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Human Rights Watch today applauded the vote by the U.S. Senate Tuesday evening to ratify the international treaty banning the use of children under the age of eighteen as combatants. The measure was adopted by unanimous consent.

As the world's major military power, U.S. leadership on this issue is critically important," said Jo Becker, children's rights advocate for Human Rights Watch. "As a party to the treaty, the U.S. will be better able to use its considerable political and military influence to discourage the use of children as soldiers by other governments and armed groups."

An estimated 300,000 children under the age of eighteen are currently fighting in more than thirty conflicts worldwide.

The treaty, formally known as the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, sets 18 as the minimum age for forced recruitment and for direct participation in hostilities. Since its adoption by the United Nations General Assembly in May 2000, the protocol has been signed by 109 governments and ratified by 33. It entered into force on February 12, 2002.

Human Rights Watch said that ratification of the treaty will entail changes in U.S. deployment practices. In the past, the United States has sent 17-year old troops into armed conflicts in Somalia, Bosnia and the Gulf War. Under the protocol, the armed forces will be obliged to "take all feasible measures" to ensure that 17-year old soldiers do not directly participate in hostilities. Less than one-quarter of one percent of U.S. soldiers are still under the age of eighteen when they complete their training.

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