Little Progress Made in Eradication of Child Soldiers

A Tragedy Severely Condemned by John Paul II

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ROME, NOV. 19, 2004 ( Despite the Pope’s repeated appeals, the phenomenon of child soldiers — 300,000 are active in some 20 conflicts — is far from disappearing.

In his condemnation of the afflictions suffered at present by children, John Paul II mentioned in his 2004 Lenten message the situation of minors «enrolled for combat» and said that those children are «profoundly wounded by the violence of adults.»

The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers presented its 2004 Global Report to the press in London this week. The report states the number of children between the ages of 9-17 who have been recruited by armies or armed groups and sent to fight.

L’Osservatore Romano, the Holy See’s semiofficial newspaper, reported statements of Casey Kelso, the coalition’s president, who warned at the press conference that «whole generations are losing their childhood because of governments and armed groups.»

The text raises the alarm in regard to «dozens of armed groups in many regions of the world» that «continue to recruit children, obliging them to fight, training them in the use of arms and explosives, and subjecting them to violence, forced labor, and other forms of vexations.»

Special reference was made to the conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, Uganda, Zimbabwe, India, Burma, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Iraq, Israel, the Palestinian Territories, Colombia and Chechnya.

About 300,000 minors are involved at present in conflicts worldwide, according to the report, which analyzes the use in 196 countries of minors by government militias or rebels, in the period April, 2001 to March, 2004. In Africa alone, there are some 100,000 child-soldiers.

It is estimated that at least 21 ongoing wars exploit minors for military purposes.

In some cases, not only are the children trained in the use of weapons, but they are also used spies, as in Israel, and are obliged to use violence against their contemporaries, as in Angola and Sierra Leone. Some are used as drug-pushers, as is the case in Colombia.

The duration of modern conflicts, often between 10-15 years, turns the children into «spare human material,» indispensable for decimated armies. They are also instruments of vengeance in the criminal logic of those who enroll them to punish the enemy, such as parents and the community, said the Italian newspaper Avvenire.

The report has significant data on Afghanistan, Angola, and Sierra Leone. The end of war has led, in recent years, to the demobilization of 40,000 children. This contrasts with the new situation of 25,000 other children, who are involved in the wars in the Ivory Coast and Sudan.

The main recruiters and exploiters of child-soldiers are armed groups, both pro-government as well as opposition forces. Not infrequently, as in the case of FARC (Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia), children are referred to «war councils» for disciplinary infractions and, in some cases, murdered, even by their contemporaries.

In the eastern region of Congo, armed groups have committed particularly atrocious violations and abuses against youngsters.

But the coalition also emphasizes the case of children who are trained in legitimized military academies or enrolled legally, though not sent to fight. In this connection, the report criticizes 60 governments, among them, those of the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany and Holland. Recently, President Vladimir Putin reintroduced military schools in Russia, in disuse for a long time.

There are also children who are trained for war and take part in military operations, as established in their countries’ legislation.

The report mentions the United States, which annually recruits more than 10,000 seventeen-year old boys who become part of the Armed Forces. Between 2003 and 2004, 53 were sent to Iraq, five to Afghanistan, and two to Kuwait.

The coalition appeals to governments to exclude all recruitment of minors under the age of 18, and to comply fully with the United Nations Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict.

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