By Deng Machol
Juba – South Sudan’s warring parties has agreed and promised to release children involved in armed conflict as part of commitment to the proposed comprehensive action plan to prevent six grave violations against children in the country.
The divisions commanders from the SSPDF, SPLA-IO and SSOA has held meeting in the past three – days in Juba to draft the joint comprehensive action plan that aimed for ending what the United Nations (UN) called a ‘grave violations against children.’
However, the UN agencies says the commitment is good gesture but the armed groups prove to the world that they are no longer recruiting children into their forces.
Kuol Manyang Juuk, Minister of Defense and Veterans’ Affairs, said the SSPDF will undertake screening exercise in all units and files of army forces, aimed to release child soldier.
“I would like to emphasize that this is a South Sudanese led process. We have just witnessed history today, whereby the South Sudanese have sat down together as one entity for the sake of their children. This is because; it is our children who are suffering. We are more determined than ever to put the dark past behind us. We want a new chapter and we have opened its today,” Juuk told journalists in Juba on Thursday, during the closing of the comprehensive action plan workshop to prevent grave violations against children.
He said they are going to take this draft action plan for review and once it completed, they will invite UN and their agencies to witness, adding this document will guide them during the transitional period until the new government is established after the transitional period elapse.
“It is my sincere hope that we will get the action plan implemented even before the elections so that we usher a new government and army without the burden of us being listed in the [UN] Secretary General’s annex of ‘list of shame’ of child abusers,” said Juuk
He said his ministry will work hand in hand with the UN agencies to ensure that no children are included in the army and that the children found are provided with the support that they need.
“We are going to work together as South Sudanese and with the support of United Nations to ensure that new army is a professional army that does not violate rights of its citizens and of its children,” said Defense Minister.
Juuk said from now onwards they shall respect the rights of children, enlighten their soldiers and civilian population on recruitment of children into armed forces.
However, the comprehensive action plan seeks to prevent violations that including killing and maiming, recruitment or use of children, rape and other forms of sexual violence against children, attacks on schools and hospitals, and abduction of children and denial of humanitarian access to children.
Juuk admitted that many children were recruited by warring parties to fight during outbreak of conflict in 2013 and that many got killed and maimed in the violence.
“Many children get recruited but not on orders of higher authority. Children found themselves recruited during the conflict and many of them got killed,” he said.
According to the Defense Minister, militia groups that were integrated in the past into the former SPLA, [which late change to SSPDF] were not sensitized on the rights of children which is partly to blame for violation of international law and right on the protection of children.
Ms. Andrea Suley, UNICEF Acting Country Representative, said they are targeting 1500 children to be release in the armed groups in 2019, which she said at least 700 children were already released in January this year, something she described as ‘positive move.’
“We are very confident – we are very committed and determined to get at least 1500 children release out of the armed groups and forces,” Suley said.
UNMISS, deputy special representative, Alain Noudehou, told the warring parties to demonstrate their commitment to ending grave violations against children in the country.
“If the comprehensive action plan is implemented fully, it will be instrumental also in effective implementation of the peace agreement,” Noudehou said.
SPLA – IO spokesman, Col. Lam Paul Gabriel said they ready to work with UNMISS and UNICEF on the release of during screening of their forces which have started to assemble at the cantonment sites.
“We can’t deny that we have children in our forces. Some were recruited, some came willingly and others came for protections,” Gabriel said, adding that their forces have started reporting to cantonment areas and child protection officers need to be deployed during screening.
Meanwhile, Josephn Bangasi Bakasoro, a member of the South Sudan Opposition Alliance (SSOA), as well as a coalition of various armed groups, said it is a time for South Sudan to respect international laws and rights on the protection children, noting that children within the various armed groups in the coalition should be demobilized.
Both the SSPDF and SPLA – IO have been listed in several UN reports for committing grave violations against children in aftermath of the conflict.
While action plans with both SSPDF and SPLA-IO have previously agreed, the efforts to implement its were disrupted by the ongoing conflict.
With this, is an opportunity for all the parties to realize their commitment to the adoption and implementation of a comprehensive action plan for the prevent of grave violations against children in situations of armed groups in South Sudan.