Human Rights Watch praised the Clinton administration for signing an international protocol that prohibits the use of children in armed conflict.
"When U.S. soldiers participate in international peacekeeping operations, they may well find themselves face-to-face with a 14-year old carrying an AK-47," said Jo Becker, Advocacy Director for the Children's Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. "U.S. efforts to stop the use of child soldiers not only helps children internationally, but ultimately, American forces as well."
An estimated 300,000 children are currently participating in armed conflicts in more than thirty countries. Human Rights Watch has documented the use of children as soldiers in Uganda, Liberia, Angola, Lebanon, Sudan, Colombia, and Sri Lanka. Most recently, the organization has collected testimony from children recruited into the civil conflict in Sierra Leone.
"Once a child is recruited, their whole future becomes compromised," said Becker. "They're sucked into a cycle of violence, often denied an education or opportunity to learn any practical job skills, and end up maimed, psychologically damaged, or killed. U.S. support for the new protocol will help ensure these kids are protected."
Human Rights Watch also urged the U.S. Senate to act to ratify the new protocol as soon as possible.
The new protocol establishes eighteen as the minimum age for direct participation in hostilities, for compulsory recruitment, and for any recruitment or use in hostilities by non-governmental armed groups. However, it allows government forces to accept voluntary recruits from the age of sixteen, subject to certain safeguards including parental permission and proof of age.
The United States initially opposed the protocol, arguing that it needed to be able to deploy its seventeen-year old recruits. However, less than 3,000 of the US' 1.3 million active duty force are under the age of eighteen. The U.S. dropped its objections during the protocol's final round of negotiations in January of this year, and agreed to "take all feasible measures" to ensure that under-age troops do not participate in armed conflict. U.S. recruitment practices will not be affected by the protocol.
"Raising the U.S. deployment age was a very reasonable concession for the Pentagon to make, considering that the numbers involved are so small," said Becker. "It ensures that American troops have a greater degree of maturity. And very importantly, it sends a strong signal to other governments and forces worldwide, that children shouldn't participate in war."
Human Rights Watch chairs the international Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, which was formed in 1998 to campaign on behalf of a global ban on the recruitment or use of child soldiers.