Campaign efforts to end the use of children as soldiers gathered significant momentum during 1999. Following its launch in May of 1998, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers grew to encompass national campaigns in more than thirty countries worldwide. The coalition, which is chaired by Human Rights Watch, continued to highlight the urgency of stronger protections for children against military recruitment and campaigned vigorously to establish eighteen as the minimum age for any form of military recruitment or participation in armed conflict. Through media and public education campaigns, the publication of new research, partnerships with sympathetic governments, and advocacy within regional and international fora the coalition helped place the global abuse of children as soldiers on the international agenda and built new support for an effective ban on the use of child soldiers.
A series of high level regional conferences was central to the coalition's 1999 campaign efforts. More than 250 representatives of governments and civil society from over fifty countries participated in the African Conference on the Use of Children as Soldiers, held from April 19-22 in Onlineuto, Mozambique. Organized by the coalition and hosted by the Mozambican Foreign Ministry, the conference was the largest and broadest meeting ever held in Africa on the use of child soldiers. A strong declaration adopted by participants proclaimed the use of children as soldiers to be wholly unacceptable and called for the rapid adoption of legal standards and measures at every level to prohibit any military service by children under the age of eighteen. The declaration was affirmed by the Organization of African Unity Assembly of Heads of State and Government in July, and member states were urged by the assembly to adopt and promote norms prohibiting the recruitment and use as soldiers of children under age eighteen.
The Onlineuto conference also built support for ratification of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, the only regional treaty that sets eighteen as the minimum age for recruitment and participation in armed conflict. During 1999, Cameroon became the thirteenthcountry to ratify the charter, while ten additional governments made commitments to ratify, including Tunisia, Libya, Liberia, South Africa, Ghana, Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya, and Malawi. Needing fifteen ratifications, the charter is expected to go into force soon.
A second regional conference on the use of children as soldiers in Latin America and the Caribbean was hosted by the Uruguayan government in Montevideo, Uruguay in July, drawing representatives from twenty countries. The conference also resulted in a strong declaration condemning the use of child soldiers and calling for concrete steps to end all recruitment or participation in armed conflict of children under the age of eighteen.
A third conference for the European region was hosted by the German Foreign Ministry in Berlin in October. The event drew 180 participants, including representatives from twenty-nine European governments. Although agreement was not reached on a minimum age for recruitment, conference participants adopted a declaration calling on all states to ensure that no person under the age of eighteen years, within their armed forces, participates in armed conflict. For several European states, this was the first time that they had agreed upon an absolute prohibition on participation by minors in armed conflict.
In June of 1999, the use of child soldiers was recognized as a child labor issue when the International Labor Conference included a prohibition on the forced recruitment of children for use in armed conflict in a new convention on the worst forms of child labor. Trade unions and a broad group of governments, including Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, Mexico, Norway, Spain, Uruguay, and all African states, advocated for a broad prohibition on any participation in armed conflict by children under the age of eighteen. However, the United States, backed by the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, mounted an aggressive-and ultimately successful- lobbying campaign for a much narrower prohibition on the "forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflicts."
The new ILO convention is a landmark in that it is the first international treaty to prohibit certain forms of military service by children under the age of eighteen. Regrettably, however, the convention's narrow language leaves thousands of child soldiers around the world unprotected. Although a great number of child soldiers are recruited by force, most are lured into armed groups by promises of payment, food, or protection. These "voluntary" recruits are not automatically covered by the new convention, although governments who wish to extend the protections of the convention can designate the recruitment and participation of under-eighteens as "work likely to harm health, safety or morals" of a child and thus included among prohibited forms of child labor.
