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S. Sudan Agrees to Release Child Soldiers

Child soldiers of the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) wait for their commander at a demobilization ceremony at their barracks in Malou, southern Sudan Sunday, February 25, 2001 (file photo).
Child soldiers of the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) wait for their commander at a demobilization ceremony at their barracks in Malou, southern Sudan Sunday, February 25, 2001 (file photo).

The United Nations says a new deal signed with South Sudan's army could lead to the newest country being delisted from nations which use and recruit child soldiers. Special Representative to the U.N. Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy, announced in Juba Friday that the deal signed this week could lead to 2,000 more children being released soon.

The SPLA - a former guerrilla movement that fought Sudan for decades and secured South Sudan's independence in July - has released 3,000 children since a 2005 peace agreement ended the civil war.

On Monday, South Sudan's army formally signed an agreement with the United Nations to release all children within its ranks.

U.N. Special Representative Radjika Coomaraswamy says swift implementation is important as the army has many more children to release due to the military absorbing many child combatants from rebel groups who responded to a government amnesty offer.

"If you're a violator that's been persistent, there's the possibility of sanctions against the party," said Coomaraswamy. "So the purpose of this visit was because the SPLA has been on this list since 2006. And it's very important that we delist them as soon as possible, and now they are a national army, it becomes extremely important."

Coomaraswamy toured South Sudan this week to assess the status of children and to discuss South Sudan's progress in freeing child combatants. But she was not able to visit the troubled Jonglei state, where more than 140,000 people have been affected by ethnic violence this year.

She voiced concern that traditional cattle raiding between rival communities had become increasingly deadly, and that children were often targeted in the killings and large numbers were abducted along with women.

"It's our sense that this factor is really fueling the violence and giving it a little edge, making it more difficult to resolve this situation," Coomaraswamy added. "So we want to ensure that in the future there will be no impunity for those who abduct, but also we want to ensure that any reconciliation process will have to have the return of women and children"

Coomaraswamy also voiced concerns over areas in western South Sudan that are still terrorized by cross-border attacks by the infamous Joseph Kony and his Lord's Resistance Army (LRA).

This fanatical rebel group - that has recruited children to commit atrocities in border areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Central African Republic, South Sudan and Uganda for years.

The plight of these so-called invisible children has taken on international attention this month after a U.S. group released an online video calling for LRA leader Joseph Kony to be brought to trial at the International Criminal Court (ICC) by force.

Coomaraswamy said that while awareness of the issue and mobilizing young people to act was always good, calling for military action could endanger the lives of children still trapped in the LRA.

"The last thing we want, and I hope this will not happen, is vigilantism," Coomaraswamy explained. "We have people in South Sudan picking up a gun and deciding to go and find Joseph Kony. This kind of thing is crazy. We want national armies who are accountable to the Geneva Convention who are going to go and find Kony."

She says while the United Nations is looking to delist South Sudan quickly, the U.N. Security Council is moving towards sanctions including arms and travel embargoes and a freeze on assets in countries like Ivory Coast, Somalia, and the DRC - where children are still used as soldiers.