(New York) - Under a new law signed today by US President George W. Bush, leaders of military forces and armed groups who have recruited child soldiers may be arrested and prosecuted in the United States, Human Rights Watch said today. The law could apply to leaders of dozens of forces that have recruited and used child soldiers in over 20 armed conflicts.
The Child Soldiers Accountability Act makes it a federal crime to recruit knowingly or to use soldiers under the age of 15 and permits the United States to prosecute any individual on US soil for the offense, even if the children were recruited or served as soldiers outside the United States. The law imposes penalties of up to 20 years, or up to life in prison if their action resulted in the child's death. It also allows the United States to deport or deny entry to individuals who have knowingly recruited children as soldiers.
"The US is saying to the world that using child soldiers is a serious crime and that it will take action," said Jo Becker, children's rights advocate for Human Rights Watch. "Military commanders who use children can no longer come to the United States without the risk of ending up in jail."
The legislation was introduced by Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois and adopted unanimously by both the US House of Representatives and the US Senate in September 2008.
In a statement issued on October 3, Senator Durbin said: "The United States must not be a safe haven for those who exploit children as soldiers. Period. The use of children as combatants is one of the most despicable human rights violations in the world today and affects the lives of hundreds of thousands of boys and girls who are used as combatants, porters, human mine detectors and sex slaves. The power to prosecute and punish those who violate the law will send a clear signal that the U.S. will in no way tolerate this abhorrent practice."
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.
"This new law is a breakthrough because it no longer leaves the prosecution of child recruiters to international tribunals and the national courts of conflict-affected countries," Becker said. "The United States is stepping up to hold these war criminals accountable in its own courts."
Children are currently used in armed conflicts in at least 17 countries. Countries and territories 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, Occupied Palestinian Territories, Nepal, Philippines, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Thailand and Uganda. Between 2001 and 2004, child soldiers were also used in Angola, Republic of Congo, Guinea, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Iran, and Yemen.