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Child Soldiers

A new international consensus to end the use of child soldiers was reached in January, when governments from around the world agreed on a new optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, establishing eighteen as the minimum age for direct participation in armed conflict, for forced or compulsory recruitment, and for any recruitment or use by nongovernmental armed groups. The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers estimated that approximately 300,000 children under the age of eighteen fought in armed conflicts worldwide.

The new child soldiers protocol was adopted by the U.N. General Assembly on May 25. By late September, it had garnered seventy signatures and three ratifications and seemed on course to enter into force in early 2001.

The new protocol represented a great advance over previous international standards, which allowed children as young as fifteen to be recruited and sent into combat. It was also a significant triumph for the global campaign led by the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers (see Campaigns).

At a national level, positive developments were seen in Colombia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In Colombia, legislation was signed on December 23, 1999, raising the minimum age for recruitment into governmental armed forces to age eighteen. The same month, the Colombian Army announced that it had discharged its final contingent of 980 soldiers under the age of eighteen. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, President Kabila signed a decree on June 9, establishing a national commission and an inter-ministerial committee to oversee the disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration into society of child soldiers.

However, such advances were overshadowed by the continuing recruitment and use of children in approximately thirty conflicts around the world. In Colombia, opposition guerrilla armies and paramilitary forces often linked to the armed forces continued to maintain at least 5,000children in their ranks and used them as soldiers and spies, according to UNICEF. In January 2000, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC) Commander Manuel Marulanda told reporters that the FARC would not stop recruiting soldiers fifteen and older. "They are going to stay in the ranks," he emphasized. The Colombian army also reportedly continued to use captured guerrillas who were children as informants and spies instead of turning them over promptly to child welfare authorities. Facilities to rehabilitate former child soldiers exist in Colombia, but are severely underfunded.

In Sierra Leone, both the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and pro-government forces continued to forcibly recruit children, including demobilized child soldiers, into their ranks. The RUF forced children to carry military equipment and to loot goods and engage in fighting. Rape of abducted girls was routine. Some forty demobilized child soldiers from a demobilization camp in Makeni were pressured by the RUF to rejoin through the use of threats, false promises, and false rumors. The civil defense militias also remobilized scores of child soldiers. Children continued to be subjected to all forms of violence, primarily by the RUF, including amputation, rape, and abduction.

In Ethiopia, credible sources reported that thousands of teenage boys were forcibly recruited into the Ethiopian army, particularly during the buildup to the major offensive launched against Eritrea in May. Children (primarily from Oromos and Somali ethnic groups) were targeted in schools and also press-ganged from marketplaces and villages. Once recruited, children were reportedly sent to camps for military training and indoctrination and then sent to fight.

Ethiopia also accused Eritrea of using child soldiers and circulated lists of Eritrean children whom Ethiopia had taken as prisoners of war.

In Burundi, children as young as twelve joined armed forces and served as spies, lookouts, scouts, and porters and helped loot property. Known as "doriya," the children wore cast-off military uniforms and received food and portions of loot from older soldiers. Burundian soldiers also forced children to supply firewood and transport supplies, and used girls to bring water from springs or rivers to the soldiers' camps. In March, three boys were wounded when soldiers forced them to carry food, water, and medicines through an area known for rebel attacks. The rebel National Liberation Forces (FNL) in Burundi also recruited and used "doriya" as soldiers and helpers. Often used initially as cooks and general helpers, some children later took up weapons and became regular fighters.

In the DRC, the civil conflicts in recent years had been marked by widespread recruitment of child soldiers by the Congolese government's forces and rebel groups, as well as by semi-autonomous militias. UNICEF estimated the total number of child soldiers to be about 12,000. Despite President Kabila's June 9 demobilization decree, the extent to which children were actually demobilized was unclear, and early in the year Human Rights Watch received reports that many child soldiers were detained in prison camps for deserting Kabila's forces.

Rebel groups in the DRC also continued to recruit and use child soldiers with the full support of their foreign backers. Of particular concern was the conduct of the Ugandan People's Defence Forces (UPDF), which had admittedly trained thousands of troops, many of them children, for the Movement for the Liberation of Congo (MLC), the main rebel faction supported by Uganda in northwestern Congo. In areas of north Kivu that were nominally controlled by another Ugandan-backed rebel faction, the Congolese Rally for Democracy-Liberation Movement (RCD-ML), the UPDF trained several battalions of young soldiers in the towns of Beni, Lubero, and Bunia in the first half of 2000. In each of these towns, recruitment was largely done along ethnic lines by local warlords loyal to Uganda. In August and September, the RCD-ML's armed wing splintered as a result of leadership disputes within the movement. Among one group of three hundred mutineers that later surrendered to the UPDF, nearly half were reportedly below the age of fifteen.

Although Africa continued to experience the most widespread use of child soldiers, children were also used in other parts of the world. In Nepal, evidence mounted that children as young as fourteen, including girls, were recruited by members of the armed opposition group, the Communist Party of Nepal (CPN) (Maoist). Between June and August, at least thirty children were reported abducted by the group, including several fourteen-year-olds. In Sri Lanka, the University Teachers for Human Rights reported in July that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had initiated a strong new recruitment drive for child soldiers, despite the commitments they made in 1998 to U.N. Special Representative to the Secretary-General Olara Otunnu not to recruit anyone under seventeen years old. Much of the recruitment was forced, with only 5 percent of recruits estimated to be willing volunteers. In one instance, fourteen- and fifteen-year-old girls who resisted were isolated, taken to a room, stripped, and assaulted.

Regional and other intergovernmental bodies paid increasing attention to the issue of child soldiers. Resolutions or declarations urging support for the new optional protocol were adopted in April by member states of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and in July by the Organization of American States (OAS), European Parliament, and the G-8 meeting of foreign ministers in Okinawa.

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) identified children and armed conflict as a priority issue during its November 1999 Summit in Istanbul, followed up with a special intergovernmental/NGO seminar in Warsaw in May, and began considering an OSCE ministerial decision on the issue.

In another welcome regional development, the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child entered into force on November 29, 1999, after receiving fifteen ratifications by OAU member states. The African Charter is the only regional treaty that prohibits the recruitment or use of children in armed conflict. The charter sets a higher standard than the new optional protocol, as it sets eighteen as the minimum age for any form of recruitment (whether forced or "voluntary") and for any participation in armed conflict. At this writing, twenty-one member states had ratified the charter.

In July, the Security Council held a special debate on children in armed conflict, in follow-up to Security Council resolution 1261, adopted in 1999. The council received its first report on children and armed conflict from the U.N. secretary-general. Key recommendations of the report included ratification and implementation of the new optional protocol (with governments urged to declare a minimum age of at least eighteen years for voluntary recruitment), increased commitment of resources for the demobilization and rehabilitation of child soldiers, and targeted political and economic sanctions against parties to conflict which target and abuse children.

Security Council members held an informal briefing with NGOs on children and armed conflict, inviting representatives of the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, the small arms campaign, humanitarian organizations, and other networks to participate. Following its formal debate, the council adopted Resolution 1314, which condemned the targeting of children, and urged member states to sign and ratify the new protocol, and take other steps to better protect children in armed conflict situations.

In September, representatives from 132 governments, youth, nongovernmental and international organizations, and other experts participated in the first international conference on war-affected children, hosted by the government of Canada. Forty-five foreign ministers took part in the conference, which resulted in the adoption of an "Agenda for War-Affected Children," which called for increased efforts to protect children in conflict situations, end impunity for those who violate international human rights and humanitarian law, and strengthen humanitarian assistance for children affected by war.

Human Rights Watch World Report 2000

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