During the year, Olara Otunnu, the special representative of the secretary-general on children and armed conflict, traveled to several conflict areas in Latin America, Africa, and Europe, where he sought commitments from parties to conflict regarding the nonrecruitment of children. As a result, the governments of Colombia and Sierra Leone (as well as the Civilian Defense Forces affiliated with the Sierra Leonean government) made commitments not to recruit children under the age of eighteen, while Burundi pledged to introduce legislation to raise its recruitment age from sixteen to eighteen. The rebel Congolese Rally for Democracy (RDC) in the Democratic Republic of Congo also pledged not to recruit children under eighteen, while the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionaries de Colombia, FARC) pledged not to recruit children under the age of fifteen. However, monitoring and enforcement of these commitments was difficult, and evidence suggested that parties such as the FARC continued to recruit children, despite their promises.
Other governments not engaged in active armed conflicts also took steps to bring their domestic legislation and practice into line with a minimum age of eighteen for recruitment. The Czech Republic, Portugal and South Africa each raised their age of recruitment to eighteen, and measures were introduced into both the German and Norwegian parliaments proposing to raise the minimum age of recruitment to eighteen.
Human Rights Watch and Brussels-based nongovernmental organizations carried out advocacy with the European Union and other European institutions. A briefing for members of the European Parliament resulted in a resolution adopted by the parliament on December 17, 1998, calling on the European Union to support eighteen as the minimum age for military recruitment. A resolution on child soldiers was also adopted by the European Parliament/Africa, Caribbean and Pacific Joint Assembly bringing together seventy members of the European Parliament and representatives from seventy-one countries of the Africa, Caribbean and Pacific from March 29-April 1, 1999.
A group of world leaders lent their support to the campaign by releasing a public statement on the use of child soldiers in July. Initiated at Human Rights Watch's request by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter and former Costa Rican president Óscar Arias Sánchez, the statement was also signed by former heads of state or government including Shimon Peres (Israel), Mikhail Gorbachev (USSR), Helmut Schmidt (Germany), Malcolm Fraser (Australia), Patricio Aylwin Azocar (Chile), and Anand Panyarachun (Thailand).
In August, the foreign ministers of the Nordic countries signed a declaration in Reykjavik committing their support for an optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child stipulating that no person under the age of eighteen should be recruited into armed forces, nor be allowed to take part in hostilities.
The use of child soldiers was also taken up by the U.N. Security Council during debates on the protection of civilians in February and on armed conflict and children in August. The latter debate resulted in the council's first resolution on the topic, which urged stronger efforts to stop the use of child soldiers, but did not take a position on the age of recruitment. The following month, however, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan recommended to the Security Council that member states support the proposal to raise the minimum age for recruitment and participation in armed conflict to eighteen. During a subsequent Security Council debate, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, argued for raising the minimum age for participation in hostilities to age eighteen, while addressing the Security Council for the first time.
Despite growing international support for effective measures to end the use of child soldiers, the eventual adoption of an international instrument to prohibit the recruitment or participation of under-eighteens is still uncertain. A U.N. working group mandated to produce an optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child yielded no results during its January 1999 meeting. The U.N. Human Rights Commission requested its chair to conduct informal consultations during 1999, and urged the conclusion of the protocol in the year 2000, the tenth anniversary of the entry into force of the convention.
The United States remained a vigorous opponent of the proposed agreement. It continued to argue for seventeen as the minimum age of recruitment and participation in hostilities, seeking to preserve the Pentagon's ability to recruit seventeen year old youth just completing high school. At the same time, 1997 Defense Department statistics indicated that only 2,880 members of the 1.3 million active duty armed forces were under age eighteen.
The U.S. Campaign to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, led by a steering committee of Human Rights Watch and other NGOS, grew to include more than fifty member organizations. The campaign worked to shift U.S. policy on child soldiers, meeting with Defense Department officials, educating members of Congress, and conducting public education efforts through the media, the Internet, and the networks of its member organizations.
The future of an international agreement to ban the use of child soldiers lies with the willingness of the large majority of states that favor a strong agreement to refuse to acquiesce to a small number of governments who are willing to sacrifice strong international protections for children in favor of their recruitment convenience. In addition, children who have been caught up in armed conflict must depend on strong advocates within civil society to ensure that governments provide the protections they so sorely need.