The conflict between the armed forces of Sudan and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) is entering its fourth month and the situation of children is increasingly desperate. UNICEF reports that the fighting has displaced more than 1 million children. Hundreds have been killed, thousands are injured. There are reports of children’s bodies within mass graves and crimes of sexual violence against girls. As fighting has extended into civilian areas, schools are closed, children’s institutions have been attacked, and health care facilities have been looted and destroyed. Aid agencies are struggling to provide humanitarian aid.

The United Nations Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict called on all parties to fully comply with all principles of international humanitarian law and international human rights law. However, conditions on the ground show that both sides are failing to abide by international legal standards and committing grave violations against children.     

Children Under International Humanitarian Law (IHL)

Under IHL, the rules governing conduct in conflict depend on whether that conflict is international or non-international in nature. It has been convincingly argued that the fighting in Sudan amounts to a non-international armed conflict (NIAC), meaning that the rules of IHL apply. While the protections for children are more detailed in international armed conflicts, IHL nevertheless creates a broad framework for protection of children in NIAC. 

IHL affords general protection to children as persons taking no part in hostilities and affords special protection due to their vulnerability. Under common article 3 to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, children must be treated humanely and there must be no violence against them or outrages upon their dignity. This general protection is further developed in Article 4 of Additional Protocol II of 1977, which creates an obligation for all parties to treat children affected by armed conflict with special respect and to provide them with the care and aid they require. The direct participation in hostilities of children under 15 is prohibited and the right to access education is protected under Article 4 (3).

Sudan is States party to both of these instruments and IHL binds all parties to a NIAC, meaning that all warring factions are obligated to respect these standards.     

Violations of International Children’s Rights Law

The most comprehensive set of protections for children are found in international human rights law, particularly the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Sudan is States party to the CRC and is obligated to respect and ensure to all children within its jurisdiction a full range of civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. There is no general derogation clause under the CRC, meaning that the rights of children are to be respected at all times, including during public emergencies and armed conflict. In all matters concerning children, States parties are to take heed of the four guiding principles of the CRC: non-discrimination; the best interests of the child; the right to life, survival, and development; and the right to be heard. 

Every aspect of children’s lives is impacted by conflict. The loss of home and access to schooling, and deprivation of food and health care hamper not only their short-term development, but their future prospects. Conflict, and the displacement and separation of families that frequently accompanies it, make children acutely vulnerable to the dangers of abduction, trafficking, sexual violence, and forced recruitment into armed forces and armed groups. Prior to the outbreak of conflict in April 2023, it was already estimated that 3 to 5 percent of Sudan’s internally displaced children were unaccompanied. The mass displacement currently taking place means that this figure is now believed to have exponentially increased, and very high numbers of children are now at risk of exploitation.

The CRC and its Optional Protocols require States parties to protect children from these threats. The obligation to respect the general rules of IHL is reinforced under Article 38 of the CRC and States are required to take all feasible measures to ensure protection and care of children who are affected by armed conflict. The recruitment of children under 15 into armed forces is prohibited. For States parties to the OPAC, which includes Sudan, all feasible measures must be taken to ensure that children under 18 do not take a direct part in hostilities and compulsory recruitment is prohibited. Moreover, conscripting or enlisting children under 15 into national armed forces or using them to actively participate in hostilities is a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. This has been successfully prosecuted by the Court (Prosecutor v. Thomas Lubanga Dyilo and Prosecutor v. Dominic Ongwen) in the past. The ICC recently highlighted the effective investigation and prosecution of crimes against children as a key priority.

The CRC obliges States parties to take all appropriate measures to protect children from trafficking and sexual and economic exploitation. The Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography (2000) further requires States parties, which includes Sudan, to prohibit trafficking in children for any purpose, including for exploitative and forced labour.

Grave Violations against Children

Conduct in Sudan to date shows contempt, rather than respect, for the rules of IHL and international human rights law standards, with disastrous consequences for Sudan’s children.

This situation is not new in Sudan. Conflict-related violations against children have been monitored there by the U.N. for almost two decades. Government armed forces and the RSF, among other pro and anti-government armed groups, have repeatedly been involved in the commission of the six grave violations against children in times of war. Those are: killing and maiming, recruitment and use of children in armed forces and armed groups; attacks on schools or hospitals; rape or other grave sexual violence; abduction; and denial of humanitarian access for children.

Indeed, the situation in Sudan typifies the continued violation of IHL rules by parties to conflict that prompted the U.N. Security Council to identify and condemn the six grave violations. Their commission triggers the U.N. Security Council’s Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism, which seeks to systematically gather information on grave violations in order to inform future Security Council action and ensure compliance and accountability for violations against children. Commission of any of the six grave violations is also a trigger for listing parties to a conflict in the annexes of the U.N. Secretary General’s annual report on children and armed conflict. 

The most recent report, which does not cover the period since the current fighting began, documents hundreds of instances of the involvement of government forces in recruitment and use, killing and maiming, and attacks on schools and hospitals. Likewise, the RSF was listed as being involved in killing and maiming, sexual violence, attacks on schools and hospitals, and abduction. On the current trajectory, it seems likely that the 2024 report will contain an even bleaker account. Reports from the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees suggest that since the current fighting began in April, there have, once again, been instances of all six grave violations against children across Sudan.

The conflict in Sudan is yet another example of the blatant and systematic disregard shown by warring parties for the international laws which require the protection of children in conflict situations. The problem is not an absence of relevant international legal frameworks,  but the refusal of states and other warring parties to abide by them.

IMAGE: Children sit on a bench as they watch others play on a football dirt pitch at the Madrasa al-Gharbiya camp for those displaced by conflict in Wad Madani, the capital of Sudan’s al-Jazirah state, on May 29, 2023. (Photo via Getty Images)