War can ruin a childhood through the destruction of homes and families. But an estimated 300,000 children in the world - some as young as 9 - are currently being forced to wage war as soldiers.
Most are fighting in Africa's civil wars, though it's far from uncommon in other parts of the world. In a few African nations, programs have started to salvage the lives of thousands of former boy soldiers.
On Friday, an international agreement was reached to set stronger rules on the minimum age of soldiers in combat. The pact is a United Nations protocol that is part of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Its key provision would raise that age from 15 to 18.
This reasonable step, however, had been up against a large barrier - the Pentagon. America's generals wanted to protect their current policy of bringing people as young as 17 into the combat services. They were concerned, not unreasonably, about manpower needs at a time of increased difficulty in filling recruitment goals. But the generals have now yielded, accepting compromise language that would allow 17-year-olds to enter the service, but keep them out of combat duty until they turned 18.
The US top brass, apparently, came to recognize their policy could flex a little to clear the way for an international agreement that addresses exploitation of the young in many parts of the world. The protocol is likely to be ratified by the US separate from the larger treaty. (That treaty faces objections from some in Congress related to whether it interferes with the rights of parents.)
The protocol doesn't include much in the way of enforcement. It does, however, set down an important marker, putting the weight of world opinion on the side of keeping children out of the regrettable adult business of warfare.
The US compromise on this protocol comes on the heels of Sen. Jesse Helms's warning to the UN Security Council last week that "the American people" wouldn't tolerate any UN interference with their country's sovereignty. Apart from the issue of whether the senator speaks for the American people, the compromise on the protocol shows that the US can bend a bit to advance a worthy global project and support the United Nations.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society