Rebel child soldiers gather in Gumuruk, as they prepare to hand over their weapons at a demobilisation ceremony in Jonglei State in eastern South Sudan on January 27, 2015.

(Nairobi) – South Sudanese government forces are actively recruiting boys as young as 13, often by force, as soldiers in Malakal, Upper Nile state, Human Rights Watch said today.  

Both parties to South Sudan’s conflict have recruited and used child soldiers, which is a war crime when children are under 15. Commanders from both the government and the opposition should issue clear orders barring recruitment of all children under 18 and cooperate with relevant United Nations agencies to help these children return to places of safety.

“Despite renewed promises by both government and opposition forces that they will stop using child soldiers, both sides continue to recruit and use children in combat,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “In Malakal, government forces are even taking children from right outside the United Nations compound.”

Opposition forces have also recruited and used many child soldiers. Over the past months Human Rights Watch has spoken to about a dozen children or young men who were under 18 years of age when they fought in 2014, who have been used by opposition forces in battles and for other purposes such as cooking and carrying water and ammunition. One 16-year-old in Bentiu described his terror when, only a day after being recruited with dozens of others in December 2013, he was given a gun for the first time by a rebel commander and forced to fight.    

Human Rights Watch, on a visit to Malakal in late January 2015, collected about 25 accounts of child recruitment in the area from parents and other relatives, from children who had escaped recruitment or whose friends had been recruited, and from young adults who had also been forcibly recruited together with children.

During the visit to Malakal, Human Rights Watch found that government forces, apparently especially those led by the former militia leader Johnson Olony, had recruited at least 15 children, some forcibly, within recent weeks, as part of recruitment efforts that appear mainly to be targeting adults. 

The Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), which became South Sudan’s national army when the country became independent from Sudan in 2011, had made progress in ending its longtime practice of using child soldiers. In August 2013, the SPLA issued a general order forbidding the recruitment or use of children under 18 for any purpose within its operations.

When the current armed conflict broke out in December 2013, however, child recruitment resumed. Both the government forces led by President Salva Kiir, and the opposition forces led by Riek Machar, the former vice president and now the opposition leader, have recruited and deployed children in their forces. The UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF, has said that thousands of children have already fought in the war on both sides. A recent UN report said that the use and recruitment of 561 children had been documented by UN child protection actors since the beginning of the conflict.

In some cases in Malakal, children voluntarily left the UN “protection of civilian (POC)” site to join forces led by Olony, a former militia leader from Upper Nile state who is currently fighting with South Sudan’s government. One mother said that both her sons, one 13 and one 14, had voluntarily joined Olony in late December 2014. Another mother followed her 13-year-old son to a military barracks after he left the UN base. “He refused to come home,” she said.  

But some of the children were forcibly recruited near the UN base, where approximately 20,000 people are currently taking shelter. Since the conflict spread to Malakal in early 2014, the town has changed hands six times as government and opposition forces clashed, sometimes very close to the UN base.

Malakal is currently under the control of the government. Human Rights Watch interviewed numerous witnesses who saw groups of armed and unarmed men, some in uniforms, forcibly recruit both adults and children outside the gate of the base, which is also a busy market area, in late December 2014 and January 2015. One child said he saw his friend, a 17-year-old, being taken by force from outside the gate in mid-January 2015together with other young men. A young woman said that recruiters took her 11-year-old brother just before December 25, 2014, from beside a pond close to the UN base. Their mother later spoke by phone to her son, who was at a barracks across the river from Malakal.

Another mother told Human Rights Watch that some small boys told her that men had taken her 15-year-old son from outside the UN gate.

“You run to the gate into the POC when you see them,” a 14-year-old boy, one of many who wait outside the gate with wheelbarrows to transport goods for pay, told Human Rights Watch. The boys said that the armed recruiters target men or boys who are not working.

Forces have also recruited children by force from inside the town.

One woman described how in January 2015 government recruiters captured her 13-year-old son at the riverside, where he was carrying goods for traders. Another mother of a 13-year-old, who also spoke with Human Rights Watch, said: “My son … was captured by the army in Malakal town. I don’t know where he was captured, he was going to go and see his family and was taken on the way.”

A young man said he had been picked up and thrown into a truck with six “small” children whom he believed to be around ages 13 to 15 and driven to an area where fighting was taking place. “When we got to Koka [the battle area] we were told to go to fight, given weapons, and attack together with other soldiers,” he said. “We were given uniforms, almost immediately told to fight … all of us.” 

Both sides have made a commitment to stop recruiting and using children under 18. In May 2014, Machar 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. In June 2014, the government made a new commitment to the UN to having a “child-free army.” 

The government of South Sudan should ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children and armed conflict, Human Rights Watch said. The protocol sets 18 as the minimum age for any participation in armed conflict.

South Sudan’s 2008 Child Act forbids the use of child soldiers, setting a minimum age of 18 for any conscription or voluntary recruitment into armed forces or groups. 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.

“South Sudanese children’s lives are being devastated by conflict, with children once again going to war instead of to school,” Bekele said. “Both sides should stop recruiting children, and hold those responsible to account.”