South Sudan War: Both Sides Broke Agreement And Are Forcing Children to Become Soldiers

Warring sides in South Sudan are still recruiting child soldiers in spite of commitments to stop doing so, a rights group has claimed.

The South Sudan conflict erupted in late 2013, pitting government forces against rebel leaders led by former vice president Riek Machar. Both sides have been accused of war crimes, including the forced recruitment of children to participate in the conflict.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) interviewed dozens of current and former child soldiers last November, and found that commanders of both sides have been abducting, detaining and forcing children, some as young as 13, into their ranks.

Some said they had been taken from their homes or off the streets and detained for weeks, being subjected to harsh training conditions as well as punishment including lashing and confinement.

"The food was not enough—we had to run, jump, use wooden guns," said a 17-year-old boy, identified as Makuach, who was recruited by government forces in Unity state in 2016.

"If you refuse, they punish you by forcing you to stand under the sun, I was tired once and then I was beaten. They poured water over me and beat me with a stick on the buttocks 40 times, until I was bleeding."

Forcible recruitment has been taking place in spite of warring sides signing a peace agreement in August 2015.

"The continued recruitment and use of children by the military and opposing armed groups points to the utter impunity that reigns in South Sudan, and the terrible cost of this war on children," said Mausi Segun, Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

"There's a chance to reverse the tide if the region follows through on its promise to impose sanctions on individual violators of human rights. A failure to do so would discredit the region's commitment to stop the abuses in South Sudan."

The organization called on international actors, including the United Nations, the African Union and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), to apply targeted sanctions on those who violate the rules of war.

The South Sudanese government has condemned calls for sanctions, arguing they would undermine the peace process. President Sakva Kiir has slammed the U.S. decision to impose arms sanctions on the government.

South Sudan
Recently arrived refugees from South Sudan wait for food rations at the Kakuma refugee complex during a visit by United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) and the Governor of Turkana county in Kakuma February 1, 2018. TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images

South Sudan conflict explained

South Sudan became world's newest nation in 2011, after breaking away from Sudan. However, the newly created country has known very little peace, descending into war just two years after its creation.

In 2013 President Kiir, of the Dinka ethnic group, fired his deputy Machar – from the Nuer group. Machar then became a rebel leader.

Fighting between rebels and government troops has killed an estimated 50,000 people, amid allegations of crimes against humanity committed by both sides, including rape, torture and the use of child soldiers. At least 1.5 million people have been displaced.

The conflict has continued along ethnic lines, with tit-for-tat violence targeting Dinka and Nuer tribes, prompting the UN to repeatedly warn the country is on the verge of a Rwanda-style genocide.

Kiir and Machar have agreed on several peace deals but have failed to control their troops, who have broken every ceasefire since 2014.

Last year, the government declared a unilateral ceasefire to promote peace. However, in May, rebels loyal to Machar rejected the government's offer of dialogue.

IGAD is hosting a fresh round of talks in Ethiopia to halt the conflict.

"You, collectively, by your personal and political interests are responsible for the nightmare your own people are going through," Ethiopia's foreign minister Workneh Gebeyehu told South Sudanese delegates gathered at the opening of talks on Monday (February 5), AFP reported.

"You have had numerous opportunities to change directions. You have repeatedly failed to do so. This really is the very last chance for you to accept your responsibilities and take the necessary actions to ensure South Sudanese peace and prosperity," Workneh continued.