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NEWS STORY

More needs to be done for child soldiers, says UN official


Daniel Flitton



December 14, 2007

IN JUST 30 minutes, a young boy can master the use of an AK-47 machine gun. And a split second can turn him into a killer.

When Radhika Coomaraswamy first met a child soldier in Africa, she felt surprise and fear. "These boys come in with the swagger of grown men. They've been carrying guns, they have big shoulders, they act very masculine," she said.

But meeting these battle-scarred fighters, aged between 10 and 15, she soon heard the awful stories of abuse: boys torn from the arms of parents, beaten, given a gun and injected with drugs to make them ruthless in combat. "If you talk long enough, they break into being just children," she said.

Ms Coomaraswamy is the high-level United Nations official charged with giving voice to the boys and, increasingly, girls trapped in deadly wars.

She gave the annual University of Melbourne Chancellor's Human Rights Lecture last night, saying the problem of children in armed conflict is getting worse.

"One reason for this trend is the proliferation of small arms and light weapons," she said. Children are now just as lethal as an adult on the battlefield.

The UN puts the number of child-fighters worldwide at more than 250,000. Ms Coomaraswamy said the situation is most desperate in Africa's eastern Congo, where more than a decade of war has ravaged the resource rich region.

But children are pressed to fight in around 30 other conflicts, including in Burma and Sudan, and the risk goes beyond their recruitment as soldiers.

Young girls are abducted, raped and forced to work as camp labourers, she said. Many end up pregnant and suffer ongoing sexual violence.

Schools and hospitals have also become targets in "new wars" where ragtag militias fight in place of professional soldiers.

Praising Australia's official support for the work of her office, Ms Coomaraswamy said rich countries needed to think carefully about children in armed conflict when putting together overseas aid packages.

She said the world had taken many steps in the past decade to confront the threat to children in armed conflict. But she said governments were often too timid to act against those regimes and rebel groups who turned children into "fighting machines".

"It's really important for these children to know the world cares," she said.


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