to fight, in total disregard for their safety and South Sudan’s law”. Under the laws of war, the recruitment of children under 15 by parties to a conflict is considered as a war crime and makes commanders criminally responsible for their action. Sadly, even though child soldiers have been used for decades now in South Sudan, no commander as ever faced any serious punishment for their action. Daniel Bekele acknowledged this existing impunity by saying that “Because there is no cost for this crime, we have seen that yet again, thousands of children have been recruited and used for fighting.”
Losing time away from school
UNICEF estimates that around 15’000 to 16’000 children may have been used by armed forces during the conflict. These children confessed that they lived for months without enough food, away from their families and were thrown in horrific battles in which many of them ended up injured. A 15 year old boy described his experience by saying that “They [a government army recruitment drive in Unity State] said we must join the army, if not they would beat us. My two colleagues refused to go and they beat them”. Another 15 year old shared their fear during the battle by adding “We were shooting, me and the other young kids. We were afraid but we had to do it anyway.”
Moreover, none of the children that were interviewed were attending school while they were serving in the armed forces and they all mentioned their regrets for losing time away from school. Most of the time, schools were used in a military manner, often for shelter, which also led to interrupting education for many years in the country. At least 45 schools have been used for military purposes by the government. To help prevent child recruitment, Human Rights Watch advised to increase educational opportunities especially in UN bases where thousands of former child soldiers are seeking shelter.
A weak peace deal
A peace deal was concluded in 2015, deal that proved to be extremely fragile and didn’t succeed in ending the violence. According to Human Rights Watch, the UN Security Council, which started imposing sanctions in mid-2015, should sanction commanders who were guilty of recruiting child soldiers as well as the perpetrators of serious human rights violations. Moreover it believes that commanders alleged to have recruited child soldiers should be suspended. Another important step that needs to be taken in the prosecution of the war criminals, is the establishment by the African Union Commission of a hybrid court, which was envisaged in the peace deal as well. This court is supposed to be constituted of judges and lawyers from other African countries together with South Sudanese officials. Moreover this court should have primacy over South Sudan’s national courts, jurisdiction over the most serious crimes, and it should have complete authority to determine which accused it will prosecute. If the option of the hybrid court would happen to fall through for some reason, the option of the ICC remains. But due to the fact that South Sudan is not a party to the court, it would require the UN Security Council to refer the situation to the ICC. Time to act is upon us, because failing to end the recruitment and use of child soldiers will lead the new generation to believe that it is normal for children to participate and die, in these situations of organized violence.
HRW (2015). South Sudan: Terrifying Lives of Child Soldiers. December 14th 2015. IN: HRW (Online). https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/12/14/south-sudan-terrifying-lives-child-s.... Accessed on December 15th 2015.
HRW (2015). We Can Die Too. December 14th 2015. IN: HRW (Online). https://www.hrw.org/node/284325 Accessed on December 15th 2015.
Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict (2015). South Sudan. 5th June 2015. IN: UN (Online). https://childrenandarmedconflict.un.org/countries/south-sudan/ Accessed on December 17th 2015.
Washington Post (2015). South Sudan Thought it solved its Child Soldier Problem. It Hasn't. November 13th 2015. IN: Washington Post (Online). https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/africa/south-sudan-thought-it-had-s... Accessed on December 17th 2015.