Another issue of great concern to Human Rights Watch is the FARC-EP's use of child soldiers. Article 4(3)(c) of Protocol II prohibits parties to an armed conflict from recruiting children under the age of fifteen or allowing them to take part in hostilities.56
It should also be noted that Colombia has signed, but not yet ratified, the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict. The Optional Protocol raises the age of recruitment and participation in armed conflict from fifteen to eighteen. Article 4 of the Optional Protocol calls on "armed groups distinct from the armed forces of a State"-in other words, groups such as the FARC-EP-to cease recruiting or deploying persons under age eighteen. Although the Optional Protocol has not yet entered into force, it reflects a clear international trend in favor of the adoption of age eighteen as a minimum age for participation in armed conflict. Human Rights Watch strongly supports this principle, believing that the use of minors as soldiers is seriously detrimental to their health, welfare, and social development.
In its 1999 annual report, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights explained why keeping minors away from armed conflict is so important:
The use of children and adolescents in armed conflicts places their lives, well-being, and education at great risk. They are forced to use high-caliber weapons. They are required to lay explosives, to kill other children who are considered "traitors" or change their minds, and to participate in kidnapings, surveillance, and bomb intelligence work. In some cases, children as young as eight are used for these perilous tasks. These illegal, perverse practices subject boys, girls, and youths to the inherent risks of combat, to sexual abuse, and to other forms of abusive, brutal, and humiliating treatment. They are drawn into a culture of violence, and their rights to education and to ordinary participation in society are curtailed.57
Human Rights Watch's research suggests that the FARC-EP continues to recruit children, including minors under fifteen. Children living in the Zone are particularly vulnerable. During its visit to San Vicente del Caguán, Human Rights Watch interviewed several former child soldiers and relatives of child soldiers. A representative of a group that advocates for the return of minors to their families told Human Rights Watch that she knew the names of over one hundred minors from the San Vicente municipality who belong to the FARC-EP. Many, she said, were under fifteen years old.58
A list compiled by the People's Advocate's office, based on family members' complaints about children recruited by the FARC-EP within the Zone in 1999, contained fourteen names, among them the name of an eleven-year-old girl.59 Human Rights Watch visited several of the families on the list. We were able to confirm that four of those listed had joined the FARC-EP; a fifth had joined but since left, and a sixth, according to family members, had not joined the FARC-EP at all.60
None of those interviewed by Human Rights Watch said their children had been forced to join the FARC-EP. Rather, they said that the children had been enticed by promises of a better life. Most were children from an impoverished background, with few prospects. Some were from broken homes; one was an orphan. The desperate circumstances these children face spoke volumes about their willingness to enlist with an armed insurgent group.
While children living in the Zone may not be forcibly recruited into the FARC-EP, once integrated into the ranks many are unable to leave. Human Rights Watch was told by relatives of such recruits that minors have to get "permission" from their commanders before they are allowed to leave the FARC-EP, and that this is often difficult to obtain. According to a member of the People's Advocate's staff, who has worked with children previously enlisted in the FARC-EP: "The guerrillas offer adventure, but when the novelty wears off, [the under age recruits] are prevented from returning home."61
Human Rights Watch interviewed one thirteen-year-old girl, "Carmen," who had been living in her cousin's house when two FARC-EP members recruited her. They told her that life would be good if she joined the FARC-EP. Carmen had an unstable family life and a poor relationship with her mother, and agreed to join.
Carmen told Human Rights Watch that out of approximately 130 members of her unit, around fourteen were under fifteen and at least half were younger than eighteen. None, as far as she knew, had been forcibly recruited.
She complained that a FARC-EP commander, age thirty, had pressured her to have sexual relations with him. They had sex several times over a ten-day period. She was given an injection, she said, as a form of birth control. A female FARC-EP member told Carmen that she did not have to have sex with the commander, and Carmen refused his next advance.
Carmen had left the FARC-EP in mid-May 2000, when her mother visited the guerrilla camp and requested her release. Carmen said that she was not anxious to leave the FARC-EP, but that her fear of dying in combat helped her to decide to go home with her mother.62
Human Rights Watch also interviewed the mother of a fourteen-year-old girl who had spent three months with the FARC-EP in early 2000. During this period, the mother went persistently from commander to commander trying to obtain information about her daughter's whereabouts and to arrange her return. She wrote numerous letters informing both FARC-EP and Colombian government authorities of the situation.
