|Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York|
Press Conference by Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict
on Child Soldier Agreement in South Sudan
By year’s end, some 2,000 child soldiers in South Sudan were expected to trade in their guns for schoolbooks, thanks to an agreement reached earlier this month between the United Nations and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army of South Sudan (SPLA), Radhika Coomaraswamy, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, said this afternoon during a Headquarters news conference.
Since 2005, the SPLA had been listed on the Secretary-General’s list of parties to conflict that recruit and use children. “We hope that we can have a very clear directive and to stop these practices within the course of the year so that we can consider the SPLA for de-listing,” Ms. Coomaraswamy said.
Under the action plan — signed in the South Sudan capital of Juba by the Ministry of Defence, the United Nations Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and Ms. Coomaraswamy — SPLA agreed to release all children within its ranks and ensure that all militias being incorporated into it were child-free. Although that represented a renewal of commitments made in 2009, SPLA, as a national army, was signing for the first time.
Since 2005, some 3,000 children in SPLA’s main training camps had been released, she said. In 2008, South Sudan’s Government inaugurated a “very comprehensive” Child Act, and it had since pledged to ratify, as a matter of priority, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict.
Still, many children continued to serve as soldiers in regional camps and in militia groups being integrated into the South Sudanese forces, she said. The task ahead of disarming, demobilizing and reintegrating them into their families and communities would not be easy, particularly in a climate of few economic opportunities. “This is a real challenge. As you know only 4 per cent of South Sudanese children go on to secondary school, and 92 per cent of South Sudanese women are illiterate,” she said.
During her visit in mid-March to South Sudan, Ms. Coomaraswamy urged the South Sudanese Government that even within an austerity budget it must make the education of children and women a top priority. She also met with President Salva Kiir, and officials of the Ministry of Gender, Child and Social Welfare, the Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Commission, and civil society, and was briefed by civil society actors on the situation in Jonglei State, where the abduction of children had fuelled the conflict.
“The return of women and children will be absolute necessary for any reconciliation process, but we want to make sure that this return is done in a structured manner with the best interest of the child in mind,” she said.
She visited internally displaced persons camps in Renk, a north-eastern town near the border with Sudan. The expected influx of returnees in the next few weeks from Sudan to the camps, which had only minimal infrastructure and makeshift services, could cause a major humanitarian crisis and real tensions with the host community, she said. “This is an area to watch,” she added, expressing hope that the 13 March Framework Agreement between South Sudan and Sudan on the status of nationals in each other’s States, would defuse such tensions.
In addition, her Office hoped to work with the African Union to ensure that standard operating procedures were in place so that any Sudanese children rescued by the African Union forces from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) were handed over immediately to child protection actors.
Ms. Coomaraswamy also hailed the recent verdict by the International Criminal Court — against Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga for recruiting and using child soldiers — the Court’s first ever verdict. In addition, the Court had “generally accepted” her Office’s call for a broad definition of enlistment and inscription, which aimed to ensure access to justice for all children associated with armed groups.
“This is a very important judgement. It conveys a strong warning to commanders and warlords that the impunity for this is now over and we hope it will serve as a strong deterrent in the future,” she said.
Asked specifically how the United Nations would reintegrate the 2,000 children, given the high rates of illiteracy, she said UNICEF was raising funds for educational programmes and livelihood training. For every former child soldier brought into the programme, a child who had not served as a soldier also benefitted, as a way to help the entire community.
Concerning what would become of their recruiters after the 2,000 children were released, she cited a provision in the International Criminal Court’s Statute on individual responsibility, which called for amnesty for people who gave up a “criminal purpose”. Her Office had argued that by signing and implementing the action plan, the recruiters would in fact be giving up their criminal purpose.
Replying to a question about what her Office could do about loosely formed non-State actors in the Murle and Lou Nuer communities in Jonglei State that were using child soldiers, she pledged to keep a watchful eye on that situation. If an armed group emerged, it would fall under United Nations scrutiny. Meantime, the Organization and other humanitarian actors would work with tribal and other community leaders to encourage reconciliation.
Asked about her demands to the Congolese Government and the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) concerning Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda, who was wanted by the International Criminal Court since 2008 for enlisting and conscripting children, she said her Office had called constantly for his arrest and for him to be sent to the Court.
Another correspondent asked whether there was a lack of accountability in the case of Peter Karim, a former Congolese militia leader who later joined the Congolese armed forces. She said her Office had mentioned him in its reports, but had not pushed as forcefully for his arrest due to insufficient evidence. “We hope at some point that will happen and he will face [the International Criminal Court],” she said.
Asked if the Free Syrian Army or other armed groups in Syria were recruiting under-aged soldiers, she said her Office had received allegations in that regard but it had not been able to check or verify them.
* *** *