New legislation adopted on September 15, 2008 will permit the United States to prosecute foreign military commanders who recruit child soldiers abroad, Human Rights Watch said today. The Child Soldiers Accountability Act passed the House of Representatives unanimously on September 8 and was adopted by the Senate today.
The law makes it a federal crime to knowingly recruit or use soldiers under the age of 15 and permits the United States to bring charges under the law against both US citizens and non-citizens who are in the United States. The law imposes penalties of up to 20 years, or up to life in prison if death results, and allows the United States to deport or deny entry to individuals who have knowingly recruited children as soldiers.
“The exploitation of children as soldiers persists in many armed conflicts because child recruiters are rarely held accountable,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocate for Human Rights Watch. “This law tells military commanders worldwide that they cannot recruit children into their forces and then seek safe haven in the United States.”
Children are currently used in armed conflicts in at least 17 countries. Recruiters prey upon children, who are often the most vulnerable potential recruits and the most susceptible to threats and coercion. Child soldiers are used as combatants, porters, guards and spies, and for other duties.
The recruitment and use of children as soldiers was recognized in 1998 as a war crime under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. In 2007, four former military commanders from Sierra Leone were convicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone for recruiting and using children as soldiers. Rebel and military commanders from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda have also been charged under the International Criminal Court with recruiting and using child soldiers, though none have yet gone to trial.
“International tribunals are beginning to prosecute individuals for recruiting child soldiers, but almost no national governments have done so,” said Becker. “The United States is giving real leadership to efforts to end the use of child soldiers.”
Senator Richard Durbin authored the bipartisan bill, which he introduced together with Senators Tom Coburn, Russell Feingold, and Sam Brownback.
Countries in which children are known to have been used in hostilities between 2004 and 2007 include: Afghanistan, Burma, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Colombia, Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Nepal, Philippines, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Thailand, and Uganda.