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War Games

By Kellie Anderson

Those who have seen the renowned photograph of three boys playing "war games" in Bosnia are likely to wonder about the emotional well-being of children exposed to and used in conflict. The image depicts one boy mockingly holding a handgun to his temple while another aims a pistol with a confident smirk on his face. The third boy shows off a perfect salute as he stands in their playground-- a bombed out garage.

Children as young as seven years old are participating in armed hostilities in countries all over the world, including the Balkans, Afghanistan, Northern Ireland, Colombia, Sierra Leone, and Burma. Some children volunteer as warriors but many are abducted or sold into service, where they are often abused and indoctrinated into a blind faith in their new mission. With efficiency in mind, government armies as well as opposition and rebel groups recruit impressionable and fearless boys and girls.

Children have been recruited into combat for a long time but usually as a supplement to an adult force. Increasingly, however, children are being used in place of adults. Requiring less food and less training, they also accept the poor conditions of war more readily than their adult counterparts.

Modern war also makes it easier to involve children than previously. Arms trade on an expanding international scale has allowed a proliferation of inexpensive weapons light enough for children to handle. New and improved anti-personnel landmines designed to maim are positioned in environments where children are likely to wander. In many internal conflicts today, armies use children soldiers to explore extremely dangerous territory for the presence of landmines ahead of adult soldiers.

The implication of involving children in war is no longer only about warfare but also about crime. Today's conflicts are fueled by the need to protect wealth as well as territory. In Colombia, children learn all about drugs. In Sierra Leone, it's diamonds. These "skills" set them up for a future in crime as they emerge from war remembering no other way of life.

Young stone-throwers in Palestine face psychological issues just as do Angolan teens that are more proficient with an AK-47 than with a pencil. They have witnessed brutality and murder, becoming desensitized to suffering. The challenge for post-war societies is to assist these ex-combatants in turning away from gangs and crime and toward productive lifestyles as young adults.

It Takes a Coalition

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that mothers and children are entitled to special care and assistance, and that all children have the right to social protection. Latest UN figures, however, estimate that more than 300,000 children under 18 years of age are participating in armed conflicts around the world.

Africa accounts for more than 40 percent of the world's child soldiers. Angola, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Sudan, and Uganda are among the countries with the highest rates of child soldiers. Olara Otunnu, UN Special Representative for Children in Conflict, is dedicated to persuading parties to African conflicts to recognize the needs of children as they draft peace agreements. These issues, Otunnu says, are not just African but universal, and fundamental.

According to current international law, children can be recruited into war from the age of 15. The United Nations' Convention on the Rights of the Child states that member countries must ensure that persons under 15 do not participate directly in hostilities. No international law or mandate, however, has recognized the existence of child soldiers or made provisions for their rehabilitation and reintegration into society. Furthermore, no peace agreement, to date, ending civil conflict in Africa has included a requirement for the demobilization of child soldiers.

The most significant action related to child soldiers is the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which raises the minimum age for military recruitment and use in combat to 18 years. It awaits ratification.

In 1997, UNICEF drafted the Cape Town Principles and Best Practices on the Recruitment of Children into the Armed Forces and on Demobilization and Social Reintegration of Child Soldiers in Africa. This document recommends actions to be taken by governments and communities that will ratify and implement the Optional Protocol and end violations of children's rights. A Conference on the Use of Child Soldiers held in Maputo, Mozambique in April, 1999 further emphasized these ideas and resulted in the Maputo Declaration on the Use of Child Soldiers.

In 1998, six NGOs formed the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers to end the recruitment and participation of children below the age of 18 years in armed conflict. Key members of the coalition include Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, International Federation Terre des Hommes, International Save the Children Alliance (represented by Swedish Save the Children), Jesuit Refugee Service, and Quaker UN Office. This group advocates for ratification of the Optional Protocol by taking concrete actions such as high-profile lobbying campaigns to protect and assist child victims of war.

The Coalition is also responsible for a worldwide campaign to increase awareness about child soldiers. Rädda Barnen (Swedish Save the Children) holds the world's most comprehensive database on this subject and publishes information on the number of child soldiers in affected countries. The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers published a detailed report in April, 1999 assessing the extent of military recruitment and use of African children on a country-by-country basis.

The U.S. Campaign to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers supports the international effort by advocating for the U.S. government to join the ban on the recruitment and participation of children under 18 in armed conflict. This coalition is headed by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Center for Defense Information, American Friends Service, and Youth Advocate Program International. These groups are also pressuring the U.S. government to raise its own enlistment age to 18 and to eliminate military aid that facilitates the use of child soldiers by others. As in the case of the land mines campaign, the United States is supportive of ending such atrocities in theory but unwilling to give up its own right to recruit 17-year-olds into the American armed forces.

The rapidly increasing level of attention focused on the topic of child soldiers is promising. The United Nations appointed Graca Machel, former Education Minister of Mozambique, to undertake a landmark study in 1996 called the "Impact of Armed Conflict on Children." The study, based on research and interviews in Africa, Latin America, Europe, and Asia, has set the tone for a series of international conferences, the most recent of which was held in Montevideo this past July, involving government representatives, the UN, NGOs, and aid workers.

