The Democratic Republic of Congo’s military has been removed from the UN’s ‘list of shame’ of armed groups that recruit and use child soldiers – only the second ever delisting after Chad in 2014.
It’s a hugely positive step. The UN’s annual Children and Armed Conflict report, released last week, is a key document in highlighting the militaries and armed groups that recruit and commit grave violations against children. This year, 56 state forces and armed groups from 14 countries were named.
However, the progress made by the Congolese armed forces, the FARDC, has been a long time coming, and serious concerns remain over sexual violence committed by its soldiers.
History of abuse and recruitment
Officially formed in 2003, the current national army has for much of its existence been mired in conflicts with Congo’s multiple militias. Violence has long scarred the country, as national and foreign armed groups vie for power and survival in the mineral-rich east.
These conflicts have left a trail of death, sexual abuse, and child recruitment across the region. For many years during the 2000s, FARDC forces were among the perpetrators.
Exact figures on child recruitment by the army since 2003 are not known. But international observers and human rights groups believe it’s in the thousands, with minors exploited as fighters alongside less official roles as look-outs, porters, messengers, cooks, and sexual slaves – often referred to as “wives”.
One of the most significant enabling factors in the army’s use of children has been the fractured and disorganised way it has integrated disparate armed groups into its ranks as part of various peace settlements.
In 2009, 12,000 fighters from the National Congress for the Defence of the People and many local self-defence ‘Mai-Mai’ groups surrendered and joined the Congolese army.
It was envisaged as a way to stem the deadly conflict – at this point 800,000 civilians had been displaced and thousands more killed in the east. The integration process resulted in hundreds of children being integrated alongside adult fighters. It also led to senior militia commanders maintaining power bases, only now as members of the armed forces, and still continuing to recruit and use children.
A 2012-2013 recruitment campaign by the FARDC targeting 18 to 25 year olds also permitted hundreds more children to enrol due to lack of robust screening procedures.
UN action plan
The signing of a 2012 UN action plan by President Joseph Kabila’s government and the UN marked a major step forward.
Between 2009 and 2015, the UN peacekeeping mission in the country, MONUSCO, and the FARDC assisted with the release of 8,546 children associated with Congo’s armed groups, including from within the army itself.
The training of the army and other security forces on child protection issues, and the creation of standard operating procedures on age verification have all helped eliminate the recruitment of children by the armed forces; as has the appointment, in 2014, of Jeanine Mabunda Lioko as special advisor to the president on sexual violence and child recruitment, and the systematic screening and separation of children in the ranks of the armed forces.
Culture of impunity remains
However, an end to the sexual violence committed by the FARDC and others is yet to materialise. Significantly, the UN report still lists the FARDC as committing “rape and other forms of sexual violence against children”.
High-ranking officers of the FARDC, the national police, and leaders of armed groups have been arrested and convicted of sexual violence against children. Members of the FARDC have also been charged with child recruitment, but there have been no convictions to date.
Further, in contravention to the action plan and a 2013 Ministry of Defence directive prohibiting the practice, the detention by government forces of children formerly associated with armed groups persists.
MONUSCO has noted incidents where children freed from groups are being detained “for periods ranging from a few days to several months,” by the security forces. Eradicating such practices is crucial if the army’s reputation is to be restored.
Many Congolese children are still routinely exploited by armed groups in both combat and support roles. And for girls, who account for up to 40 percent of Congo’s child soldiers, serious sexual and physical abuse continues, as well as stigma and family rejection of those able to return home.
The scale of the enduring problems is demonstrated by the fact that the latest UN report found that 12 armed groups active in Congo were still using child soldiers.
And worryingly, recent violence in the restive Kasai region has created hundreds more child soldiers. MONUSCO chief Maman Sidikou told IRIN in September that recruitment in the central region “has never been so extensive in DRC”.
Previously, when the country has spiralled back into conflict, the use of children by both armed groups and the FARDC has resumed.
The UN’s delisting of the Congolese armed forces shows tangible results are possible. To avoid a regression, the government must maintain the progress made within its own ranks and intensify its efforts to stop recruitment by armed groups, while at the same time respecting human rights across the country.
It is paramount that children who are released or escape, and the communities to which they return, receive adequate support if victims are to recover and lead normal lives again. Any assistance given must be holistic and community-based otherwise recruitment and re-recruitment will occur when conflict flares up.
Cementing progress will not only ensure Congo’s removal is lasting but also inspire other countries to take concerted action to tackle the recruitment and use of children in armed conflict.
TOP PHOTO: Sensitisation initiative by local NGO with armed groups in Lubarika, South Kivu. CREDIT: Child Soldiers International