Finally, in May 2000, the daughter came home. According to the mother, when her daughter returned from the FARC-EP, she was sick and anemic, with an eye infection and huge blisters on her feet. Her daughter also reportedly told her that she had sexual relations with another member of the FARC-EP, and had contracted a venereal "problem."63
Another family told Human Rights Watch that their female relative had joined the FARC-EP in May 1999 at age sixteen. She entered the FARC-EP a month after she had started work as a domestic servant. Her family thought she had wanted to escape from her job. Since she had joined, they had spoken to her by phone a few times and had visited her twice. About four months after joining she became disillusioned with her life as a FARC-EP guerrilla, and wanted desperately to leave. But the FARC-EP refused to let her go, telling her that it would be dangerous for her if she were to return to her family. "She cries when she speaks to us," said her sister. "She wants to come home."64
A family living in a rural area in the San Vicente municipality told Human Rights Watch that their son, "Jorge," had joined the FARC-EP in April 1999 at age fifteen. Jorge hated the army because army soldiers had killed his father when he was five. He had dropped out of school by the time he was recruited by the FARC-EP. According to his family, the FARC had told Jorge that he could spend two months with them to be trained. But after two months he did not return.
Between April and December 1999, his mother told Human Rights Watch, she had seen Jorge three times. "The last time I saw him was in December," said his mother, who cried when describing the visit. "He was sick with malaria."65
At that time, he told her that he was ready to leave the FARC-EP, but that he needed permission to do so. His mother spoke with one commander to try to obtain such permission. When Human Rights Watch saw her in 2000 she was trying to speak to another commander in the hope that he could arrange the necessary permission.
Obtaining permission to leave the FARC-EP is critical even for children, who risk that group's most severe punishment if they desert. As the UNHCHR pointed out in its report for the year 2000, the FARC-EP applies the same punishment to child deserters as adults. "The punishment for `deserters' is the firing squad and this is applied regardless of the age of the deserter."66
FARC-EP commanders have repeatedly stated that they will abide by a minimum recruitment age of fifteen. When Olara Otunnu, the U.N. Secretary-General's special representative for children and armed conflict, met with FARC-EP Commander Raúl Reyes in 1999, Reyes reportedly promised that the FARC-EP would no longer accept or recruit persons under age fifteen.67
In June 2000, Commander Carlos Antonio Lozada told Human Rights Watch that the FARC-EP had set fifteen as its minimum recruitment age in 1996. He admitted, however, that "until recently, this norm was not enforced." But, as of April 2000, after Commander Jorge Briceño's firm statements on the matter, it had become "a norm of obligatory force" and would, in the future, be followed.68
Commander Briceño reportedly gave a speech at San Vicente del Caguán in April 2000 in which he acknowledged that the FARC-EP had committed "errors," including the use of child soldiers under age fifteen. According to residents who heard the speech, Briceño promise that the FARC-EP would take steps to remedy matters, such as returning under-age guerrillas to their families.69
After this speech, San Vicente residents reported that a number of FARC-EP child combatants were returned to their families, including one girl of twelve. In February 2001, the FARC-EP handed over sixty-two children that they claimed had been combatants to the United Nations Children's Fund. At the same time, the FARC-EP pledged to demobilize 500 more under-age combatants in the months ahead.70 According to the office of the People's Advocate, however, an estimated 60 percent of FARC-EP fighters are believed to be under fifteen.71
Evidence in support of this claim emerged in late 2000 after combat between the FARC-EP and the Colombian Army, in a maneuver that the army labeled "Operation Berlin." Independent observers reported to Human Rights Watch that dozens of children were among the guerrillas registered as killed or captured after government troops intercepted the FARC-EP's "Arturo Ruiz" column outside the Zone near Tibú, Norte de Santander. The Colombian Army announced that thirty-two of those captured were aged seventeen or under, including several younger than fourteen, and a third were females. Of those killed, twenty were said by the army to be children.72
57 Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Annual Report of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights 1999, April 13, 2000, Chapter VI (available at http://www.cidh.oas.org/annualrep/99eng/Chapter6a.htm).
67 United Nations press release, "Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict Calls on the FARC-EP of Colombia to Honour Commitments on Recruitment of Children," HR/OO/9, January 31, 2000.