The government of Burundi recognized the existence of child soldiers within its ranks and made international commitments to stop recruitment and promote demobilization. Child soldiers continued to be used by the Burundian armed forces in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), ostensibly to combat the presence of the Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie – Forces pour la défense et la démocratie (CNDD-FDD).37 In April 2003, Burundi’s parliament voted unanimously to recognise the Statute of the International Criminal Court. The government ratified the United Nations (UN) Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict and set 18 as the minimum recruitment age. National legislation had yet to be modified to reflect international commitments. Legal standards proved difficult to implement, given challenges to control over recruitment practices by government forces and paramilitaries in the interior.38 According to a UN estimate about 14,000 children had carried or were still carrying arms in the ranks of government forces or armed opposition groups.39
Non-state armed groups
Child recruitment by armed opposition groups escalated during the year because of increased instability brought about by the change in government. The Mugabarabona faction of the Parti de libération du peuple Hutu – Forces nationales de libération (PALIPEHUTU-FNL) and the CNDD-FDD (Ndayikengurukiye faction) inflated their numbers to gain recognition and bargaining power in the peace accords and undertook massive child recruitment in the period leading up to the change in president.40 Armed opposition groups remained largely inaccessible, making it difficult to engage in public education or demobilization activities. Scores of child soldiers from the PALIPEHUTU-FNL (Rwasa faction) were killed during an attack on Bujumbura in July 2003.41
The main Hutu-dominated armed political group, the CNDD-FDD (Nkurunziza faction), which has rear bases in eastern DRC, reportedly continued to recruit and abduct children, including from schools and from refugee camps in neighbouring Tanzania. Children as young as eight were recruited, sometimes forcibly.42
Demobilization and child protection programs
The Government of Burundi collaborated with UNICEF to demobilize and reintegrate child soldiers. A committee, which brought together the ministries of human rights, defence and national security, interior and public security, and social action, began to identify child soldiers within government forces and provided training for army officers on the issue. The project, which was launched in June 2003, was set to start with the demobilization of 3000 child soldiers, of which 1000 were from government armed forces. Another 1,500 were to be drawn from the “guardiens de la paix” (community self-defence forces aligned with the Government) and a further 500 from the FDD.43 UNICEF raised concerns about the difficulty of access to children from armed opposition groups.44 Following an initial study of child soldiers, the International Labour Organization planned a program of socio-economic support to former child soldiers. Former child soldiers who were no longer children faced particular challenges, since they could not benefit from child soldiers demobilization programs and there was concern they might return to fighting.45
37 Information provided by Amnesty International, August 2003.
38 IRIN, “Winning back Burundi’s Child Soldiers”, 12 May 2003.
39 PANA, “Burundi demobilising child soldiers”, 20 August 2003.
40 Information obtained from reliable Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers (Coalition) sources in Burundi during meetings in Bujumbura, 9-11 March 2003 and presented by Burundi Coalition representatives, Great Lakes Coalition meeting, Kampala, 12-13 June.
41 Information provided by Amnesty International, August 2003.
42 Information provided by Amnesty International, August 2003.
43 ABP, “3000 enfants soldats vont être démobilisés”, Bujumbura, 26 April 2003.
44 Information presented by UNICEF at Great Lakes Coalition meeting, Kampala, 13 June 2003.
45 Information presented by JAMAA-Burundi at Great Lakes Coalition meeting, Kampala, 12 June 2003.