Child soldiers in South Sudan at a Unicef ceremony of disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration. Photo: Charles Lomodong/AFP/Getty
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How can the UK help the child soldiers of South Sudan?

While the UK still has a military recruitment age of 16, it’s hard to see how effective they can be in helping other countries relinquish the practice.

Since gaining independence from Khartoum in 2011, South Sudan has been embroiled in conflict. Initially at war with the Sudanese government for control of South Sudan’s oil fields, the young nation continues to struggle with independent armed militias across the majority of its states; in 2013, infighting between presidential rivals plunged the country into an on-going civil war.

Still, a recent report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) accusing the South Sudanese government of actively recruiting boys as young as 13 to fight – often coercing them with threats of violence – has been met with surprise and outrage.

In the course of its investigations, HRW says it has collected as many as 25 accounts of child recruitment in January alone. Speaking to parents and relatives of youths recruited from Malakal in South Sudan’s Upper Nile region, the charity learned that children were forcibly enlisted into rebel factions as well as government forces. According to Daniel Bekele, HRW’s Africa director, some of those recruited here were even taken from outside a United Nations compound. This is despite pledges from the South Sudanese government to maintain a recruitment age of 18 years old.

“The conscription of children under 18 is illegal in South Sudan, so both parties are clearly committing a crime,” said Debbie Ariyo, the chief executive, Africans Unite Against Child Abuse (AFRUCA). “These are not children who are volunteering to fight. They have been abducted and forced to fight and kill people against their will.” Separate from South Sudan’s own laws, the recruitment of children under 15 is also regarded a war crime.

Almost all of the attention surrounding South Sudan’s use of child soldiers has come from a charities and NGOs. International condemnation – including from the UK – has been slow. Despite issuing a statement that called for an end to conflict in South Sudan earlier this week, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office did not comment on South Sudan’s use of child soldiers. Although condemning the recruitment of children when pushed – an FCO spokesperson said it was “deeply concerning” that past progress on reducing the use of child soldiers in South Sudan had been reversed by the current conflict – the UK government has not made any great overtures to bring an end to the practice. This has not gone unnoticed.

For two charities – War Child UK and Child Soldiers International – this has raised serious questions about the UK’s commitment and capability to help children dragged into war. A report from War Child UK accused the Department for International Development (DFID) of doing too little to help children in conflict, explaining that no minister in DFID is responsible for the issue of children in armed conflict, with CEO Rob Williams warning that “failure to protect and educate children fleeing conflict undermines the value of the rest of our aid efforts”.  The charity also accused the government of not knowing how much money it places into providing children of conflict with safety.

Additionally, Child Soldiers International said the UK’s capabilities to comment were hampered by its maintenance of a recruitment age of 16 years. Not only is this one of the youngest voluntary recruitment ages in the world, it is also younger than South Sudan’s own recruitment age limit. “The UK would be in a stronger position to comment if its recruiting age, like much of the rest of the world, was 18,” said Charu Lata Hogg, a spokesperson for Child Soldiers International. “The UK has the lowest voluntary recruitment age in Europe and one of the lowest in the world.”

 For all the good that pressure from the UK can bring – and Child Soldiers International does call for an increase in political leverage – its position as a priority country for tackling child recruitment renders it nothing more than a lightweight. For the UK to more effectively help children in South Sudan, it must also address its own recruitment issues.

Oli Griffin is a freelance journalist based in Latin America.

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Lord Empey: Northern Ireland likely to be without government for a year

The former UUP leader says Gerry Adams is now in "complete control" of Sinn Fein and no longer wants to be "trapped" by the Good Friday Agreement

The death of Martin McGuinness has made a devolution settlement in Northern Ireland even more unlikely and has left Gerry Adams in "complete control" of Sinn Fein, the former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey has said.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman on the day of McGuinness’ death, the UUP peer claimed his absence would leave a vacuum that would allow Adams, the Sinn Fein president, to consolidate his hold over the party and dictate the trajectory of the crucial negotiations to come. Sinn Fein have since pulled out of power-sharing talks, leaving Northern Ireland facing the prospect of direct rule from Westminster or a third election in the space of a year. 

