Fifteen commanders in the South Sudanese army and the rebel movement have been named by a human-rights watchdog for using child soldiers in the country’s civil war.
International civil society and humanitarian organisations are now lobbying the United Nations to push for the trials of the named commanders at the hybrid court for South Sudan to be established by the African Union Commission as part of the implementation of the peace agreement.
Some 16,000 child soldiers have been forcibly conscripted into the civil war.
The latest report the Human Rights Watch names, among others, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) commander Matthew Puljang, and his forces who fought in Unity State and Johnson Olony, who first defended the government in Malakal in Upper Nile but later defected to fight with the rebels.
Boys also fought under opposition commanders, including James Koang, Peter Gadet and Makal Kuol. They took hundreds of boys from two schools in Rubkona, Unity State, in the first days of the conflict.
Mr Gadet’s forces recruited boys from just outside a UN base protected by peacekeepers as well as in the town of Malakal, according to the report.
Government commissioners, who perform a military function in times of war, also used child soldiers in the town of Bentiu, Unity State.
According to Daniel Bekele, the Human Rights Watch Africa director, the commanders have deliberately and brutally recruited children to fight, in total disregard for their safety and South Sudanese law.
“Children were forcibly recruited and physically forced onto trucks bound for battle fields or training camps, or abducted at gunpoint and taken from their home areas by forces or groups. They were then sometimes thrown into battle just a day or two later,” he said.
Human-rights groups are now calling on the international community to help to speed up establishment of the hybrid court, as agreed in the August peace agreement, or request the International Criminal Court to investigate potential war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the conflict.
South Sudan is not a signatory to the Rome Statute but the UN Security Council has the leverage to refer the situation to the ICC in the absence of a request from the Government of South Sudan.
The United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) estimates that 15,000 to 16,000 children may have been used by armed forces and groups in the conflict.
The 65-page report, We Can Die Too: Recruitment and Use of Child Soldiers in South Sudan, is based on interviews with 101 child soldiers who were either forcibly recruited or joined armed groups to protect themselves and their communities.
Human Rights Watch noted no commander has ever faced any punishment for using child soldiers; instead, some have been rewarded with new positions and given amnesties after signing peace deals with the government.
For example, David Yau Yau, who led a previous insurgency in Jonglei State and had more than 1,700 child soldiers in his forces, has never been held accountable and he is now chief administrator of the Greater Pibor Administrative Area after making peace with the government.
The report noted that mass forced recruitment of children in Unity State by opposition forces began in the first days of the conflict. On December 18, 2013, three days after the war began in Juba, defecting soldiers who would soon form part of the opposition forces under the command of Toar Nyuel abducted hundreds of boys from two schools in Rubkona town, adjacent to the state capital, Bentiu.
“They said we must join the army, if not they would beat us. Two schoolmates refused to go and they beat them,” one 15-year-old boy said about a government army recruitment drive in Unity State.
“We defeated and killed a lot of people,” another 15-year-old who joined the opposition forces said.
“We were shooting, me and the other young kids. We were afraid, but we had to do it anyway,” he added.
Under the laws of war, the recruitment or use of children under 15 by parties to a conflict is a war crime, for which commanders can be held criminally responsible. International human-rights standards provide that no child under 18 should be recruited or used as a soldier.
After the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement with Sudan, South Sudan had made significant headway in ending the practice by establishing the 2008 Child Act, which provided 18 as the minimum age for any conscription or voluntary recruitment into armed forces or groups.
The SPLA set up a Child Protection Unit to monitor barracks and help release child soldiers; and thousands of child soldiers were subsequently released from the barracks.
However, the outbreak of civil war in December 2013 saw the practice creep back with both sides struggling to boost their numbers.
Human Rights Watch said the failure to end the culture of child soldiers will have long term consequences because it is sending the message to the upcoming generation that the only way to feel safe is through ethnic-based, organised violence and that is it normal for children to participate, and die, in it.
The government support for child soldier release and reintegration programmes, has been slow and erratic, without sufficient emphasis on accountability, which has allowed the practice to continue unchecked and helped strengthen the perception that child soldiering is a normal part of conflict and that donors will step in to finance release when commanders are willing to allow it.
“While nothing can erase the damage done to these boys’ lives, South Sudanese authorities have a responsibility to end child soldiering and military use of schools. This means taking action, starting with punishing those who have committed violations,” said Mr Bekele.