Juba — South Sudan's army has used child soldiers during recent fighting against opposition forces in violation of international law, Human Rights Watch said today.
South Sudan's former rebel forces, now the national army, had made tangible progress in ending its longtime practice of using child soldiers. But since the current armed conflict began in December 2013, both the government and opposition have recruited and deployed children in their forces.
The government used child soldiers in renewed fighting in mid-August 2014 in Bentiu, the capital of Unity State, and in the neighboring town of Rubkona, Human Rights Watch found.
Ten people who fled the fighting told Human Rights Watch in Bentiu that they saw dozens of children in military uniform, armed with assault rifles, deployed with government soldiers and firing on opposition positions. On August 12, Human Rights Watch saw 15 soldiers who appeared to be children around the government's Rubkona military base and airstrip.
"South Sudan's army has returned to a terrible practice, once again throwing children into the battlefields," said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "Civilian and military leaders should immediately remove all children from their ranks and return them to their families."
Boys described to Human Rights Watch their experiences with the government Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA). A 12-year-old boy told Human Rights Watch that during the early hours of August 15, an SPLA soldier ordered him and other child soldiers in Rubkona to shoot at the opposition forces, and that dozens of mostly older children were sent to fight at the Rubkona base. A 14-year-old described fleeing the battle in Bentiu close to the front lines. "I ran and whenever I heard shelling I lay down," he said.
Other observers told Human Rights Watch that they have seen numerous child soldiers at the Rubkona military base and in defensive positions just outside Rubkona and Bentiu since the government recaptured them from opposition forces in May 2014. Child soldiers said that government forces had been deploying children as soldiers at their front lines around Bentiu for weeks.
South Sudan army and government officials in Bentiu admitted to Human Rights Watch that their forces included children under 18, but claimed that since the conflict began children have come to them looking for protection and work.
Though no exact numbers were available, observers and officials indicated that government forces have at least 60 children in their forces in Bentiu and Rubkona.
At least three local government officials in Bentiu have also used children as armed bodyguards, according to local sources. The South Sudan Liberation Army, a former rebel group that was absorbed into the SPLA last year, included hundreds of child soldiers who were never formally demobilized.
The SPLA has since 2003 been listed by the United Nations secretary-general on his annual "list of shame" of governments and non-state groups using children as soldiers. Armed forces and groups that are listed for at least five years are considered "persistent perpetrators."
South Sudan's 2008 Child Act forbids the use of child soldiers. In March 2012, the government signed an action plan with the UN, making a commitment to end all recruitment and use of children under 18 as soldiers, and to demobilize all children within the military's ranks.
In August 2013, the SPLA issued a general order forbidding the recruitment or the use of children for any purpose within its operations. By the end of 2013, the UN secretary-general reported that before the current conflict, the SPLA had made tangible progress in ending its use of child soldiers. When the current armed conflict broke out, however, child recruitment increased. In June, the government made a new commitment to having a "child-free army."
Opposition forces have also used child soldiers, in violation of the laws of war, Human Rights Watch said. During the first days of the fighting in Bentiu and Rubkona in December 2013, the opposition forcibly recruited hundreds of children from two schools. Observers have also seen opposition forces forcibly recruiting soldiers, including children, from other locations in Unity state.
In May 2014, former Vice President Riek Machar, who now heads up the opposition forces, signed a commitment with the UN special representative of the secretary-general for children in armed conflict to "take all measures to prevent grave violations against children immediately," which includes the use of children as combatants. Machar also pledged to appoint a high-level contact to work with the UN to address violations against children.
Under the laws of war, the recruitment or use of children under 15 by parties to a conflict is a war crime. Currently, 156 countries have ratified an international treaty that prohibits the use of children under 18 by government forces and non-state armed groups in fighting.
Both sides to the conflict in South Sudan should cooperate with UN agencies to assist with demobilization and the reintegration of children in their home areas, Human Rights Watch said.
The conflict that began in December has affected South Sudan's children in many ways. An August Human Rights Watch report found that tactics in violation of the laws of war included targeting and killing civilians because of their ethnicity or presumed allegiances.
Apparent war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by both sides have played a major role in forcing some 1.5 million people to flee their homes.
Within hours after fighting resumed in Bentiu on August 15, UN peacekeepers collected and transported hundreds of people to the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) base in Rubkona.
UNMISS is protecting about 40,000 people on its base, a large percentage of them children. Nearby fighting wounded a child at the base on August 18.
Recent heavy rains have flooded large areas of the base, including living areas, forcing people to wade from place to place in increasingly filthy shin-deep water.
The worsening conditions take their greatest toll on children. The humanitarian aid agency Médecins Sans Frontières reported that most of the more than 200 people who have died in their hospital in Bentiu since May were children. Most have died from disease related to the appalling conditions.
"Tens of thousands of children are living in hell inside the UN base because they are not safe outside from attacks on civilians or from being forcibly recruited," Bekele said. "Both sides should urgently end their attacks on civilians and their recruitment and use of children as soldiers."