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27 February 2015

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.

By Oliver Griffin

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.

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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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