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If US opposes child labor - why
not child soldiers?||
Human Rights Watch
June 27, 1999
"There are some things we cannot and will not tolerate,"
President Clinton declared June 16 in Geneva, as he pledged US
support for a new international convention banning the worst
forms of child labor.
The convention adopted the next day by the International
Labor Organization is intended to ban the most exploitative and
hazardous forms of child labor, including child prostitution,
slave-like practices, and work that "jeopardizes the health,
safety, or morals of children." It's very important that the US
back this agreement. But apparently, there is one form of child
labor the US is prepared to tolerate: the use of children as
soldiers. Child soldiers also engage in work that jeopardizes
their health, safety, and morals. An estimated 300,000 children
under18 currently participate in armed conflicts around the
world, sustaining far higher casualty rates than their adult
counterparts and often suffering serious psychological damage.
Studies show that children at greatest risk of military
recruitment during times of conflict are frequently drawn into
other forms of child labor during peacetime. These at-risk
groups include children who are poor, who have no access to
education, are separated from their families, displaced from
their homes, or come from marginalized groups.
Recognizing the use of child soldiers as a child labor issue,
trade unions and many governments sought a broad prohibition on
the use of child soldiers in the new International Labor
Organization convention. However, the provision quickly became
the most controversial item of the two-week negotiating session,
as the US launched an aggressive campaign to block a total ban.
The US is one of a minority of countries that still recruits
minors into its armed forces. In 1997 there were 2,880
17-year-olds on active duty - minors the US could have sent into
combat. A total ban on the use of children in armed conflict
would put the US in violation of the new convention, because
international law defines a child as anyone under 18.
To get out of this conundrum, the US pushed - successfully -
for a much narrower prohibition on "forced or compulsory
recruitment of children for use in armed conflicts."
So, thousands of child soldiers around the world - many much
younger than 17 - are left at risk, largely lured into armed
groups by promises of payment, food, or protection. "Voluntary"
recruits are not covered by the new convention. But what
difference does it make how they were recruited? The extreme
hazards they face remain the same.
The US has clearly opted to sacrifice strong international
protections for children in order to protect its own military
recruitment policies. Were the US really serious about ending
the use of child soldiers, it would be willing to bar the few
17-year-old soldiers in its forces from combat duty in order to
achieve a strong international ban.
The new ILO convention isn't the only arena where the US
opposes strong standards to end the use of child soldiers. A
proposed human rights treaty raising the minimum age for
participation in armed conflict from 15 to 18 has stalled for
five years in the UN largely because of US opposition. In
Geneva, Mr. Clinton spoke movingly of the many children who work
in conditions that "shock the conscience" and called on every
nation to take responsibility to end abusive forms of child
labor. For these exhortations to be credible, the US must
reexamine its own policies and its own conscience.
By Jo Becker, Children's Rights Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch