(New York) - Despite progress, efforts to end the recruitment and use of child soldiers are too little and too late for many children, according to the 2008 Child Soldiers Global Report, launched today by the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers.
The report details how a near global consensus that children should not be used as soldiers, and strenuous international efforts – with the UN at the forefront – to halt the phenomenon, have failed to protect tens of thousands of children from war. When armed conflict exists, children will almost inevitably become involved as soldiers.
The report documents military recruitment legislation, policy and practice in more than 190 countries worldwide – in conflict and in peacetime armies – as well as child soldier use by non-state armed groups.
“The international community’s commitment to ending the global scourge of child soldiering cannot be doubted, but existing efforts are falling short,” said Dr. Victoria Forbes Adam, director of the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. “Laws, policies and practices must now be translated into real change to keep children out of armed conflict once and for all.”
There have been positive developments over the past four years. The coalition’s research shows that the number of armed conflicts in which children are involved is down from 27 in 2004 to 17 by the end of 2007. Tens of thousands of children have been released in that time from armies and armed groups as long-running conflicts in Sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere have ended.
But the report shows that tens of thousands of children remain in the ranks of non-state armed groups in at least 24 different countries or territories. The record of governments is also little improved – children were deployed in armed conflicts by government forces in nine situations of armed conflict, down only one from the 10 such situations recorded when the last Global Report was published in 2004.
“Existing strategies have not had the desired impact,” said Forbes Adam. “If further progress is to be made, it must be recognized that child soldiers are not only an issue for child rights specialists, but should be on the agendas of all those involved in conflict prevention and resolution, peace-building and development.”
Myanmar remained the most persistent government offender. Its armed forces, engaged in long-running counter-insurgency operations against a range of ethnic armed groups, still contained thousands of children, some as young as 11 years old. Children were also used by government forces in Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Sudan, Uganda, and Yemen. Palestinian children were used on several occasions as human shields by the Israel Defense Forces, and a few British under-18s were deployed to Iraq up to mid-2005.
The failure of governments to adhere to their international obligations does not end there. In at least 14 countries children have been recruited into auxiliary forces linked to national armies, local civilian defense groups created to support counter-insurgency operations, or by illegal militias and armed groups used as proxies by national armies.
Children have also been used as spies. In some countries child soldiers who have escaped, surrendered, or been captured by government forces were locked up instead of receiving support to return to their families and communities. Burundi, Israel, and the United States were among the countries where there were allegations of ill-treatment or torture of child detainees alleged to have been associated with armed groups.
“Given government obligations to protect children from involvement in armed conflict, there can be no excuse for the armed forces of any country unlawfully using children for military purposes or for committing other human rights violations against them,” said Forbes Adam.
Children have also been used in combat by armed groups in at least 18 countries or territories. These children, some 12 years old or even younger, were exposed to death, injury, and psychological trauma. In Afghanistan, Iraq, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and Pakistan teenagers were used in suicide attacks.
“Armed groups pose the greatest challenge,” said Forbes Adam. “International laws have had limited impact in deterring child soldier use by armed groups. Many groups attach little value to international standards and the need to build fighting strength overrides other considerations. This reality must be confronted and new strategies developed.”
The coalition’s report also highlights that years of accumulated best practice on releasing children from fighting forces and assisting their rehabilitation and reintegration is being overlooked by those involved in designing and implementing disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) programs. Sustained funding for the long-term support of former child soldiers is also rarely available. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, delayed, unpredictable and short-term funding, combined with poor planning and mismanagement of the DDR program, meant that some 14,000 former child soldiers were excluded from reintegration support.
Those who lose out most are girls. The existence of girls in fighting forces, in combat and non-combat roles and as victims of sexual slavery, rape and other forms of sexual violence, is well known. Yet the overwhelming majority of girls soldiers are not identified by and do not register in official DDR programs. In Liberia, where the DDR program ended in late 2004, only just over a quarter of the 11,000 girls known to have been associated with fighting forces registered in the official DDR program. Here, as elsewhere, thousands of girls returned to their communities informally with their complex medical, psychosocial, and economic needs unmet.
“Tens of thousands of children – particularly girls – are effectively rendered invisible during the demobilization and reintegration process,” said Forbes Adam. “It is not that their needs and vulnerabilities are unrecognized – it is simply a failure to apply lessons learned that is failing these children and their futures.”
Progress towards a global standard prohibiting the military recruitment or use in hostilities of children is hampered by continued recruitment of under-18s into peacetime armies. At least 63 governments – including the United Kingdom and United States – allow voluntary recruitment of under-18s, despite the age of adulthood being set at 18 in many countries. Young recruits considered too young to vote or buy alcohol are subjected to military discipline, hazardous activity and are vulnerable to abuse. Active targeting of children, often from deprived backgrounds, raises questions on the depth of these governments’ commitment to child protection and whether such recruitment can be genuinely voluntary.
“2012 will mark the 10th anniversary of the enactment of the international treaty on child soldiers,” said Forbes Adam. “Over the next four years the international community must make good on its pledge to end the use of children in armed conflict.”
The Global Report covers the period from April 2004 to October 2007. It contains detailed information on military recruitment and use of child soldiers, release and reintegration initiatives and, where relevant, justice initiatives in 197 countries.
The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers was formed in 1998 by leading human rights and humanitarian organizations. The coalition works to end the use of child soldiers – girls and boys below the age of 18 – to prevent recruitment, to secure their release from armed forces and groups, and to promote their return to civilian life. The coalition works with partners and local nongovernmental organizations in many regions.