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NEWS STORY

Child soldiers used by all sides in Colombia's armed conflict

Human Rights Watch


October 7, 1998

Colombian guerillas call their child soldiers "little bees," because they sting before the enemy realizes it's under attack.

Tens of thousands of children are being used as soldiers by all sides to the bloody conflict underway in Colombia, according to a Human Rights Watch report released today. Up to thirty percent of some guerrilla units are made up of children. The number of children in some militias, considered a training ground for future guerrilla fighters, is reported to be as high as 85 percent. Although most of Colombia's child soldiers are over fifteen, all sides are recruiting children younger than fifteen, in violation of the laws of war. The three sides to the conflict are guerillas, national security units, and paramilitaries.

Human Rights Watch found that child guerrillas are used to collect intelligence, make and deploy mines, and serve as advance troops in ambush attacks against paramilitaries, soldiers, and police officers. Those who manage to escape are considered deserters and may be subjected to on-the-spot execution.

Colombia's national security forces, including the army and National Police, include over 15,000 children. Thousands of others are recruited for civic outreach and placed in war zones in uniform, at serious risk of attack. The army also captures or accepts the surrender of children suspected of being guerrillas, then uses them as guides or informants. These children may be forced to patrol with troops, take part in combat, collect intelligence, and deactivate land mines.

Paramilitary units, which often operate in direct coordination with national security forces and are responsible for some of the conflict's worst abuses, also include large numbers of children. Children as young as eight years of age have been seen patrolling with paramilitaries, and up to 50 percent of some units are made up of children.

"This use of children is appalling," says Jo Becker, Children's Rights Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch. "All parties to the conflict should immediately stop all recruitment of children under the age of eighteen, and should demobilize all child soldiers currently in their ranks."

International law prohibits the recruitment of any children under the age of 15, and an international consensus is building on behalf of prohibitions on any military recruitment below the age of 18. Under the new International Criminal Court treaty drafted in July in Rome, the conscription and use in hostilities of children under the age of 15 is defined as a war crime, to be prosecuted by the Court.

In late June, Human Rights Watch, together with Amnesty International and other leading international nongovernmental organizations, launched a new Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, which seeks stronger international standards to protect children from military recruitment and use in armed conflict. The Coalition is campaigning to raise the minimum age for military recruitment and participation in armed conflict from 15, set by existing international law, to 18. The latest research on child soldiers estimates that more than 300,000 children under 18 years old are fighting in armed conflicts around the world.

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