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Is the world failing a generation of child soldiers?

Written by: Tim Large

February 12, 2008
Spare a thought for Mary, one of 20,000 or more children abducted by Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) rebels during northern Uganda's brutal conflict. Like many girls snatched by the cult-like group, she was forced into sexual slavery, becoming pregnant at the age of 15.

Or consider Robert, who was abducted by the LRA and forced to carry arms for six years. His induction into the rebel regime included extreme acts of cruelty.

"The worst were the other children who were already in the bush," he told children's agency Plan, which has launched a $300,000 appeal to help former child soldiers in northern Uganda. "They would do things to us in revenge for what had been done to them... They weren't accountable to anyone."

Both children's ordeals ended when they were eventually reunited with their families, but the trauma lives on. And there's no end to the stigma and discrimination they may face in their communities.

Girls like Mary come back with the babies of hated war criminals. Many are HIV-positive. Boys like Robert are haunted by what they have seen and done. Many boys have also been raped. All are vulnerable to further abuse.

"Children forced to fight have lost their childhoods," says Plan Chief Executive Tom Miller. "Their futures must not be stolen too. We have a moral responsibility to provide education, treatment and other support they need to rebuild their lives.

"Failure to act will create a ticking time bomb of angry, alienated and traumatised youth whose only skills they have to rely on are those they learnt at war."

Today the U.N. Security Council is holding an open debate on children and armed conflict, focusing on a report by U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon that warns children in refugee camps are at high risk of abduction, rape and physical and mental abuse.

The report makes sobering reading. From Congo to Myanmar, Colombia to Sri Lanka, the link between the recruitment of child soldiers and displacement is clear.

As in Colombia, families often have no choice but to leave their homes to keep their children safe from abduction. As along the Congo-Uganda border, armed groups are increasingly moving across frontiers to recruit children from refugee camps.

Both girls and boys are vulnerable to sexual violence. "In Darfur, rape is a method of warfare used by armed groups to deliberately humiliate and to force displacement of girls and their families," the report says. In Kisangani in northern Congo, 60 percent of reported rape cases involved victims aged 11 to 17.

Children are also being locked up by authorities for their involvement with armed groups, even though this violates international standards. The report lists Burundi, Colombia, Congo, Iraq, Israel and the Philippines as the worst offenders. Some children are tortured and/or deprived of food and education.

Humanitarian groups are urging action. Human Rights Watch, for example, wants the Security Council to impose sanctions against governments and rebel forces that use child soldiers.

Ban Ki-moon has listed 58 governments and armed groups in 13 countries that do so, including the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, Colombian guerrillas from the Rebel Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), the LRA in Uganda and government forces in Congo and Myanmar.

"The Security council can't afford to keep making empty threats," Jo Becker, the group's children's rights advocate, said in a statement. "Military commanders must know that if they continue recruiting children into their ranks, they will face sanctions or an arms embargo."

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