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Hundreds of thousands of children are being used as armed pawns in at least 21 conflicts around the world, Human Rights Watch and its partners in a global coalition said in a report released today.

The global survey by the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers details how children are fighting in almost every major conflict, in both government and opposition forces. They are being injured, subjected to horrific abuse and killed.

The Coalition accused governments at the European Union, G-8 and U.N. Security Council of a failure of leadership. It called for the immediate enforcement of a ban on the use of child soldiers.

“Children should be protected from warfare not used to wage it. Instead, generations are having their childhoods stolen by governments and armed groups,” said Casey Kelso, head of the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. “A world that does not allow children to fight wars is possible, but governments must show the political will and courage to make this happen by enforcing international laws.”

The report, “Child Soldiers Global Report 2004,” reviews trends and developments in 196 countries since 2001. Despite some improvements the situation remained the same or deteriorated in many countries. Wars ending in Afghanistan, Angola and Sierra Leone led to the demobilization of 40,000 children, but more than 25,000 were drawn into conflicts in Côte d’Ivoire and Sudan alone.

Opportunities for progress have been undermined by governments actively breaking pledges or failing to show political leadership on measures such the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the United Nations treaty that prohibits the participation of children under the age of 18 in hostilities and all forced recruitment of children. Other opportunities include the creation of demobilization programs in some countries, and momentum towards prosecutions of those recruiting children.

Although the U.N. Security Council has condemned child soldiering and it monitors parties using children in war, some members have blocked real progress by opposing concrete penalties for violators. The Security Council should take immediate and decisive action to get children out of conflict by applying targeted sanctions and referring child recruiters to the International Criminal Court for prosecution.

Armed groups, both government-backed paramilitaries and opposition forces, are the main culprits in recruitment and use of child soldiers. Dozens of groups in at least 21 conflicts have recruited tens of thousands of children since 2001, forcing them into combat, training them to use explosives and weapons, and subjecting them to rape, violence and hard labor.

In Colombia, girls and boys in the opposition Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC) were subjected to “war councils” for disciplinary offences and in some cases other children were forced to execute them. Armed groups in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo sexually abused and raped girls and forced children to kill their own relatives.

“Armed groups should protect children from conflict,” said Jo Becker, advocacy director in the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. “Groups that use and recruit child soldiers need to be held legally accountable.”

Governments—including the United States, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi and Burma—used children on the front lines in at least 10 conflicts. Others—including Colombia, Uganda and Zimbabwe— backed paramilitary groups and militias that used child soldiers. States such as Indonesia and Nepal used children as informants, spies or messengers.

Some governments—including Russia, Burundi, Indonesia—killed, tortured or arbitrarily detained children suspected of supporting armed opposition. Palestinian children detained by Israeli forces were tortured or threatened to coerce them to become informants.

Western governments broke commitments to protect children by providing military training and support to governments using child soldiers, such as Rwanda and Uganda.

The Coalition called on governments to ban all recruitment of children under 18 into any armed force and to ratify and fully implement the U.N. child soldiers treaty, which is helping to reduce the numbers of children used in hostilities.

At least 60 governments continue to legally recruit children aged 16 and 17. These include the United States, Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Australia.

The Steering Committee of the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers consists of Amnesty International, Defence for Children International, Human Rights Watch, International Federation Terre des Hommes, International Save the Children Alliance, Jesuit Refugee Service, the Quaker United Nations Office in Geneva, and World Vision International.

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