Thursday, August 12

IRIN Web Special on child soldiers

IRIN Web Special on child soldiers

What would it feel like to know that our government was focused on ending tragedies such as this rather than moving swiftly past as though nothing were going on and no one needed their help? We may never know. Mercy, Father. Mercy.

Child soldier in Sierra Leone
Credit: IRIN

His comrades in the transit camp run by Save the Children-UK in Bunia, a town in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), called him 'Kadogo', which means "small" in Kiswahili. The name suited him for he was tiny, much too tiny, in fact, to be involved in anyone's war.

But at 12, Kadogo was already a veteran of a vicious bush war between ethnic militias in eastern DRC. So were his comrades at the transit camp, victims like him of a practice that has drawn widespread condemnation, including from the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF).

Dubbed "an illegal and morally reprehensible practice" by UNICEF, the use of children in violent conflicts continues in many war situations around the world.

The last few years have seen heightened interest in the problem at the highest level of the international community, and landmark developments to strengthen and broaden the scope of international measures to protect children from this scourge. For this reason, says Olara Otunnu, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children in Armed Conflict, we are now at "a watershed moment" when international attention can be coupled with new mechanisms and instruments to end impunity for those using child soldiers.

It is time over the next three years, according to Otunnu, "to switch from talking the talk to walking the walk … for a critical mass that could come together to change the behaviour of parties in conflict and prevent them getting away with abuse of children."

The nature of the problem

More than 500,000 children under-18 have been recruited into state and non-state armed groups in over 85 countries worldwide, according to the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers []. At any one time, more than 300,000 of these children are actively fighting as soldiers with government armed forces or armed opposition groups worldwide, says the coalition.

Most child soldiers are between the ages of 15 and 18 years, but some are as young as seven. Most, but not all, soldiers under 15 years of age are believed to be part of non-state armed forces. Those children who are not fighters, are typically runners or scouts, porters, sex slaves, cooks or spies.

The recruitment and use of children for combat is outlawed by various measures of international human rights law, humanitarian law, labour law and criminal law but a chasm exists between these standards and their application.

Most observers agree that the practice continues because children make for cheap and obedient fighters, and are easier - because of their youth and inexperience - to mould into effective and expendable combatants. In some areas subject to persistent violent conflict, there is a shortage of "eligible men" so belligerents widen the recruitment base by using girls and boys, some observers say. The proliferation of light weaponry has also fed into the problem, making it possible for very young children to bear and use arms, others add.

But all agree that the most obvious reason armed forces take on children as soldiers is because they can. Despite the regulations outlawing the practice, little effective action has been taken against those who violate the conventions and international agreements.

Child soldiers are often abducted from their homes, schools or communities and forced into combat, whether by government forces, rebel groups or paramilitary militias. Sometimes they are accepted as 'volunteers', although UNICEF makes the point that few children who join armies are really 'volunteers': minors who are forced to fight are often poor, illiterate and from rural or otherwise marginalised communities. In such circumstances, signing up with fighting groups may seem more attractive than the dismal alternatives.

Zaralam, a 14-year-old military policeman near the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, told IRIN that life was tough but that he had had to join the "army" to earn some money for his family. He is one of at least 8,000 children believed to be under arms in Afghanistan, many in the pay of regional warlords.

Even a little education, vocational training - and therefore opportunity - can make children more independent and less susceptible to military recruitment, according to UNICEF. Propaganda and ideological 'brainwashing' can also lure children into the ranks of armed forces.

In conflict situations, orphans whose parents have been killed or have disappeared are particularly vulnerable to coercion or volunteering for service as child soldiers.

Among other things, protection involves developing strategies to make children less vulnerable to military recruitment, and identifying non-violent ways for them to contribute to their families and communities. Resources and capacity are particularly needed to extend education and vocational training, as well as to revive agriculture and provide other economic opportunities, according to the UN.

"Unless children demobilised from armies are given alternatives to soldiering, they are likely to be recruited again into armed groups," Graca Machel, an expert on children in armed conflict, noted in a September 2000 report on The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children.


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