An unusual gathering in Juba, and an unusual dose of honesty.
“We cannot deny that we use children in our forces,” said Major General Charles Machieng Kuol from the South Sudan Opposition Alliance (SSOA) at the gathering – of mainly officers from different military groups in South Sudan, and other stakeholders.
They had come together – at a three-day workshop – to discuss the final draft of what would become a Comprehensive Action Plan aimed at preventing violations against children in armed conflict.
“Now that the peace is here, we need to work together as peace partners and stop using children,” said Lam Puol Gabriel from SPLM-IO. “Today we are here to put a stop to that suffering,” he added.
“Not only have children’s rights been violated … all rights are under threat,” said a representative of the South Sudan People’s Defence Forces (SSPDF). “The primary role of the army is to protect children in both times of peace and war time. It is a constitutional right for the army to perform these duties,” said the SSPDF representative.
South Sudan finds itself on the unenviable list of countries regarded as persistent perpetrators of grave violations against children, in the annexes of the report of the United Nations Secretary-General on children and armed conflict.
At the workshop, the military officers expressed a shared desire to help delist their country from this list.
“We are gathered here to open a new page where South Sudan will be respected,” said Bangasi Joseph Bakasoro of the opposition alliance (SSOA). “Let us move together with our brothers and sisters in different countries to make sure that we are respected as a family of the global world; respecting the rule of law, respecting human rights and respecting the rights of children to demobilize them in all our ranks,” urged Mr. Bakasoro, while acknowledging that “crimes and mistakes” had been committed against children and humanitarian agencies.
“The children of South Sudan need peace and they need freedom,” said Alfred Orono Orono, Chief of Child Protection at the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), which helped organize the workshop.
“They need to be secure, like all the children in the whole world, doing things that children do,” added the senior child protection officer, passionately listing other things children should be doing.
“They need to go back to school, they need to be productive members of their community in the future, and that cannot be done within conflict; and that cannot be done if they are part of the armed forces,” he went on, “Or if their schools are attacked or destroyed – if they are denied the humanitarian access. All these things cannot happen – the future of the children in this country cannot happen with that background,” he said.
Mr. Orono Orono was essentially considering the six grave violations against children, which continue to be committed in South Sudan following years of conflict: recruitment and use of children; killing and maiming; rape and other forms of sexual violence; abduction and attacks on schools and hospitals; and denial of humanitarian access.
“The most important thing is that it meets the international standards,” he added, saying that this was “the first time anywhere in the world that an Action Plan that has all the six grave violations has been drafted and is going to be adapted.”
The government expressed its commitment to ensuring an end to these violations, with a robust plan to implement the Action Plan, including by integrating it in the military training curriculum.
“When the army is being trained at the training centres, they should be given this part of the act,” said Kuol Manyang Juuk, South Sudan’s defence minister to journalists.
“In the military colleges, also this should be one of the subjects to be taught so everybody becomes responsible in the protection of children. So, we will commit ourselves to doing it,” said the minister, who said this will be rolled out as soon as the document is approved by the government, promising it “will be implemented in letter and spirit.”
An initial Action Plan was signed on in 2009 by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) now the SSPDF, revised in 2012 and recommitted to in 2014, but efforts to implement it were interrupted by the civil war that erupted in 2016.
“Unicef is very happy with the level of engagement and collaboration. We are now very hopeful that it will now be ratified by the and endorsed by the government and the parties. Ultimately, this is the Action Plan of the government of South Sudan and the parties,” said Andrea Suley from Unicef – the UN children’s fund.
“They have all committed to work together to make sure that we prevent children from being committed and being used in armed forces. Now this will require tremendous amount of commitment and work from all the players,” said Alain Noudehou, UNMISS Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Humanitarian Coordinator in South Sudan.
“The plan was not easy to come up. They have worked tirelessly and have come to a commitment and agreement – and the work moving forward, will be tough, but I recognize that because we have leadership of all these entities assembled in this room and committed to it, it will be very important that they stay the course so that the implementation of the Action Plan is actually fruitful,” said Noudehou.