Forced recruitment of child soldiers is increasing in South Sudan despite a peace deal last year, the head of a United Nations investigating body adding a return to full-blown conflict was possible.
Some of the country’s thousands of child soldiers were released after the 2018 accord. The chair of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan said investigators observed a reversal as government and rebel groups seek to swell their numbers.
“Ironically, the prospect of a peace deal accelerated forced recruitment of children, with various groups seeking to boost numbers before they move into the cantonment sites,” panel chair Yasmin Sooka told the UN Human Rights Council.
Sooka later told Reuters: “What our investigators picked up is in many hotspots you are actually seeing an increase in child soldiers.”
Some were girls providing sexual and labour services to fighters, she added.
South Sudan split from Sudan in 2011 after decades of war but plunged into its own conflict at the end of 2013.
Both sides agreed in September 2018 to end a civil war that killed hundreds of thousands and form a national army. Implementation been slow but, in a possible sign of progress, President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar met and agreed to form a transitional government by the mid-November.
Sooka said creation of a new army for the oil-rich state from rival forces could spur recruitment of children, as young fighters sought handouts.
“Once the selection process takes place for the unified army the remaining ones not selected will be demobilised through the DDR (Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration) process and incentives of being able to access a DDR package may be an incentive to swell the numbers,” she said.
Sooka remained concerned about a possible revival of the broader conflict because of localised flare-ups, often involving tit-for-tat cattle raids driven by ethnic tensions.
“I think in a country where the state doesn’t have control of vast parts if localised violence doesn’t go down you have the potential to see fighting in many parts of the country,” she said.
A map published by the panel showed more than 30 local incidents this year, mostly in Jur River region.
South Sudan Ambassador Akech Chol Ahou Ayok, in a statement to the rights forum, said his government was committed to the peace process and the meeting between opposing sides was evidence of “positive steps in the right direction”.
He did not respond to specific allegation of child soldiers raised by the UN team.