Around 16,000 children have been pitted against each other in harrowing episodes of violence in the 21-month long conflict in South Sudan, United Nations Children's Fund said in a statement Thursday.
UNICEF together with humanitarian Romeo Dallaire and his Child Soldiers Initiative called on all sides in the South Sudan conflict to demobilize between 15,000 and 16,000 children estimated to have been used by armed forces and groups.
“We must learn from the mistakes of the past,” Dallaire, who commanded the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda in 1994, said.
“There has to be a sense of urgency to protect children in South Sudan from being used by armed forces and groups, and to ensure that the thousands already serving are immediately released and have opportunities for a better future,” he added.
Dallaire is in South Sudan for a five-day visit supported by UNICEF to help advocate for the end of recruitment and use of children as soldiers. His visit included a one-day trip to Pibor in the eastern part of the country to speak with some of the 1,755 children who have recently been brought out of the Cobra Faction with the support of UNICEF and other partners.
“The children released from the Cobra Faction earlier this year in Pibor offer a glimmer of hope of what can be achieved when the will is there,” Ettie Higgins, the deputy representative of UNICEF South Sudan, said. “Children should be in school, not on the battlefield.”
Hundreds of children in South Sudan have been killed or maimed, and thousands more have been used to fight and perpetrate violence against other children and civilians, or serve as cooks, cleaners or to carry heavy loads while on the move, the statement said.
Despite renewed promises by both government and opposition forces that they will stop using child soldiers, both sides continue to recruit and use children in combat.
In response to international pressure, South Sudan's government passed a law in 2008 banning the use of child soldiers and setting a minimum age of 18 for recruitment or conscription.
President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar headed the government that signed the 2008 law, but it was quickly flouted when fighting began and soldiers were needed.
Fighting broke out in December 2013 when Kiir accused Machar of attempting a coup, setting off a cycle of retaliatory killings across the country. War continues despite numerous cease-fire deals.