In a letter made public today, a broad group of U.S. leaders called on President Clinton to support an international prohibition on the use of child soldiers.
The letter, identifying the use of children as soldiers as "one of the most alarming and tragic trends in modern warfare," was signed by the leaders of forty human rights, religious, peace, humanitarian, child welfare, veterans and professional organizations.
The leaders express deep disappointment at U.S. opposition to United Nations efforts to establish eighteen as the minimum age for military recruitment and participation in armed conflict. The United States opposition is based on current U.S. practice which allows the voluntary recruitment of seventeen-year olds, with parental permission.
Signers of the appeal include Dr. David Pruitt, president of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Dr. William Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA, Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association, Randall Robinson, president of TransAfrica, Charles Lyons, president of the US Committee for UNICEF, Robert Muller, president of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation, and Rear Admiral Eugene Carroll Jr., U.S. Navy (retired).
"Robbed of their childhood, child combatants are subjected to a cycle of violence that they are often too young to understand, or resist," states the letter. "While many of these young recruits may start out as porters or messengers, too often they end up on the front lines of combat. Some are used for particularly hazardous duty, such as entering mine fields ahead of older troops, or undertaking suicide missions. Some have been forced to commit atrocities against family members or relatives. Inexperienced and immature, these children suffer far higher casualty rates than their adult counterparts. Those who survive are often physically or psychologically scarred. Typically lacking an education or civilian job skills, their futures are often bleak."
Experts estimate that more than 300,000 children under the age of eighteen are currently participating in more than thirty armed conflicts around the world.
In October, the U.S. Congress passed a resolution, introduced by Senator Paul Wellstone (D-MN), calling on the United States not to block international efforts to establish eighteen as the minimum age for participation in armed conflict. The United Nations working group negotiating the proposed international agreement will convene for its next session in Geneva in January.
The letter's signers note that setting a minimum age of eighteen for recruitment or participation in armed conflict would be consistant with existing international norms that guarantee children under the age of eighteen special care and protection. Such standards include the nearly-universally ratified Convention on the Rights of the Child, international treaties prohibiting children from hazardous labor, and other protective legislation. A new policy recently announced by the United Nations Secretary General sets eighteen as the minimum age for UN peacekeepers.