Representatives of the United Nations and the Sudanese opposition movement, the Justice and Equality Movement, have signed an agreement on the protection of children in the Darfur conflict.
The agreement, which has been under negotiation since 2008, is remarkable in that talks between the U.N. Children's Fund and Justice and Equality Movement continued after peace negotiations between the Sudanese government and rebel groups broke down.
A large delegation of senior leaders of the Justice and Equality Movement came to Geneva to sign the Memorandum of Understanding with the U.N. Children's Fund.
UNICEF representative for Sudan, Nils Kastberg, tells VOA the high-level composition of the JEM delegation is significant.
"It sets a precedent in the sense that even though the peace negotiations broke down, we were able to continue and conclude an agreement on strict humanitarian grounds,” Kastberg said. “I think it is very important that the Sudanese government or any other government, that they continue respecting the fact that humanitarian issues need to be negotiated on a separate track from the peace track."
Kastberg says the agreement aims at demobilizing child soldiers. It also aims to protect children from being killed or maimed during conflict and to prevent attacks against schools and hospitals.
He says the Memorandum of Understanding allows for the possibility of independent verification.
"They claim not to have any child combatants,” Kastberg added. “That is their position. But, in this MOU, we have the ability to access any area, at anytime within, obviously no other requirements than the usual notification in order to make the preparatory arrangements and to verify for ourselves that there are no children associated or recruited into the Justice and Equality Movement."
Kastberg says access to rebel controlled areas is also important so aid agencies can bring humanitarian assistance to children and other vulnerable people.
The next step, he says, is to prepare a plan of action, which lays out the measures JEM will employ to protect children in its area.
Kastberg says the process of trying to reduce the number of children associated with armed forces in Sudan began nine years ago, when there were about 20,000 child soldiers. He says the number has fallen to between 7,000 and 8,000.
He says UNICEF is negotiating child protection agreements with three other rebel groups in Darfur. He hopes the agency will be able to sign similar agreements with them.