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.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue