COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, DEC. 14, 2002 (Zenit.org).- Efforts to demobilize child soldiers met with success as warring groups in Sri Lanka reached agreement on a UNICEF-sponsored plan to bring children’s lives back to normalcy, Agence France-Presse reported Dec. 6.
During peace talks held in Norway, the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam agreed to continue demobilization of its “baby brigades.” The news came after UNICEF announced last June 20 that its officials were told the rebels would no longer recruit anyone under the age of 18 in their armed forces.
As part of UNICEF’s campaign against the use of minors in conflicts, the organization on Oct. 30 published a study on child soldiers. “Adult Wars, Child Soldiers: Voices of Children Involved in Armed Conflict in the East Asia and Pacific Region” is based, according to a press release, on interviews with 69 current and former child combatants from six countries (Cambodia, East Timor, Indonesia, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines). The average recruitment age of those interviewed was 13; the youngest was forcibly recruited at 7.
UNICEF says that up to one-quarter of the world’s estimated 300,000 child soldiers are serving in the East Asia and Pacific region. At the launch of the study, UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy said that the use of children as soldiers by government and non-state armies should be recognized “as an illegal and morally reprehensible practice that has no place in civilized societies.”
The study calls for the systematic demobilization of all child soldiers. It also calls the provision of support for helping them reintegrate into society, with an emphasis on access to education and vocational training, as well as psycho-social care.
Another UNICEF report, “No Guns, Please: We are Children!,” published last year, estimated that since 1990, wars have left more than 2 million children dead and 6 million seriously injured and driven more than 22 million from their homes.
In 1994, the U.N. secretary-general asked Graça Machel, the former Minister of Education of Mozambique, to undertake a human rights assessment of children in armed conflict. The resulting document, “Report on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children,” was published in 1996.
One year later, following up on the recommendations in the study, the U.N. secretary-general appointed a Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict. Soon after, the United Nations launched a campaign to promote the adoption of an Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The protocol prohibits the forced military recruitment of children under age 18, but allows voluntary recruitment after 15. The protocol took effect last Feb. 12.
Additionally, the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court, which came into force last July, makes the conscription, enlistment or use of children under 15 in hostilities a war crime.
Non-governmental organizations are also trying to halt the use of child soldiers. One of these is the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, formed in 1998 by six NGOs. Along with other groups this organization is pushing for what is known as a “straight-18” ban on the use of children as soldiers, which would eliminate the possibility of voluntary recruitment now permitted by the U.N. protocol once children reach age 15.
The coalition explains that the widespread availability of modern lightweight weapons enables children to become efficient killers in combat. In addition to front-line duties, many children are used as spies, messengers, sentries, porters and servants. Children are often used to lay and clear land mines. They are also sexually abused.
Governments and armed groups, notes the coalition, use children because they are easier to condition, to kill fearlessly and to obey unthinkingly. The methodology sometimes includes supplying the children with drugs and alcohol.
Children become involved in fighting for a variety of reasons. Some are recruited forcibly, while others are driven into armed forces by poverty or discrimination. Some join armed groups as a way of fighting back, after being victimized by state authorities.
The biggest offender
The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers issued an appeal this month, concerning the use of children in Myanmar. This country (also known as Burma) is believed to have more child soldiers than any other. More than 70,000 children serve in the national army alone.
The appeal charges that the army forcibly recruits children as young as 11. Since taking power in 1988 the military government has doubled the size of the overall army. The forced recruitment of children was confirmed by a 1998 Commission of Inquiry, carried out by the International Labor Organization.
Some children are also present in the armed forces of Myanmar’s opposition groups. The United Wa State Army is the largest user of child soldiers, with some 2,000 in its ranks. Researchers estimate that the combined non-state armies have 6,000 to 7,000 soldiers under the age of 18.
Another country under criticism is Colombia. Armed groups there have recruited at least 6,000 children, the Colombian newspaper El Tiempo reported Dec. 4.
The paper reported on a just-published study, by UNICEF and the Public Defender’s Office in Colombia, alleging that child soldiers are being trained in 16 of the country’s departments. Some are forced to work as domestic laborers and to take part in combat and intelligence missions, while others receive explosives training.
The average age of the children is 13.8; some are as young as 7. Many child soldiers are also sexually abused, with the girls forced to use IUD’s and to undergo abortions in the case of pregnancy.
Africa also has seen widespread use of child soldiers. In Angola, for instance, the children’s problems are not over, even after the fighting ends, BBC reported Nov. 19.
During Angola’s civil war both the government army and the Unita rebels regularly forced children to fight in their ranks. But, with the coming of peace, the former child soldiers have been forgotten by authorities.
The children were torn away from their families and forced to participate in traumatic conflicts. To have any hope of resuming something like a normal life they need special care and support. However, the programs for the social reintegration of former combatants don’t even give the special needs of children a single mention.
A similar situation affects ex-child soldiers in Congo, noted a report published Nov. 13 by the Integrated Regional Information Networks, part of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
An estimated 30,000 children served in the government and various rebel armies. Between 8,000 and 12,000 are thought to be in government camps and the rest in rebel establishments. However, only 207 child soldiers, in the camps under government control, have benefited from a pilot program of demobilization.
The program, launched last Dec. 18, exempts the ex-child soldiers from school fees. But they lack school furniture, school buses and a means of support. Many have lost contact with their families.
The recent agreement in Sri Lanka is a step forward, but the problem of child soldiers continues to be an open wound.