A recent development is the unanimous signing by International Labor Organization (ILO) country delegates in June of a new ILO treaty. The ILO Convention Concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour specifically prohibits forced recruitment of children in armed conflict, as well as child slavery, prostitution and forced labor.

"Child" Defined

Even if the minimum age for recruitment and deployment in armed conflict is raised to 18 years, how can the law be enforced? In some regions of the world, national legislation (not to mention international law) isn't always respected in practice. Government armies, civil defense groups and rebel forces have all been found guilty of operating outside of the law. Often the children used in conflict begin as guards and porters-- roles that seem acceptable. But they are quickly matriculated and able to strip and reassemble an assault weapon in no time.

Another challenge to enforcement is trying to confirm the age of young potential soldiers. In Africa, for example, documentation verifying the age of a child is not always available. Moreover, terminology such as "apparent age of 18" is used in the national legislation of Kenya, Zambia and other countries regarding recruitment into the military, creating more ambiguities.

This issue of enforcement leads to the question "Is age 18 a western definition of a child?" In many African societies, children perform adult jobs by necessity. They farm the land to help the family survive, dropping out of school early. Some marry and have children before their teens are over. Traditional networks of social support make this reality acceptable, not abusive.

There is also the old saying "All's fair in love and war." By definition, war includes aggression, and atrocities are often a possible consequence. Through efforts to remove land mines and protect children from being recruited, are we trying to make our wars safer? Yes, say the coalitions, the UN and others who assert that certain things are unacceptable, even in war.

The treaty to ban landmines is a clear example of the mobilization of moral outrage into effective action. If we are equally outraged by the fact that deploying children in conflict situations is an abuse of their human rights, then the Optional Protocol may have a chance.

Reorienting Lost Children

Focusing efforts solely on the level of international policy and law, however, is not enough. Even if a resolution were to be ratified, rogue governments and rebel groups might violate international law and continue to abuse children in this way. Affected children must be given care, otherwise future societies will host traumatized adults unable to function and contribute.

UNICEF and others are doing much good work in this area. For example, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, UNICEF is currently running an experimental program that operates transit centers for former child soldiers. In Liberia, UNICEF and USAID operate the War-Affected Youth Support Project that involves demobilized youth in rebuilding their communities as a form of retribution for their actions during the war.

In Angola, the Christian Children's Fund has undertaken programs to sensitize communities to facilitate the return of demobilized child soldiers. Churches, local NGOs, village chiefs, and traditional healers are involved in the USAID-supported Angola project, stressing community-based reintegration. Activities focus on reunification with families, returning to school, and acquiring job skills.

In Sierra Leone, where children became addicted to narcotics and witnessed some of the worst atrocities known, rehabilitation of child soldiers is desperately needed. Upon his return from a visit to Sierra Leone, Wole Soyinka, the Nigerian-born Nobel laureate, pointed out the options for dealing with child ex-soldiers: either to treat them as criminals or to reorient them to society. Suggesting the latter, he asked of the World Bank/IMF annual meeting participants, "But are African countries equipped to do this reorienting?"

The World Bank has carried out significant research on indigenous healing of war-affected youth in Africa. Children who have survived torture, sexual abuse, and separation from their families, and who have witnessed death on a large scale, suffer symptoms similar to the western label "post-traumatic stress disorder". These symptoms include avoidance, insomnia, inability to concentrate, nightmares, aggressive behavior, and confusion. The programs of UNICEF, Save the Children, and others offer basic therapeutic techniques for war-affected children. The World Bank research concludes that these programs are more successful when integrated into locally based techniques for recovery and reintegration.

Many local techniques focus on the role of ancestral spiritual forces in healing affliction, and all involve the active participation of family and community in the healing process. Indigenous forms of mental health therapy, such as visiting a traditional healer, may be as effective as western psychotherapy in the case of war-affected children. According to the World Bank study, purification rituals in Angola are used in order to rid the ex-combatant of the contamination of war and death-- guilt, sin, and avenging spirits-- so that he may be accepted back into the family and community.

These "rites of transition" operate on a much more symbolic level than modern psychotherapeutic practices, but the fact that they originate from local African communities makes them culturally acceptable and thus more sustainable. By integrating these techniques into the interventions of foreign NGOs and donors, an effective approach to the recovery of child ex-soldiers may be offered.

From advocacy in the United States to enforcement of legislation in Africa, there are several hurdles to overcome in the fight to protect children from being recruited and deployed in the world's conflicts. The transformation of this idea into a respected norm over time is the only way to ultimately change the behavior of governments and other groups involved in war. In the meantime, African countries, with the assistance of external aid, are equipped to try to reorient their war-affected children.

Kellie Anderson is a Senior Research Analyst at the Africa Bureau Information Center, part of the Research and Reference Services Project of USAID, operated by the Academy for Educational Development. She has been a consultant at the World Bank in the Institutional and Social Policy Sector, Africa Region, and at the International Foundation for Election Systems (IFES). Prior to earning a Master's degree from the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced Studies (SAIS), she lived and worked for several years in Africa.

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