This month marks the fifth anniversary of South Sudan’s independence and the country appears to be on the verge civil war — again. July has been marred by renewed violence and numerous reports of human rights abuses committed by both government and rebel forces, which has resulted in the deaths of more than 300 people; it risks plunging the country into more conflict and ever-increasing insecurity.

The South Sudan’s return to conflict holds catastrophic implications for civilian populations, including vulnerable children. Children are acutely affected by conflict, as armed violence destroys homes and schools, fuels displacement, and leaves countless children at risk for recruitment and use as soldiers in combat.

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South Sudanese children have been exploited by all parties to the conflict. According to UNICEF estimates, at least 15,000 children are believed to have been recruited and used as child soldiers since the outset of violence in 2013.

Their government has agreed to a United Nations (UN) action plan to demobilize and prevent further recruitment and use of child soldiers, but has largely failed to uphold this commitment.

In 2015 alone, the UN documented over 150 incidents of child soldier recruitment and use — affecting more than 2,500 children — the majority of which were attributed to the Sudan’s People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and government-allied forces.

While the United States and others have noted South Sudan’s apparent disregard to its commitment to end the use of child soldiers, few have taken considerable steps to influence Juba’s behavior. For example, the United States has legislation to prohibit the transfer of military assistance and U.S. weapons to countries that use or support the use of child soldiers.

Through the Child Soldiers Prevention Act (CSPA), the United States prohibits arms transfers and military training to countries identified by the State Department in the Trafficking in Persons report as having recruited and used children in national militaries or government-supported armed groups.

The law applies only to specific categories of assistance under both State and Defense Department accounts and conditions provisions of assistance on a country’s record towards ending and preventing the use of children in conflict. The president, however, may waive these prohibitions under specific circumstances and permit military assistance to flow unimpeded.

Since its independence in 2011, South Sudan has consistently been identified by the State Department for recruiting and using child soldiers. Although the country did make progress in demobilizing children from its armed forces after independence, the government undertook large-scale recruitment — at times by force — when conflict erupted in December 2013. This included 310 UN-verified cases of recruitment and/or use of child soldiers in 2014 alone.

Despite these egregious violations, South Sudan has consistently received full or partial waivers from the CSPA prohibitions. This has amounted to the authorization of more than $120 million in U.S. military assistance and over $20 million in arms sales since FY2013. The administration has also requested $30 million in military assistance for South Sudan for FY2017.

U.S. officials have repeatedly stated that they are unwilling to sanction South Sudan’s military assistance because of the importance of supporting this fledgling democracy and the need to maintain U.S. influence and involvement in the country’s development. As a result, the United States has symbolically given a pass to South Sudan through tacit approval of this reprehensible practice.

President Obama has one last chance to send the right message. The administration should not grant South Sudan any waivers for U.S. military assistance when decisions are announced this fall. In this way, the administration has the opportunity to make a statement and push South Sudan to better adhere to its commitments and stop using — and recruiting — child soldiers.

Shannon Dick is Research Associate and Rachel Stohl is Senior Associate and Director of the Conventional Defense program at the Stimson Center.


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