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Child Soldiers

Research on child soldiers in 1998 revealed that an estimated 300,000 children or more under the age of eighteen were fighting in more than thirty armed conflicts around the world. Although most recruits were over fifteen years of age, significant recruitment started at age ten, and the use of even younger children was not uncommon. In countries such as Mozambique, Liberia, El Salvador, and Guatemala peace accords led to the demobilization of many child soldiers in recent years. However, in other areas the use of child combatants was on the rise, contributing to a growing global problem.

During 1998, for example, a new wave of violence in Sierra Leone resulted in the forced recruitment of thousands of children by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC). After losing political power in February, the AFRC/RUF launched a war of terror, using children and other abductees to engage in armed attacks against Sierra Leone civilians, Civilian Defense Forces, and soldiers from the Economic Community Cease-fire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG), a peacekeeping force set up by the Economic Community of West African States. Children recruited as soldiers by the AFRC/RUF typically were provided with food, mind-altering drugs, and firearms and forced to fight and commit atrocities alongside the AFRC/RUF soldiers.

Civilian Defense Forces fighting on behalf of the Sierra Leone government also recruited children at least as late as July, despite numerous public pledges by the government to desist from the use of child soldiers.

In August 1998 a rebel uprising against the Kabila government in the Democratic Republic of Congo prompted a government-sponsored military recruitment drive targeting children as young as twelve. Official communiques aired over national radio on August 7 urged children and youth between twelve and twenty years old to enlist in the armed forces. Rebel forces also recruited child soldiers in their effort to oust the existing government.

In northern Uganda, the abduction of children by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) continued unabated as part of the LRA’s twelve-year-long effort to overthrow the Ugandan government. UNICEF documented the abductions of at least four thousand children; the actual figures were believed to be much higher, with credible estimates placing the figure between six and ten thousand children abducted. Between August 1997 and February 1998, in Kitgum district alone, between 1,200 and 1,500 children were reported abducted by the LRA. Girls continued to be abducted while very young and given as “wives” to LRA commanders who believed that the girls’ youth would protect them from infection with the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).
In April the U.N. Commission on Human Rights passed a resolution on the abduction of children from northern Uganda, calling on member states to use any influence over the LRA to secure the immediate release of captive children, and demanding that parties supporting the LRA cease such support. Despite mounting international pressure on the government of Sudan to use its influence with the LRA to end abductions, the Sudan government continued to deny its involvement.

In Colombia, guerrilla groups, government security forces, and government-linked paramilitaries all routinely recruited children for combat. Up to 30 percent of some guerrilla units were made up of children, and the number of children in militias, considered a training ground for future guerrilla fighters, were reported to be as high as 85 percent. The Camilist Union-National Liberation Army (Unión Camilista-Ejército de Liberación Nacional, UC-ELN), the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC), and the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación, EPL) all included children in their ranks. These young recruits collected intelligence, made and deployed mines, and served as advance troops in ambush attacks on paramilitaries, soldiers, and police officers. Those who managed to escape were considered deserters and subjected to on-the-spot execution.

Colombia’s national security forces, including the army and National Police, included over 15,000 children. Thousands of others were recruited for civic outreach, uniformed, and placed in war zones, at serious risk of attack. The army also captured or accepted the surrender of children suspected of being guerrillas, then used them as guides or informants. Children were forced to patrol with troops, take part in combat, collect intelligence, and deactivate land mines.

Paramilitary units, which often operate in direct coordination with national security forces, also included large numbers of children. Children as young as eight years of age were seen patrolling with paramilitaries, and up to 50 percent of some units were made up of children.

Special Representative to the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict Olara Otunnu completed the first full year of his three-year mandate. As part of his activities, the Special Representative made field visits to Kosovo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, and the Sudan, in order to assess the situation of children, obtain commitments for child protection, and heighten awareness of the problems facing children in armed conflict. In Sierra Leone, he received commitments from the government and the Civil Defense Forces (Kamajors) to refrain from recruiting under-eighteens, and helped initiate plans for new demobilization and reintegration programs for child combatants. In Sri Lanka, he received a commitment from the Liberation Tigers for Tamil Eelam (LTTE) that the group would not use children below age eighteen in combat, and would refrain from recruiting children younger than seventeen. However, subsequent reports indicated that both the CDF and LTTE continued to recruit underage forces.

International standards prohibiting the use of child soldiers remained woefully inadequate. A U.N. working group mandated to raise the minimum age for recruitment and participation in armed conflict from the existing fifteen to eighteen failed to reach agreement on a text during its February 1998 meeting. The United States, supported by a small number of other states, vigorously opposed an eighteen-year minimum for either military recruitment or participation in armed conflict, effectively blocking any progress in the four-year-old negotiations to raise existing standards through an optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Mounting frustration with the diplomatic deadlock led to the launch of a new international campaign designed to build the public pressure and political will necessary to establish a “straight-eighteen” ban on the use of child soldiers. Launched by six leading international NGOs—Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, International Federation Terre des Hommes, Jesuit Refugee Service (Geneva), the Quaker United Nations Office (Geneva), and Swedish Save the Children (on behalf of the International Save the Children Alliance)—the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers began a campaign urging the adoption of an optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child that would ban the recruitment and participation in armed conflict of children under the age of eighteen. The campaign sought the recognition and enforcement of this standard by all armed forces and groups, both governmental and nongovernmental.

National coalitions and campaigns to stop the use of children as soldiers quickly formed in more than twenty countries, including Belgium, Canada, Germany, Iran, Mozambique, the Netherlands, Norway, the United Kingdom, and the United States. A public launch of the campaign through press conferences in New York and Geneva on June 30, preceded by a public debate on child soldiers in the Security Council on June 29, served to heighten media attention to the global use of child combatants.

Government-level advocacy led one state, Denmark, to announce in June that it would raise its voluntary recruitment age from seventeen to eighteen. By the end of the year, other states were actively considering similar steps. ( See Special Issues and Campaigns section.)



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