On 22 November, 2009 the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), a Christian rebel movement turned political party, signed on to an action plan to end recruitment of child soldiers. Top United Nations officials have lauded the SPLA’s efforts, and have promised to follow through with reports on reintegrating and normalising former child soldiers into otherwise normal and healthy lives. Dangers to children in the region are impending, however, as many groups within the international community have ignored international agreements about the exploitation and abuse of children.
Coomaraswamy’s Visit to Sudan
Radhika Coomaraswamy, the United Nations Secretary General’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, stated that “This commitment is a milestone in the efforts to end association of children with the SPLA," and swore to “continue to appeal to the SPLA leadership to spare no effort to release and prevent re-association of these children with their armed elements.” (2) Coomaraswamy made these comments as she departed from a nine-day visit to Sudan from 15 - 23 November, following up on a trip she made to the region in January 2007. Coomaraswamy swore to collaborate with the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) to collect the necessary resources and funding to rehabilitate and reintegrate these former child soldiers into everyday Sudanese life.
Coomaraswamy was also expected to investigate abuses resulting from child slavery and soldiers, in particular sexual violence, maiming and killing of children, and the targeting and kidnapping of humanitarian workers deployed in the region. She is also expected to enter into constructive dialogue with National Authorities and factions in the North and South of Sudan on these issues. “The Special Representative will seek to meet with children and their affected communities in order to listen to their views,” the UN is reported as saying. (3)
The mission is supposed to be following up with recommendations made by the Secretary General’s report on the situation in Sudan and children’s involvement in armed conflict in the region under the framework of Security Council Resolution 1612, a document that reaffirms a number of Resolutions dating back to 1999 “which contribute to a comprehensive framework for addressing the protection of children affected by armed conflict.” (4)
The SPLA Warns of Impending Danger to Sudan’s Children
The SPLA, a major actor in the Second Sudanese Civil War (1983 – 2005), joined Sudan’s main opposition group, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), in 1989, and was party to the subsequent Comprehensive Peace Agreement with the Sudanese Government in 2005. The SPLA plays a seminal role as a main constituent in the semi-autonomous Southern Sudanese region, which may one day secure independence from the north. There is no direct evidence linking current SPLA camps with the recruitment of children, yet were nonetheless found living near the SPLA camp. The SPLA thus also agreed to discharge child soldiers from its bases in the southern capital, Juba, by 27 Friday, November 27th 2009. There appears to be no indication that the SPLA has or will renege on its commitments.
Further testifying to the SPLA’s vigilance, the former rebel group warned of the impending threat to children presented by other armed militia groups still active in the region. This broaches the question of the future of Sudan’s former child soldiers, and raises awareness of those still under the control of other armed groups, including the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), the Sudan Liberation Army (SLA), and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The LRA is a Ugandan rebel group known for its repeated incursions into Sudanese villages to abduct children, among other human atrocities. A recent report states that the LRA has killed more than 220 people, abducting also 157 this year, attacked the Nzara region of South Sudan at least three times in November 2009. (5)
The Paris Commitments
The SPLA agreement follows from broader initiatives to prevent the exploitation and abuse of children recruited and abducted into child slavery and trafficking. The Paris Agreements, first adopted in 2007 as “an expression of strengthened international resolve to prevent the recruitment of children and highlight the actions governments can take to protect children affected by conflict,” is accompanied by the related Paris Principles, a document which “sets out operational guidelines for the sustainable reintegration of former child soldiers.” (6)
In total, 84 states have now endorsed the Commitments. In September 2009, Albania, the Central African Republic, Eritrea, Guinea, Jamaica, Liechtenstein, Panama and Senegal newly signed on. At the time, UNICEF reported that “Children are being used in armed conflict by more than 50 parties around the world. Their release and reintegration, as well as the protection of other vulnerable children affected by conflict, remains an issue of grave global concern.” (7) It is hoped that the SPLA decision to commit to an end to child soldiers will resonate throughout the region.
(1) Matthew Gordner is an External Consultant with Consultancy Africa Intelligence