Let’s start with the good news. A new United Nations report on children and armed conflict found that more than 5,700 child soldiers were released from armed groups in the Central African Republic and the Philippines last year, and for the second year in a row, no new cases of child recruitment by government forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo were reported. Colombia’s peace deal, signed in November 2016, includes the demobilization of all child soldiers from the FARC guerrillas.
But in other respects, the report paints an alarming picture. Across 20 conflict countries, the UN documented more than 7,500 new cases of child recruitment, an increase of more than 25 percent from the previous year. In Syria and Somalia the number of cases more than doubled, and in Nigeria they rose dramatically from 278 to 2,122 in one year. In most cases, non-state armed groups such as Nigeria’s Boko Haram and Somalia’s Al-Shabab were responsible, but government and allied militias also used children as soldiers.
In Afghanistan, child casualties reached the highest level ever recorded in 16 years of war, with more than 3,500 children killed or injured. In total, the UN documented more than 10,000 child casualties in conflict zones in 2016. These UN figures represent only the tip of the iceberg, as many more child casualties along with cases of child recruitment and other abuses are never documented due to underreporting or lack of access by monitors.
Despite the occasional good news, the numbers indicate a collective failure by the UN and its member countries to protect the most vulnerable. Parties to armed conflict need to do much more to keep children – in addition to their homes, schools, and playgrounds – off limits. This includes issuing clear directives through the chain of command, investigating alleged violations, and holding perpetrators accountable. All governments can also take the concrete step of endorsing the Safe Schools Declaration, an inter-governmental political commitment to protect education during times of war.
Children should not be casualties of adult wars.