by Gideon Sackitey
“The children in this place are our own. They are our brothers and sisters, we will not put them in harm’s way.”
These emotional remarks by Jamus Ayut, the County Commissioner in Akobo, set the scene at the opening of a two-day workshop on child protection for 50 soldiers from the Sudan Peoples’ Liberation Army-in Opposition (SPLA-IO)
The workshop, organized by the Child Protection Unit from the United Nations Mission in South Sudan, focused on educating the soldiers about the six grave violations of child rights, how to end the recruitment of children into armed ranks as well as prevent the occupation of schools in Opposition-held territory within the Jonglei region.
Jamus Ayut described the workshop as “timely”.
“It brings to our men in uniform key knowledge on why children must remain children,” he said. “These are the people we are fighting for and we will not kill them.”
It is estimated that South Sudan has had over 19,000 children serving within the various armed groups involved in the civil war that erupted in 2013. Hundreds have been released this year and are being reintegrated into their communities. The challenge is ensuring that they have access to school and other educational opportunities so that they can ultimately find jobs and support themselves.
Both of the main forces involved in the conflict – the SPLA-IO and South Sudan People’s Defense Force - are listed in the annex of the annual report of the UN Secretary-General relating to the recruitment and use of children in armed conflict as well as the killing and maiming of children.
South Sudan is not the only country that stands accused of these violations of child rights. Many countries that were initially named and shamed for recruiting children in the armed forces have fulfilled the requirements for de-listing and, today, participate in a global effort to promote peace through helping other countries confronting the challenge of armed conflict.
Speaking at the workshop, the UNMISS Head of Field Office, Deborah Schein, said a comprehensive Action Plan covering all six violations was the stepping stone to removing SPLA-IO and SSPDF from the “list of shame”. Once this was achieved, the armed forces could demonstrate to the international community that South Sudan was capable of supporting other nations torn apart by war.
South Sudan is the 168th country to agree to the UN treaty committing to end the recruitment and use of children in armed conflict.
Jamus Ayut agreed that there have been human rights violations in South Sudan during the conflict and that it was important to ensure children did not join armed groups.
“I hope these violations do not happen again. Human lives are very important,” he said. “We ask our forces not to recruit children. Here, we do not have any. But if we find any, we will quickly send them out to the right place.”
Deborah Schein said that young people recruited into armed groups essentially lost their childhood and that pain should not be underestimated.
“All of us must work together to end grave violations,” she said. “Let us not kill and maim children during combat in the field, let us not recruit and use children in the military forces, let us not abduct children, let us not rape children or deny access for humanitarian workers in bringing assistance and services to those most affected by war.”