Army officers serving in the troubled Yei region are being urged to respect the rights of children so that South Sudan can be removed from the international list of countries that recruit and use child soldiers.
United Nations Mission in South Sudan child protection officer, Nora Pendaeli, said the Sudan People’s Liberation Army is listed in a UN report as a perpetrator of four of the six grave violations against children. This includes killing and maiming, recruitment and use of children in armed forces, rape as well as occupation of, and attacks on, schools, hospitals and places of worship.
“Our role as child protection professionals is to engage all parties to the conflict…to increase their knowledge and awareness about what the protection of children entails, and explore together with them the six grave violations so that they can help avoid falling victim to them,” said Nora Pendaeli.
“Children are especially vulnerable during armed conflict because they are easy to manipulate, are very obedient to their masters, and have a lot of needs like food and shelter and if they are manipulated in the name of meeting these needs, they can easily fall prey to it,” she said.
“Once social fabrics disappear, including families and communities, it leaves children at the mercy of those who hold guns…yet all fighters have to understand their roles and responsibilities in protecting children.”
At the opening of an UNMISS workshop in Yei, the security advisor to the Yei Governor, Muki Batali Buli, said the culture of killing and maiming of children, including rape is not typical of traditional South Sudanese inter-clan disputes.
The head of the SPLA’s child protection unit in the capital Juba, Brigadier General Khamis Edward, said the SPLA was about to be declared a childfree army had it not been for the outbreak of civil war in December 2013.
“It is our ultimate duty as a national army to clear our image before the international community, so that we can assure everybody that we are capable of removing all children within our ranks in order to help them start new life without the gun,” he said.
The Brigadier said the army’s duty is to defend the country’s constitution - its sovereignty - as well as its citizens and their properties, but that this requires true patriotism to achieve.
“It is in our best interest to protect the future of South Sudan, and the future of South Sudan belongs to children. If you do not protect them, then there is no future for this country,” said Anthony Nwapa, UNMISS Human Rights Officer.
“Gathering the knowledge is one thing, yet using the knowledge to advance the course of protection of children during armed conflict is paramount,” he said.
The two-day training brought together 54 senior SPLA officers, including Brigadiers, Majors, Lieutenants and Captains.