Human Rights News
Act Now: Child Soldiers Ratification Campaign FREE    Join the HRW Mailing List 

U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee
Hearing on U.S. Ratification of the Optional Protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child

March 7, 2002

Testimony of Jo Becker
Advocacy Director, Children’s Rights Division
Human Rights Watch

Madam Chair and members of the Committee:

Good morning. My name is Jo Becker, and I am the advocacy director for the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. I also serve on the steering committee of the U.S. Campaign to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, and from 1998 until 2001, was the chair of the steering committee for the international Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers.

Related Material

Act Now: Child Soldiers Ratification Campaign

HRW Children's Rights Division

U.S. Campaign to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers

International Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers

"The use of children as soldiers and the sale or sexual exploitation of children offends every American’s sense of decency. By ratifying these Optional Protocols, the United States can provide critical support to global efforts to protect children from devastating exploitation."

Jo Becker
Children's Rights Advocacy Director
for Human Rights Watch


It’s a privilege to speak on behalf of United States ratification of the Optional Protocols on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography and on the involvement of children in armed conflict. I’d like to speak briefly to the sexual exploitation and sale of children, and then devote the bulk of my remarks to the issue of child soldiers.

Every year, millions of children enter the commercial sex trade or are trafficked into slave-like labor practices. The State Department estimates that every year, 50,000-100,000 women and children are trafficked just into the United States. About half are trafficked into bonded sweatshop labor or domestic servitude, and another half are trafficked into the sex industry.  The most vulnerable to these practices include children who are poor, abandoned, orphaned or displaced from their homes. Mostly girls, these children are often promised good jobs, only to find themselves working in brothels or sweatshops. They often have no control over the nature or place of work, have been deceived about what money they may receive, and are subject to slave-like conditions and serious physical abuse. They are often held in debt bondage, raped, and subjected to torture, beatings and exposure to AIDS.

Human Rights Watch has investigated the trafficking of women and girls from Nepal to India, from Bangladesh to Pakistan, from Burma to Thailand, and from Thailand to Japan. In Nepal, we found that girls are frequently lured from remote hill villages and poor communities by recruiters, relatives or neighbors who promise jobs or marriage. Sometimes they are sold for as little as $4 to brokers, who then sell them to brothels in India for $500 or $1000, an amount the girl is then forced to work off. Many of these girls end up in Bombay, where an estimated 20,000 brothel workers are thought to be under the age of 18. Half of these are thought to be infected with HIV.

Children do not need to be trafficked to be exploited within the sex industry. Poor children living on the streets may enter the sex trade to try to earn more money than they can from other forms of street labor, to finance a drug habit, or simply to be able to eat. Pimps prey on these children, and exploit their vulnerability for financial gain.

The Optional Protocol builds on other standards by obliging governments to take tangible steps to ensure that adults involved in the exploitation of children are punished, to prevent the sale of children, child prostitution and pornography, to protect particularly vulnerable groups and to protect the rights of child victims. To date, 92 governments have signed, and 18 have ratified the protocol.

The recruitment and use of children as soldiers is another abhorrent abuse against children.  Approximately 300,000 children have been recruited to fight in armed conflicts in over 30 countries around the globe. While this problem may seem very distant to some, on January 4th, it hit very close to home when U.S. Army Sgt. Nathan Ross Chapman became the first U.S. military casualty in Afghanistan from hostile fire after reportedly being shot by a 14-year old boy.

In Afghanistan, two generations of children have been subject to recruitment, first into the resistance to Soviet forces, and then into various warring factions. As part of the most recent conflict, the Northern Alliance recruited children as young as age eleven, and the Taliban commonly recruited children from madrassas (religious schools) in Pakistan.

Around the world, the ranks of child soldiers include children as young as eight recruited into paramilitaries in Colombia, teenaged boys forcibly taken from their villages in Burma to serve in the national army, and young girls who are kidnapped by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda for use as soldiers and sex slaves.

