Since 1993, the UN Human Rights Commission has worked on ending one of the worst abuses of modern times: the use of children in armed conflicts.
Boys and girls as young as 15 may be sent into battle without violating the almost universally accepted Convention on the Rights of the Child. In reality, many aged 12 or even 8 have taken part in fighting, mainly in Africa and Asia. The work in hand is to raise the minimum age to 18. There is, however, no consensus and when this year's effort failed in March, some felt it better to skip a year and try again in 2000.
Among those opposed to setting the age limit at 18 is the US, which recruits boys and girls as young as 17, with parental consent. The Pentagon wants to stay with 17, as do the defense ministries of many other countries.
On the whole, the US has approached the issue of children's rights gingerly. It waited years to sign the convention and hasn't yet ratified it - a position shared only with Somalia, which has no government. But there are other obstacles to agreement. Some states, like Kuwait and Cuba want no age limit on conscription in the event of invasion. And there is growing recruitment by armed groups fighting under local warlords or as part of resistance movements. Pakistan, for instance, supports Muslim fighters in Kashmir and argues that a struggle for self determination supersedes all age restrictions.
Meanwhile, more and more children have been pressed or lured into service as soldiers or as spies, saboteurs, and transport mules. In the 40 or so armed conflicts now in progress around the globe, aid organizations estimate that 250,000 children are under arms, mostly in Africa.
The UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimates that between 1987 and 1997:
* Two million children were killed in and by fighting.
* Four to five million were disabled by war-related injuries.
* 12 million were left homeless by war.
More than 1 million were orphaned or separated from their parents by war.
The psychological trauma of such experience burdens the future of those involved and of the communities to which they belong.
Ambassdor Olara Otunnu of Ivory Coast, the UN Secretary-General's Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, reports that children are specifically targeted in today's internecine wars. The strategy, he says, is to eliminate the next generation of potential adversaries. To the same end, children, girls in particular, are subjected to sexual abuse and gender-based violence on a large scale.
Child soldiers are frighteningly dangerous in their lack of restraint in "total war" scenarios arranged by adult leaders. The village has become the battlefield, and civilian populations the primary target. Societies disintegrate and value systems collapse. The abused grow up to be abusers. All cultures share an instinctive obligation to protect children; but this can be overridden by force in the service of greed and hate. The international community has built an impressive structure of humanitarian law with solemn treaties to ensure human rights in peace and war. But enforcement lags far behind formulation and is difficult to pursue in a world of sovereign nation states.
Ambassador Otunnu believes that the value system that exists on paper can be backed up with practical measures.
Most warlords, gang leaders, and dictators must get the weapons and money they need from outside, by misrepresentation, and often through deals with ostensibly respectable suppliers. Otunnu wants to see an aroused public terminate the impunity they enjoy. Economic and political pressure could be applied from case to case by governments, the UN, nongovernmental organizations, churches, business, and outraged individuals.
What is happening to the children and to the future should move them to act.
* Richard C. Hottelet, a former CBS foreign correspondent, writes on world affairs.