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    Child Soldiers

    A new international campaign emerged in 1998 to stop the global use of children as soldiers, whose numbers grew to more than 300,000. The campaign sought to overcome the diplomatic deadlock that had stymied efforts to establish adequate standards prohibiting the recruitment and use of children in armed conflict.

    Existing international law allowed children as young as fifteen to be legally recruited and sent into combat. While the existing standard was nearly universally recognized as inadequate, efforts through the United Nations to raise this age to eighteen remained unsuccessful. Despite four years of negotiations, a working group established by the Commission on Human Rights failed to reach agreement in 1998 on a text, largely due to a small number of states which resisted any measure that exceeded their existing national standards. The United States mounted the strongest opposition, despite the fact that as one of only two countries that has failed to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, it would not even be eligible to join the optional protocol.

    Growing frustration with this diplomatic stalemate led Human Rights Watch and other international non-governmental organizations to form the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. Believing that public pressure and nongovernmental action could generate the political will for change, the coalition began to organize a major international campaign to highlight the urgency of stronger protection for children against military recruitment. Reflecting the “straight-eighteen” position adopted by virtually every nongovernmental and international agency actively involved in work on children and armed conflict, the coalition began an intensive educational and lobbying effort to establish eighteen as the minimum age for any form of military recruitment or participation in armed conflict. The goal was for this standard, to be adopted through an optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and to be recognized and enforced by all armed forces and groups, governmental and non-governmental.

    The coalition was formally launched through press conferences in New York and Geneva on June 30, with the participation of UNICEF, UNHCR, and the special representative to the secretary-general on children and armed conflict. The preceding day, the Security Council engaged in a landmark special debate on children and armed conflict, where the speeches of several ambassadors supported the emerging campaign.

    The coalition, which was chaired by Human Rights Watch, quickly established an international secretariat near Geneva and generated publications in five languages which were broadly disseminated among governments, nongovernmental organizations, and the press. Within six months, contact was established with national networks or coalitions in more than twenty countries. These networks worked to lobby their own governments on behalf of an international standard restricting military service to those aged eighteen or over, and where necessary, to push for national legislation to raise their country’s domestic recruitment age to eighteen. Denmark announced a change to this effect in its own domestic policy in June, and by year’s end, several other governments were actively considering such a move. [In October, Secretary-General Kofi Annan announced that the United Nations Peacekeeping forces would adopt a new policy consistent with the “straight-eighteen” position, setting a minimum age for U.N. peacekeepers of eighteen, and recommending that they be at least twenty-one.]

    In addition to its public education and media effort, the coalition met with key governments, and began preparations for a series of regional conferences in 1999, intended to bring together governments and nongovernmental organizations in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, to discuss stronger prohibitions against the recruitment of children and their participation in armed conflict.

    In the United States, Human Rights Watch gave leadership to efforts to shift the U.S. position on international standards relatedto child soldiers. Despite the small number of under-eighteens in the U.S. armed forces—less than one-half of 1 percent—the U.S. vigorously opposed an optional protocol setting eighteen as the minimum age for either recruitment or participation in armed conflict. U.S. officials stated that recruitment of seventeen-year-olds represented an “edge” that the Defense Department was not willing to give up, and argued that given the lack of compliance with existing standards prohibiting the use of under-fifteens, emphasis should be placed on enforcing current prohibitions rather than raising the relevant age. However, given a powerful opportunity to strengthen enforcement mechanisms by including the recruitment and use of under-fifteens as a war crime under the statute of the International Criminal Court, the U.S. chose to oppose this measure as well. Human Rights Watch advocated strongly for the provision, which was ultimately included in the final statute, despite U.S. opposition.

    Human Rights Watch met with Defense Department, State Department, and National Security Council officials regarding the U.S. position on the optional protocol, participated in a series of congressional briefings on child soldiers, and helped influence the introduction of House of Representatives and Senate resolutions on child soldiers. A sign-on letter addressed to President Clinton initiated by Human Rights Watch garnered the signatures of over sixty members of the House of Representatives.

    An advocacy visit to the United States in March by Angelina Acheng Atyam, mother of a fourteen-year-old girl abducted by rebels in northern Uganda, further raised the profile of child recruitment in the U.S. media, and led U.S. First Lady Hillary Clinton to strongly condemn the practice during a trip to Africa with President Clinton.

    Seeking to broaden the effort to shift the U.S. position, a U.S. Campaign to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers was established with the goals of securing U.S. support of an international “straight-eighteen” ban, raising the U.S. recruitment age to eighteen, and eliminating U.S. military aid which facilitates the use of child soldiers by other governments or armed groups. Human Rights Watch joined religious, peace, youth advocacy and other human rights groups as part of the campaign’s steering committee.


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