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Child soldiers put down their guns in a disarmament and release ceremony in Jonglei state, South Sudan, February 10, 2015.  © 2015 Sebastian Rich/Corbis/AP Images

(New York) – South Sudanese leaders should help end widespread use of child soldiers by suspending and investigating commanders who have recruited children, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today. Thousands of children have fought in the South Sudan conflict, including under commanders from both government and opposition forces.

South Sudan’s conflict began two years ago today, on the night of December 15, 2013.

The 65-page report, “‘We Can Die Too’: Recruitment and Use of Child Soldiers in South Sudan,” names more than 15 commanders and officials from both the government Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and the rebel SPLA-in Opposition and their allies who have used child soldiers. The report is based on interviews with 101 child soldiers who were either forcibly recruited or joined forces to protect themselves and their communities. They said they lived for months without enough food, far away from family, and were thrown into terrifying gun battles in which they were injured and saw friends killed. Children also expressed deep regret that they had lost time they should have spent in school.

“Commanders have deliberately and brutally recruited and used children to fight, in total disregard for their safety and South Sudan’s law,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “South Sudan authorities should call a halt to the massive recruitment and use of children in this conflict, which deepens the decades-old patterns of abuse.”

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that 15,000 to 16,000 children may have been used by armed forces and groups in the conflict. South Sudan’s civil war began in December 2013, when soldiers loyal to President Salva Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar, now the rebel leader, fought in Juba, the capital. As the fighting spread, both sides targeted and killed civilians, including in gruesome massacres, often based on their ethnicity. Some 2.2 million people have been displaced, many from villages or towns that were burned and pillaged.

A fragile August 2015 peace deal has not ended the violence. The UN Security Council, which began imposing sanctions in mid-2015, should sanction commanders who recruited child soldiers, and others credibly accused of committing serious human rights violations. The Security Council should also impose an arms embargo on both sides to stop the flow of weapons that could be used to commit abuses into the country, Human Rights Watch said. Some of the children interviewed said they joined up when guns became available.

Human Rights Watch documented numerous cases of recruitment – often forced – and use of child soldiers by the government commander, Matthew Puljang, and his forces who fought in Unity state, and by Johnson Olony, who has fought with both the government and opposition in Upper Nile state. His forces recruited boys from just outside a UN base protected by peacekeepers as well as in the town of Malakal. Government commissioners, who perform a military function in times of war, also used child soldiers in the town of Bentiu, Unity state.

A school in Bentiu, Unity state, used as a barracks by soldiers and their families. © 2015 Human Rights Watch/Skye Wheeler

Boys also fought under opposition commanders including James Koang, Peter Gadet, and Makal Kuol. Another opposition commander took hundreds of boys from two schools in Rubkona, Unity state, in the first days of the conflict.

“They said we must join the army, if not they would beat us. My two colleagues refused to go and they beat them,” one 15-year-old boy said about a government army recruitment drive in Unity state. “We defeated and killed a lot of people,” another 15-year-old who joined opposition forces said. “We were shooting, me and the other young kids. We were afraid but we had to do it anyway.”

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. International human rights standards provide that no child under 18 should be recruited or used as a soldier. South Sudan had made significant headway in ending the practice before the current conflict began, releasing child soldiers, monitoring barracks, and establishing in the 2008 Child Act a minimum age of 18 for any conscription or voluntary recruitment into armed forces or groups.

However, even though child soldiers have been used for decades in what is now South Sudan, as far as Human Rights Watch has been able to ascertain, no commander has ever faced any serious punishment for using child soldiers. Some have been rewarded with new positions and given de facto amnesties after signing peace deals with the government. For example, David Yau Yau, who led a previous insurgency in Jonglei state and had more than 1,700 child soldiers in his forces, has never been held accountable and is chief administrator of the Greater Pibor Administrative Area.

“Much ground made to protect children has been lost,” Bekele said. “Because there is no cost for this crime, we have seen that yet again, thousands of children have been recruited and used for fighting.”

Commanders credibly alleged to have recruited or used child soldiers in both the government and opposition forces should be suspended, Human Rights Watch said. Civilian investigators and the SPLA should investigate commanders for recruitment and use of children. The SPLA should hand over suspects to civilian authorities for prosecution.

The African Union Commission should establish the hybrid court for South Sudan envisaged in the peace deal, and the UN and international donors should fully support the court. The hybrid court should have jurisdiction over the most serious crimes, including recruiting and using children as fighters, and complete authority and independence to determine whom to prosecute.

International donors should support South Sudanese authorities to ensure that children are quickly released from forces, reintegrated into civilian life, and provided with education services and where necessary, psychosocial support in accordance with the international Paris Principles, guidelines for the release of child soldiers.

Military use of schools, often for shelter, has interrupted education for many years in South Sudan, but spiked in the current conflict. Government forces alone have used at least 45 schools. While the SPLA removed soldiers from about 20 schools in early 2015, others remain occupied. On June 23, South Sudan endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration, an international political commitment that outlines actions countries should take to strengthen the prevention of, and response to, attacks on schools and military use of schools.

“While nothing can erase the damage done to these boys’ lives, South Sudanese authorities have a responsibility to end child soldiering and military use of schools,” Bekele said. “This means taking action, starting with punishing those who have committed violations.”

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