For Now, the World's Little Warriors Can Fight On

Article excerpt

A charter to stop children becoming soldiers sounds good. But the US is not keen, reports Barbara Gunnell

Nobody could be against a charter that aimed to protect children from the consequences of war, could they? And who would be so churlish as to ignore a passionate appeal by Graca Machel, the wife of Nelson Mandela and former first lady of Mozambique and South Africa, nations that have both seen far too many innocent victims of conflict?

Last month, Machel chaired an international conference in Winnipeg, Canada, on war-affected children -- the first of its kind -- and presented the results of her four-year study on child soldiers and victims of conflict. Foreign ministers and representatives of around 130 countries discussed the findings and agreed a programme of action to take to a United Nations Special Session on Children in September next year.

The worthy and -- as long as war exists -- almost unachievable aim of the programme of action is to protect millions of affected youngsters around the globe. They include 800 children killed or maimed every month by landmines; an estimated one million war orphans; more than ten million child refugees displaced by conflict; and four or five million children who have been disabled by war over the past ten years.

Machel, a passionate and persuasive advocate of the cause, argued for the demobilisation of child soldiers, educational rehabilitation, the return of children who had been abducted by armies and much more besides. Refreshingly straightforward in manner (she has not bothered to learn how to obfuscate her comments in diplomatic UN-speak), she invited delegates to expose the abusers.

But the "abusers" are not just rebel armies. Among those who recruit (or abduct) child soldiers are UN member governments whose armies include an estimated 300,000 youths aged under 18. Currently, children are involved in around 30 armed conflicts.

Some government armies and many rebel or opposition forces use children as young as ten. Even eight-year-olds are used for dangerous work -- for example, to carry weapons, or as spies and messengers. Girls (and boys, too) may be abducted to do menial camp work or, worse, be taken as sex slaves. Delegates heard many of these stories of life in a war zone at first hand, from the personal testimonies of about 30 young people who the Canadian government had brought to Winnipeg to take part in a parallel session and make their own recommendations for the 2001 Special Session.

But although the cases that took centre stage at Winnipeg were those of the youngest and most vulnerable victims of war, the majority of "child" soldiers, under the UN's definition, are in fact aged between 15 and 18.

In May this year, the UN General Assembly set in train a new international legal framework covering child soldiers by adopting the so-called Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This raises from 15 to 18 the minimum age for compulsory recruitment into national forces. Volunteers can be recruited younger, but countries that ratify the protocol will have to declare the age at which their national forces will permit voluntary recruitment. Rebel groups will accept volunteers only above the age of 18.

So far, Canada alone has ratified the protocol. In August, it brought in legislation to ban under-18s from fighting units. The UN, too, has set a minimum age of 18 for peacekeeping troops, and has asked governments providing troops for UN peacekeeping missions to opt for soldiers over 21 where possible. …