Some child soldiers are recruited by force and compelled to follow orders under threat of death. Others, their lives devastated by poverty or war, join armed groups out of desperation. As society breaks down during conflict, children are left with no access to school, often driven from their homes or separated from their families. Many perceive armed groups as their best chance for survival.

Child soldiers often start out as porters, cooks or messengers, but frequently end up on the front line of combat. Considered “dispensable,” they may be pushed into the most hazardous roles - going into minefields ahead of older troops, or being used for suicide missions. Some are forced to commit atrocities against their family or neighbors, in order to sever the child’s ties with their community and ensure that they are not able to return home.

Ishmael Beah is a former child soldier from Sierra Leone that hoped to testify here today. He was recruited when he was 13 years old. He says, “I vividly remember the very first day that I was in combat…  I was recruited with the kids that were eight years old, nine years old. They were so small some of them couldn’t even carry the AK-47’s that were given to us so they had to drag it.  I was in an ambush and bullets were flying back and forth, people were shooting. I didn’t want to pull the trigger at all but when you watch kids . . . being shot and killed and . . . dying and crying and their blood was spilling all over your face you just moved beyond, something just pushed you and you start pulling the trigger.”

Ishmael was one of the lucky ones. After three years in the war, he was placed into a rehabilitation program where he received counseling and was assisted to go back to school. He’s now studying at a college in Ohio. But for many other children, the future is desperately bleak.   Denied their childhood and education, and having witnessed and participated in horrific violence, it’s hard to imagine how these children can ever become productive members of civilian society.

Human Rights Watch has directly documented the use of child soldiers in Angola, Burundi, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Sudan, and Uganda. These are brief snapshots of some of our findings:

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, thousands of children have been recruited into the war, often abducted from schools, roadsides, markets and their homes. Rwandan-backed rebel forces have forced unarmed children into battle as decoys. These children were ordered to make noise and beat on trees with sticks in order to draw government fire away from the more experienced, armed troops. The reported result was that they were “killed like flies.”

In Uganda, the Lord’s Resistance Army has abducted more than 10,000 children from Northern Uganda over the last decade. Children are forced to fight, and often compelled to help beat or hack to death fellow child captives that have attempted to escape. Girls are given as “wives” to rebel commanders.

In Colombia, up to 10,000 members of guerrilla forces and army-backed paramilitaries are under age eighteen. The guerrilla use children to collect intelligence, make and deploy mines, and serve as advance troops in ambush attacks, while paramilitaries force families to provide children for service or risk being killed as suspected guerilla sympathizers.

In Burundi, hundreds of children as young as seven have been recruited into government-linked paramilitaries. They are subjected to harsh conditions and some have died as a result of beatings by older soldiers. Many others died in combat after being sent into battle ahead of regular troops.

In Sierra Leone, thousands of children abducted by rebel forces witnessed and participated in horrible atrocities, including beheadings, amputations, rape and burning people alive. Children forced to take part in atrocities were often given drugs to overcome their fear or reluctance to fight.

As international attention to these horrific abuses against children has grown, so has international action. In 1999, the International Labor Organization recognized the forced recruitment of children as soldiers for use in armed conflict as one of the worst forms of child labor. Over the last three years, the use of child soldiers has become a regular part of the UN Security Council’s agenda. And increasingly, regional and other bodies have adopted resolutions on child soldiers, including the Organization of American States, Organization of African Unity, the European Parliament, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Most significant of these milestones is the adoption of the Optional Protocol on children and armed conflict. It is the first international treaty prohibiting the forced recruitment or participation of children under the age of eighteen in armed conflict. It represents a new global consensus that children should not be used as instruments of war. Since its adoption by the UN, it has been signed by 99 governments, and ratified by 16. Human Rights Watch was pleased that the United States was one of the first countries to sign the treaty, on July 5, 2000, and believes that ratification should take place as soon as possible.

