John Guangwap Thiep was asleep when South Sudanese soldiers burst into his home in Mayom county in July 2016, determined to snatch him away from his family and friends. They had come to recruit him, alongside dozens of other local youths, into South Sudan’s feared armed forces. He was 16 at the time and wasn’t given much of a choice. “Some of us were very young,” John told me in December. “The youngest looked like he was 10 …They were crying … But if you cry too much, the soldiers beat you.”
Now, South Sudanese soldiers and commanders responsible for the forcible recruiting of thousands of other children and other grave human rights abuses may be eligible to receive training from South Africa.
On January 29, Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula, the South African minister of defence and military veterans, flew to Juba to visit her South Sudanese counterpart. She wasn’t there to urge South Sudanese authorities to stop and investigate their serious violations in that country’s abusive conflict. Instead she was there to reward South Sudan with a military cooperation agreement. The agreement will allow South African soldiers to train South Sudanese troops, who have shown no regard for international human rights or humanitarian law despite previous training by international forces.
Since the beginning of the brutal civil war four years ago, the South Sudanese army’s abuses against civilians have included hundreds of killings, dozens of enforced disappearances, countless rapes, rampant torture, the wholesale destruction of dozens of villages and the forced recruitment of thousands of children. The conflict has created the continent’s largest refugee crisis, forcefully displacing close to four million South Sudanese civilians, half of whom have fled to neighboring countries, away from the warring parties’ atrocities.
The government of South Africa cannot claim to be ignorant of these violations by South Sudanese soldiers. They have been extensively documented, and South Africa has played a key role in talks to try to end the current conflict between South Sudan’s warring parties, as well as in the peace process to end the Sudanese civil war, which led to South Sudan’s independence in 2011.
Yet, instead of using South Africa’s privileged role to urge an end to war crimes and crimes against humanity and to demand accountability, government spokespeople have been intent on normalizing the military cooperation agreement between both countries. The official line is that it is merely “a product of long existing bilateral relations between the two countries dating back to the liberation struggles and South Sudan’s independence, in which South Africa played a critical role.”
Gordon Mwanzile, South Africa’s high commissioner to South Sudan, went further by telling SABC that the military cooperation agreement was “of special importance now that South Sudan has signed a cessation of hostilities agreement [in December] and is opening up a new phase of transition from conflict to peace.” The high commissioner disingenuously failed to mention that the government and rebel troops violated the agreement within hours of its entry into force.
The South Sudanese army does not need more training to ensure that it respects human rights norms and the laws of war. Before the current conflict broke out, the United States and United Nations poured significant resources into training in international law for South Sudanese army officers. Less than three years after the country’s independence, many of those officers were commanding forces responsible for atrocities against civilians.
Sadly, South Sudanese leaders have shown no serious intent to prevent, investigate or punish abuses against civilians committed by troops under their command. South Africa’s plan to assist and train South Sudan’s forces therefore raises serious concerns. While the civil war rages on, assistance to the army could lead to further atrocities and war crimes against civilians, and to South African complicity in them.
If South Africa’s government wants to assist the South Sudanese, rather than deepen cooperation with those who use child soldiers, it should support international efforts to provide accountability for grave crimes.
Those who abducted 16-year-old John away from his family don’t deserve to sit in training workshops. They deserve to sit in court.
Jonathan Pedneault is a researcher with the Emergencies team at Human Rights Watch.