Reports reveal further human rights abuses and child conscription
On June 29th the UN released a new report detailing not only ongoing child conscription by the Sudanese People's Liberation Army (SPLA), but also how attempts to verify first hand accounts were prevented by the SPLA. Members of the UN mission in Sudan (UNMISS) interviewed 115 victims and eyewitnesses in Unity State, which has been the sight of heavy fighting in recent months. They recorded how the conflict has become characterised by 'new brutality and intensity' such as the allegation that SPLA soldiers raped then torched girls alive inside their homes. Indeed, The U.N. children’s agency also stated earlier this month that that warring forces have carried out horrific crimes against children, including castration, rape and tying them together before slitting their throats.
This corroborates the most recent report by the Intergovernmental Authority on Development. IGAD is ostensibly a trading bloc of 8 east African countries but has also provided a key platform to debate economic and security issues plaguing the region. Members of IGAD's monitoring and verification mechanism described how Major General Johnson Olony and Shilluk Militia, affiliated to SPLA, had "carried out forcible recruitment of an estimated 500-1000 youth, many of whom were children aged between 13 and 17 years". This took place between 7-9 June, when militias conducted house to house searches of Kodok and Wau Shilluk, and is only one example from the lengthy report listing similar violations.
South Sudan gained independence in 2011; however, the present conflict was sparked in 2013 when forces loyal to President Salva Kiir tried to put down an uprising led by his former deputy, Riek Machar. In the resulting civil conflict thousands of people have been killed and almost two million displaced. There has been renewed fighting after peace talks between the factions disintegrated in March this year and the SPLA launched a major offensive in April with fierce fighting in Unity State's northern Mayom district.
The problems facing the international community in reducing violence and quelling the resulting human rights abuses are twofold. Firstly, the present difficulties in effectively punishing generals responsible has engendered a dangerous lack of accountability. The UN and its member states have spent many years encouraging the demobilisation of child soldiers in the region and supported the creation of the government's national Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration Commission. However, in the case of warlord David Yau Yau, UNICEF is in fact funding the reintegration of 1755 boys in his militia after he signed a peace deal that bagged him a high ranking government job. Indeed, the threat of culpability was so slight that Yau Yau gave the approximate number of children in his militia as twice that of what the DDRC found and released. Government officials who subsequently gave each of Yau Yau's soldiers monetary gifts only reinforced the benefits of child soldiering and in fact drew more children into the ranks ahead of planned release ceremonies.
All this means that, despite the illegality of the use and conscription of children under 18 in South Sudanese law, it appears as a legitimate method of recruitment to commanders on both sides of the conflict.
Secondly, the hampering of UN investigations by SPLA forces must not be tolerated. The UN states that attempts to corroborate the eyewitness accounts featured in its most recent report were hampered by the SPLA who denied their teams access to the areas under question. "We call on the SPLA to fulfil this commitment and allow our human rights officers unfettered access to the sites of these reported violations," said Ellen Margrethe Loej, the head of UNMISS. However, the military spokesperson for the SPLA Philip Aguer Panyang stated that the accusations made in the UN report were in need of further verification and denied that troops had interfered with UN investigations stating: "Our role as an army is to facilitate humanitarian deliveries and access for civilian protection". Such denials only serve to hamper efforts to highlight and undermine the ongoing abuses.
Both these issues lend credence to Human Rights Watch's comment that “military and political leaders on all sides have failed to make any serious attempt to reduce abuses committed by their forces, or to hold them to account”. It must be the task of the UN and the wider international community to force serious reduction in human rights violations through targeted sanctions, the proposed arms embargo and diplomatic pressure.