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International Efforts Address Use of Child Soldiers

Weekly Defense Monitor| Volume 2, Issue No. 27

July 9,1998

On June 30 the International Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers was launched by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, International Federation of Terre des Hommes, Jesuit Refugee Service, Quaker United Nations Office, and Rädda Barnen - Swedish Save the Children (on behalf of the International Save the Children Alliance). The International Coalition is working to raise awareness of the issue of Child Soldiers - both by national governments and the general public - and to achieve a ban eliminating the use of child soldiers.

One of the Coalition’s objectives is to set up national campaigns in countries where the issue of child soldiers is virtually unknown or where a country has a particular policy detrimental to the advancement of the Optional Protocol to the Convention of the Rights of the Child (which raises the age of military recruitment, conscription, and participation in war to 18 years).

The United States is one such country. Not only does the U.S. recruit individuals under 18 for military service, the U.S. is blocking progress of a UN working group addressing the issue of child soldiers. In response, non- governmental organizations have established the U.S. Campaign to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. To address strategies pertaining to the U.S. Government and to work for change in U.S. policy through the legislative branch, the Washington Coalition on Child Soldiers has been formed.

The International Coalition’s launch came on the heels of historic action at the United Nations by the UN Security Council on the issue of child soldiers. On June 29, the Security Council debated the issue of child soldiers. The discussions were initiated by the President of the Security Council, Antonio Monteiro of Portugal. Reuters reported Monteiro’s statement on behalf of the Council: "[The Security Council] strongly condemns the targeting of children in armed conflicts, including their humiliation, brutalization, sexual abuse, abduction and forced displacements, as well as their recruitment and use in hostilities in violation of international law." Furthermore, Inter Press Service reported the Council’s condemnation of "the recruitment of children in hostilities as a violation of international law and called upon all parties concerned to put an end to such activities."

The Council called upon the UN’s Special Representative for Children in Armed Conflict, Olara Otunnu, among others, to inform the Council of the multitude of issues concerning child soldiers. Otunnu, who previously held the post of Foreign Minister of Uganda, was appointed by UN Secretary- General Kofi Annan in 1997 in accordance with a provision in a 1996 General Assembly Resolution.

Otunnu revealed startling statistics to the Council. Currently, over 250,000 children under the age of 18 serve in government military forces or with armed rebel groups. Children are directly involved in conflicts in over 50 countries in various capacities such as cooks, spies, messengers, "comfort women," and of course, soldiers. Otunnu also illustrated the damage armed conflict perpetuates on children around the world: "In the last decade alone we have seen two million children killed, over one million orphaned, six million seriously injured or permanently disabled, 12 million made homeless and 10 million left with serious psychological trauma."

The issue of child soldiers is shocking and horrifying. Both boys and girls, some as young as eight years old, are recruited (either kidnaped or forced) to join armed groups. These children often suffer sexual abuse, are encouraged to partake in illegal drugs, and are forced to commit atrocities and egregious acts of violence.

A significant factor in the increased use of child soldiers has been the proliferation of small arms and light weapons. Because these weapons are easy to use and are lightweight, a small child can carry and operate them. A New York Times Report quotes the Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Stephen Lewis, as saying that "a booming trade in small arms was contributing to a worldwide culture of violence and indiscriminate killing at the end of the 20th century that was putting guns into the hands of children."

There is an enormous amount of work to be done to educate the world community about the issue of child soldiers. As international and national efforts take hold, they contribute to the growing momentum to eliminate the use of children as soldiers. At the press conference launching the International Coalition, Stephen Lewis summed up the need for increased efforts: "The use of children in waging war violates every existing standard of civilized human behavior. The international community can dilly-dally no longer: we must take action. The starting point is clearly a universal ban on military recruitment of any kind - voluntary or obligatory - under the age of 18."

Research Analyst Rachel Stohl

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