On 23 February 2017 the Peace and Security Council (PSC) will discuss ‘protecting children from fighting adult wars’. This will be an opportunity for the PSC to look at its own tools to intervene in conflicts such as in South Sudan, where child soldiers are prevalent. Thanks to the efforts of the United Nations (UN), almost 2 000 child soldiers have been released in South Sudan in the past few years, but a lot more can still be done.
Recent reports underline the worsening situation of child soldiers employed by warring factions to commit indiscriminate violence in South Sudan.
According to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), more than 17 000 children have been recruited by government and opposition forces in South Sudan since the war began in 2013. About 1 300 children were recruited in 2016 alone. The report also highlighted the abhorrent number of children killed, maimed, abducted or sexually assaulted.
The use of children to fight adult wars does not only violate the rights of children but also undermines initiatives to hold perpetrators accountable, as many of the accused could turn out to be underage.
The ongoing trial of a former Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) child soldier, Dominic Ongwen, at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, for example, highlights the way children have been radicalised through war. At the age of 13, Ongwen was allegedly abducted by LRA forces and used as a child soldier. Within two decades he rose through LRA ranks to become a fierce commander alongside the notorious Joseph Kony. Today, Ongwen faces charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Some say he is a victim because his agency in committing those crimes is questionable, having been recruited and radicalised as a child. Children’s vulnerability and blind obedience to instructions are regarded as assets by the warring factions that conscript them.
According to UNICEF, campaigns against the use of children have contributed to the release of more than 115 000 child soldiers in various conflict regions since 2000.
In the case of South Sudan, the government and opposition factions signed agreements to prevent the use of children. These include the action plans with the UN that form part of the peace agreement of August 2015. Altogether, 1 932 children were released in 2015 and 2016 thanks to this agreement.
However, those releases are token gestures by the warring factions in South Sudan to appease international criticisms. Thousands of children remain fighters for the warring parties in the country.
An opportunity for the African Union?
The PSC will hold a briefing on protecting children from fighting adult wars on 23 February. In view of its limited capacity, the African Union (AU) would stretch itself too thinly by pursuing elaborate child protection campaigns. The continental body could, however, use its existing peace and security initiatives to encourage the protection of children.
In South Sudan, the hybrid court provided for by the 2015 peace deal enables the AU and the international community to show their commitment by holding the warring factions accountable for violating the rights of children at all levels. (The peace deal has committed the warring factions to end the use of children as soldiers.)
The AU Commission’s campaign for accountability in South Sudan, which began last year, can also serve to push for the end of violations against children.
Need to prevent further insecurity
Measures to ensure accountability will, however, prove futile if there are no robust civilian protection efforts.
Insecurity and poor civilian protection have played a significant role in driving children into the camps of warring factions. Some children, speaking to Human Rights Watch researchers, narrated chilling stories on why they ‘opted’ to join warring groups in South Sudan:
We can die too, like everyone else; it’s safer as a soldier. It is like a competition, where do you run to, to be safe? You either die, or kill your enemy. Everyone is treated the same way, whether young or old.
The latest six-monthly PSC report indicates an upsurge in the recruitment of civilians, including children, since July 2016, when the peace process in the country stalled. The UN has also warned that there is a real danger of mass atrocities owing to the rise of militias and heavy-handed military offensives in the region. Children form a significant part of the government and militia forces.
The AU and the Intergovernmental Authority for Development (IGAD) were the motivating partners for the UN-mandated Regional Protection Force (RPF) that is yet to be deployed to South Sudan. Given that the troops will come from within Africa, the AU and IGAD should work speedily with the UN to expedite the deployment of the RPF to prevent further violence and enhance the protection of civilians.
Hopefully, the force will reduce the rate at which civilians, including children, turn to militia groups for protection.
The continental body should also support its African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (ACERWC) to work at a practical level with partners to deter the recruitment and use of children. This will advance the ACERWC’s mandate of protecting the rights of children beyond its current visibility at the level of campaigns and advocacies on child protection.
It remains to be seen how the AU’s 2017 theme on ‘investing in youth’ will spur the continental body to action in protecting the rights of children. The briefings on protecting children should not only be about recognising the plight of children in conflict zones. It should rather drive the AU and its partners to concrete action aimed at resolving insecurity and safeguarding the dreams of the next generation of leaders.