Human Rights Watch commends the DRC government for its recent ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict (June 2), and to urge the government to declare a minimum age for voluntary recruitment of at least eighteen, and to take immediate steps to demobilize children currently serving in the armed forces of the DRC.

The Optional Protocol is a strong expression of the international consensus against the use of children as soldiers - to date, it has already been signed and/or ratified by 79 governments. As a country that has been directly affected by the use of children in armed conflict, the commitment of your government to end the use of children as soldiers is particularly welcome, and we hope, will set an example for other countries affected by armed conflict.

As you know, the protocol prohibits the forced recruitment or participation of children under age 18 in hostilities, and any recruitment or use of children by non-governmental armed groups. Article 3(2) of the protocol also requires States to make a declaration upon ratification, regarding the age at which national forces will permit voluntary recruitment. We understand from Minister Ntumba Luaba that your government has not yet made such a declaration.

We urge you to deposit a binding declaration as soon as possible establishing a minimum age for voluntary recruitment of at least eighteen. Such a declaration would be in line with the standards set in the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, recommendations by the UN Secretary General, and the general definition of childhood as set forth in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. It will also help contribute to a strong international norm rejecting any recruitment of children under the age of eighteen, whether compulsorily or "voluntarily."

We also urge your government to take immediate steps in accordance with Article 6 (3) of the protocol to demobilize or otherwise release all children currently serving the armed forces of the DRC, and to provide them with appropriate assistance for their physical and psychological recovery.

Various sources estimate that thousands of children are currently serving in the FAC. Many children who fought with the Alliance of Democratic Forces for Liberation (ADFL) during the 1996-97 war continued to serve in the government Congolese Armed Forces (FAC) after the change of regime. Other children have also been recruited or allowed to enlist more recently, and no substantial demobilization of children has taken place, despite a June 9, 2000 decree issued by the late President Laurent Kabila, for the demobilization and reintegration of all vulnerable populations, including child soldiers.

We understand that your government's Ministry of Human Rights, together with UNICEF, is prepared to launch a major awareness raising campaign in the army, to convince commanders to immediately demobilize child soldiers. We would welcome such an initiative, and believe that such demobilization would set a positive example for other parties engaged in conflicts in the region and elsewhere in the world.

Thank you very much for your consideration. We look forward to your response to our recommendations.

Sincerely yours,

Lois Whitman
Executive Director
Children's Rights Division