South Sudan has become the 168th country to agree to the UN treaty committing to end the recruitment and use of children in armed conflict.

Government ambassadors Kureng Garang and Agnes Oswaha formalised the country’s accession to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict (OPAC) at a ceremony with UN officials on 27 September.

Created in 2000, OPAC is designed to ensure states ban the recruitment and use of children under the age of 18 in armed conflict. South Sudan is the latest country to pass the treaty following the Central African Republic’s ratification in September 2017. 

Under the commitment, South Sudan has agreed to work to demobilise all children currently within its armed forces and multiple armed groups and offer ‘physical and psychological recovery and help their reintegration’.

“Today, the Government of South Sudan is making an important promise to its children that they will take all possible measures to protect them from recruitment and use by both its armed forces and armed groups active in the country,” the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict Virginia Gamba said at the ceremony.

The commitment should be championed but, in a country where over 19,000 children have been recruited by armed groups in the past five years, tangible progress will be slow and hard-fought.

It also remains to see if the recently signed peace agreement between President Salva Kiir and opposition leader Riek Machar will last or if conflict will break out again as it has done in the past, following previous peace deals and cease fire agreements.

Since gaining independence from the north in 2011, peace and security in South Sudan has been fractured and the humanitarian situation has deteriorated. The latest conflict erupted in Decmeber 2013 as government forces and its many disparate armed groups vie for control and influence in the world’s newest nation.

More than 2,300 children have been killed or injured since then, while 6.3 million South Sudanese are food insecure, almost two million are internally displaced and 2.45 million have fled to neighbouring countries.

The government-backed Sudan People’s Liberation Army and three non-state armed groups were listed as guilty of recruiting child soldiers in 2017, according to the UN Children and Armed Conflict report released in June 2018.

“The scale of violations affecting children in South Sudan and the level of impunity for perpetrators remain alarming,” UNSG António Guterres said in the report which also reveals dozens of sexual abuse cases against girls, abductions and attacks on schools in the country.

The passing of OPAC however is a welcome step and further strengthens the positive steps made by government authorities and UNICEF to free child from armed groups in 2018. UNICEF has helped facilitate the release of more than 900 children from armed groups this year.

Alongside the release of children, it is critical that returning children are provided with adequate and relevant reintegration support once back home. Child Soldiers International is working to support these efforts and has just returned from a research trip to the country in September focused on improving reintegration measures for returning girls.

This month-long visit will inform our future work in the country as we will work alongside UNICEF to improve support to returning children and their communities.