Human Rights Watch condemned the United States for opposing an international prohibition against the use of children as soldiers.

Human Rights Watch today condemned the United States for opposing an international prohibition against the use of children as soldiers. The US joins other governments Monday in Geneva for what is expected to be the final two-week session to negotiate the international minimum age for military recruitment and participation in armed conflict.

"The use of children as soldiers is one of the worst aspects of modern warfare," said Jo Becker, Children's Rights Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch. "The US position on this issue remains one of the biggest obstacles to achieving a global ban on the use of child soldiers."

An estimated 300,000 children under the age of eighteen are currently participating in armed conflicts in nearly every region of the world.

Existing international law allows children as young as fifteen to be legally recruited and deployed into war, though children are generally defined as persons younger than eighteen. In 1994, the United Nations established a working group to draft an agreement raising the minimum age for recruitment and participation in hostilities from fifteen to eighteen. However, five years of negotiations have failed to reach an agreement, though an overwhelming number of countries favor eighteen as the lower age limit for participation in armed conflict.

The US has vigorously opposed efforts to establish eighteen as the minimum age for military service, citing its own recruitment policies, which allow seventeen-year olds to enlist voluntarily with their parents' permission. However, Defense Department statistics show that fewer than 3000 seventeen-year olds are on active duty at any given time. The total US active duty force is 1.2 million.

"Maintaining this small number of seventeen-year olds in the US forces is not a military necessity," said Becker. "If the US is serious about ending the use of child soldiers, it must lead by example and exclude minors from its own forces."

The US is proposing an alternative agreement which would allow each country to individually establish the minimum age it will respect for voluntary recruitment and participation in hostilities, assuming only that the age will be higher than 15, already mandated by current international law. In a December letter to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Human Rights Watch stated that the proposal "virtually strips the [agreement] of its fundamental purpose" by failing to establish a universal age for participation in armed conflict and is not a significant advance over existing international law.

Human Rights Watch noted that a large majority of the American public believes that combatants should be at least 18 years of age. A 1999 survey conducted for the International Committee of the Red Cross by Greenberg Research, Inc., asked "At what age is a person mature enough to be a combatant?" Ninety-three percent of the US public responded that combatants should be at least eighteen, and 53 percent indicated that they should be twenty-one or older. Worldwide, 88 percent of respondents supported a minimum age of at least eighteen.

For Further Information, Contact:
Jo Becker: 212-216-1236 (New York, January 7)
41 79 470 1747 (Geneva, January 9-22)
Lotte Leicht: 3 22 732 2009 (Brussels)