Empey, who led the UUP between and 2005 and 2010 and was briefly acting first minister in 2001, went on to suggest that, “as things stand”, Northern Ireland is unlikely to see a return to fully devolved government before the inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme is complete -  a process which could take up to a year to complete.

“Adams is now in complete control of Sinn Fein,” he said, adding that it remained unclear whether McGuinness’ successor Michelle O’Neill would be “allowed to plough an independent furrow”. “He has no equal within the organisation. He is in total command of Sinn Fein, and that is the way it is. I think he’s even more powerful today than he was before Martin died – by virtue of there just being nobody there.”

Asked what impact the passing of McGuinness, the former deputy first minister and leader of Sinn Fein in the north, would have on the chances of a devolution settlement, Empey, a member of the UUP’s Good Friday Agreement negotiating delegation, said: “I don’t think it’ll be positive – because, for all his faults, Martin was committed to making the institutions work. I don’t think Gerry Adams is as committed.

Empey added that he believed Adams did not want to work within the constitutional framework of the Good Friday Agreement. In a rebuke to nationalist claims that neither Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire nor Theresa May can act as honest or neutral brokers in power-sharing negotiations given their reliance on the DUP’s eight MPs, he said: “They’re not neutral. And they’re not supposed to be neutral.

“I don’t expect a prime minister or a secretary of state to be neutral. Brokenshire isn’t sitting wearing a hat with ostrich feathers – he’s not a governor, he’s a party politician who believes in the union. The language Sinn Fein uses makes it sound like they’re running a UN mandate... Gerry can go and shout at the British government all he likes. He doesn’t want to be trapped in the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement. He wants to move the debate outside those parameters, and he sees Brexit as a chance to mobilise opinion in the republic, and to be seen standing up for Irish interests.”

Empey went on to suggest that Adams, who he suggested exerted a “disruptive” influence on power-sharing talks, “might very well say” Sinn Fein were “’[taking a hard line] for Martin’s memory’” and added that he had been “hypocritical” in his approach.

“He’ll use all of that,” he said. “Republicans have always used people’s deaths to move the cause forward. The hunger strikers are the obvious example. They were effectively sacrificed to build up the base and energise people. But he still has to come to terms with the rest of us.”

Empey’s frank assessment of Sinn Fein’s likely approach to negotiations will cast yet more doubt on the prospect that devolved government might be salvaged before Monday’s deadline. Though he admitted Adams had demanded nothing unionists “should die in a ditch for”, he suggested neither party was likely to cede ground. “If Sinn Fein were to back down they would get hammered,” he said. “If Foster backs down the DUP would get hammered. So I think we’ve got ourselves a catch 22: they’ve both painted themselves into their respective corners.”

In addition, Empey accused DUP leader Arlene Foster of squandering the “dream scenario” unionist parties won at last year’s assembly election with a “disastrous” campaign, but added he did not believe she would resign despite repeated Sinn Fein demands for her to do so.

 “It’s very difficult to see how she’s turned that from being at the top of Mount Everest to being under five miles of water – because that’s where she is,” he said. “She no longer controls the institutions. Martin McGuinness effectively wrote her resignation letter for her. And it’s very difficult to see a way forward. The idea that she could stand down as first minister candidate and stay on as party leader is one option. But she could’ve done that for a few weeks before Christmas and we wouldn’t be here! She’s basically taken unionism from the top to the bottom – in less than a year”.

Though Foster has expressed regret over the tone of the DUP’s much-criticised election campaign and has been widely praised for her decision to attend Martin McGuinness’ funeral yesterday, she remains unlikely to step down, despite coded invitations for her to do so from several members of her own party.

The historically poor result for unionism she oversaw has led to calls from leading loyalists for the DUP and UUP – who lost 10 and eight seats respectively – to pursue a merger or electoral alliance, which Empey dismissed outright.

“The idea that you can weld all unionists together into a solid mass under a single leadership – I would struggle to see how that would actually work in practice. Can you cooperate at a certain level? I don’t doubt that that’s possible, especially with seats here. Trying to amalgamate everybody? I remain to be convinced that that should be the case.”

Accusing the DUP of having “led unionism into a valley”, and of “lashing out”, he added: “They’ll never absorb all of our votes. They can try as hard as they like, but they’d end up with fewer than they have now.”

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.