Under the protocol, governments must take all feasible measures to ensure that members of their armed forces that are under the age of eighteen do not take a direct part in hostilities, and are prohibited from conscripting or compulsorily recruiting any persons under the age of eighteen.  Rebel or other non-governmental armed groups are prohibited from recruiting under-18s or using them in hostilities. Governments are required to criminalize such practices and take other measures to prevent the recruitment and use of children by such groups. Governments are also required to raise their minimum age for voluntary recruitment beyond the current minimum of fifteen, and must deposit a binding declaration stating the minimum age they will respect. (In practice, this means the minimum age for voluntary recruitment must be at least sixteen.) Those governments accepting volunteers under the age of eighteen must maintain a series of safeguards, including parental consent, and proof of age. Parties also must offer assistance for the rehabilitation and reintegration of former child soldiers.

There are many reasons why the United States should ratify the protocol. I’ll focus on six:

    1) The protocol has already made a difference. International treaties aren’t always respected. But we’ve already seen results from the protocol and increased international attention to child recruitment. Even before the protocol was finalized, some countries began to change their practices. In Colombia, thousands of children were demobilized from the Colombian armed forces. In June of 2000, President Kabila of the Democratic Republic of Congo issued a decree calling for the demobilization of child soldiers from the Congolese army, and is cooperating with UNICEF to put rehabilitation programs into place. Other countries, such as Portugal, South Africa and Italy, have adopted legislation to raise the age of recruitment into their armed forces.

    2) The protocol can influence non-governmental forces. In the last two years, we’ve seen large-scale demobilizations of children even from rebel forces. Last February, over 2500 children between the age of eighteen and eighteen were demobilized from the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. From May to November over 1500 children were demobilized from the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone. In these and other cases, non-state forces can be persuaded to comply with international standards to enhance their own credibility.

    3) The protocol has the support of the American public. A 1999 public opinion poll conducted for the Red Cross asked Americans “At what age is a person mature enough to be a combatant?” 93% of the U.S. public responded that combatants should be at least 18.  A broad range of non-governmental organizations also support the protocol, including the American Bar Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, Children’s Defense Fund, National Council of Churches, Save the Children and Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation.

    4) U.S. support for an international ban on the use of child soldiers can help protect U.S. soldiers. Army Sgt. Chapman was not the first U.S. soldier to encounter a child soldier in a combat situation. Many U.S. soldiers faced armed children during the Vietnam war and had to make a choice whether to defend themselves or possibly take the life of a child. Children are often used as soldiers because they may be more easily able to approach enemy forces without suspicion and are more willing to undertake dangerous missions than their adult counterparts. As a result, U.S. soldiers may be at increased risk in conflicts where children are used.

    5) U.S. recruitment and operations will not be significantly affected. Under the protocol, the United States must take all feasible measures to ensure that members of its armed forces that are below age 18 do not participate directly in hostilities. Because of the small number of 17-year olds on active duty, this provision affects an extremely small number of U.S. troops. The Defense Department reported to Human Rights Watch that of those enlisted troops who have completed both their basic and technical training and been assigned to units, 99.76% are age eighteen or older. Those that remain can be reassigned for the short period of time before they turn eighteen.

    6) The need for U.S. leadership: The importance of U.S. leadership by example on this issue should not be underestimated. By ratifying the Optional Protocol, the U.S. will be in a strong position to use its considerable political and military influence to discourage the use of children as soldiers by other governments and armed groups. Ratification will also complement the substantial humanitarian assistance the United States devotes to assist children affected by war.

Human Rights Watch takes the position that no child should be recruited—whether forcibly or voluntarily—before the age of eighteen. We believe this is the best way to ensure that children are not exposed to combat or the risk of attack. However, the protocol sets a lower standard, in part because significant compromises were made during the negotiation of the protocol to accommodate the United States and other countries that accept voluntary recruits before the age of eighteen. An additional concession was made solely for the United States to enable it to ratify the optional protocols as stand-alone agreements without having ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. In light of these concessions, we strongly urge this Committee to recommend the protocol to the full Senate with no reservations.

The use of children as soldiers and the sale or sexual exploitation of children offends every American’s sense of decency. By ratifying these Optional Protocols, the United States can provide critical support to global efforts to protect children from devastating exploitation.

Thank you for the opportunity to share this testimony with you today.