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Unicef hails raising of military age


Information Newsline

January  24, 2000

UNICEF today welcomed the decision by governments to raise from 15 to 18 years the age at which participation in armed conflicts will be permitted and to establish a ban on compulsory recruitment below 18 years.

"After six years of stalemate, these decisions are a very welcome breakthrough," said UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy.

But the children's agency said the agreement reached on Friday by the UN Working Group, established to raise the standards in the Convention on the Rights of the Child for children in armed conflict, leaves too much open to interpretation, particularly as it regards governmental military forces and voluntary enlistment. Ms. Bellamy said the accord falls short of the straight 18 ban that UNICEF and others had sought.

"UNICEF's concern is for the best interests of the child, regardless of where they live or on which side of the conflict they are situated. In the light of this, it is disappointing that the Optional Protocol fails to apply to government military forces the same standards in relation to voluntary recruitment that are being required of non-governmental armed groups."

UNICEF had sought consistency on 18 years as marking the point at which adulthood begins. The language of the protocol firmly states 18 as a minimum age for recruitment by non-governmental forces. But it does no more than to require states to establish a minimum age -- not necessarily 18 -- at which they will permit voluntary recruitment into their armed forces and to indicate the measures they have adopted to ensure that such recruitment is not coercive.

"All too often the notion of 'voluntary recruitment' is meaningless when those recruited have few other options, are easily manipulated and are subject to social pressures, including from within their own families and communities," Ms. Bellamy said. She called on governments to signal their commitment to establish 18 as a minimum for voluntary recruitment when they ratify the Optional Protocol, and to set an example that may increase the pressure on others.

Some 300,000 children -- some as young as eight -- are involved in the 30 active conflicts around the world, as soldiers, porters or sexual slaves. Many are forcibly recruited.

"UNICEF's position is dictated by our commitment to reverse the growing and tragic pattern of victimization of children in today's conflicts, where youngsters are subjected to amputation, systematic abductions, rape and sexual exploitation and abuse, and are attacked in schools and hospitals, terrorized in refugee camps and manipulated as expendable pawns of war," Ms. Bellamy said. "Too often, children are forced by adults to terrorize the very communities they come from."

Ms. Bellamy expressed the hope that the very active role played by the United States in the proceedings of the Working Group might signal an increased possibility that the US will join the rest of the international community in ratifying the Convention on the Rights of the Child itself. Some 191 nations -- all but the US and Somalia -- have ratified the Convention, the most ratified human rights instrument in history.

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