New push to stop child soldiers

A report released Wednesday shows commitment by 85 countries to end the practice - but enforcement still lags.

A Liberian militia commander named Alphonso gestures at a half-dozen boys - lined up on what used to be a school field - and declares with a proprietary tone in his voice: "These are my child soldiers."

The blithe way in which Alphonso admits to a war crime without fear of consequences illustrates the chief paradox described in a new report by the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, an umbrella grouping of nongovernmental agencies.

On paper, global opposition to the use of children in war is growing rapidly, says the report. Eighty-five nations have ratified a treaty not to recruit children for combat, up from four in 2001. Yet in many of these same countries, government armies, their proxy militia, and armed opposition groups are still using children as soldiers and too little is being done to hold them to account. The coalition aims to change that.

"The problem is not that we lack the power to do this - the problem is our failure to use that power effectively, consistently, and urgently," Graça Machel, a Mozambican child rights campaigner, writes in the report released Wednesday.

"We're seeing a strong international consensus emerging that the use of child soldiers must be stopped, but the practice on the ground hasn't caught up," says Jo Becker, children's rights advocacy director for New York-based Human Rights Watch, a member of the coalition. "Violators need to know there will be consequences if they continue to use child soldiers."

The global report, the first of its kind in three years, catalogs 27 countries where children are involved in active conflicts. It says children sometimes join armed forces because they lack schooling opportunities, want to earn money, or are encouraged by family. In many cases, however, boys and girls are abducted or forcibly recruited, then made to perform atrocities that bind them to their unit.

Governments and armed groups have signed a variety of agreements not to recruit children, but the report says the promises are being broken time and again. The coalition is calling for tougher enforcement of such agreements, and lays responsibility not only on the groups who send children to war, but also on Western governments and the United Nations Security Council.

"It is not enough for the UN Security Council to pass resolution after resolution without ensuring that these are followed up with concrete action," says Henri Nzeyimana, the coalition coordinator in Africa's Great Lakes region.

The report's recommendations for concrete action include naming and shaming the armed forces that use children, imposing such sanctions as travel restrictions and asset freezes on leading perpetrators, and ultimately charging them with war crimes.

The first-ever war-crimes prosecution for using child soldiers was launched in June by the international tribunal in Sierra Leone. Prosecutors for the International Criminal Court in The Hague are also investigating the use of child soldiers in Uganda and Congo, but charges have yet to be laid.

"I'm personally convinced that the first successful prosecution for recruiting or using child soldiers will have a big impact, because people will begin looking over their shoulders and saying, 'I could be tried for doing this,' " says Rachel Brett of the Quaker United Nations Office in Geneva.

Ms. Brett, coauthor of a new book entitled "Young Soldiers: Why They Choose to Fight," criticizes leaders who denounce child soldiering in their speeches yet provide military and bilateral support to governments and armed forces that use children in war. Opponents of the practice say the world's major arms suppliers should copy Belgium, which outlawed arms exports to any government using child soldiers.

"If it was clear they would not receive arms, governments would not be so quick to recruit child soldiers," says Ms. Becker of Human Rights Watch.

Campaigners chalk up some success in reducing the number of child soldiers to demobilization programs in places like Afghanistan and Sierra Leone.

Here in eastern Liberia, the British aid agency Save the Children is trying to help several hundred former child soldiers trace their families and reintegrate into their villages. At its demobilization center for former boy soldiers in Zwedru, gangly teenagers sit on wooden benches studying third grade grammar and geography. The boys recite the names of Liberia's neighbors - Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Ivory Coast - all of which have sent children to war.

Across town is a similar center for girls. Its manager, Washington Zeah, says that a number of girls arrived pregnant, having been kept as sex slaves by their commanders, and others had fallen prey to drugs. Counselors at both sites work with the kids to overcome their trauma and pave the way for a return home.

But its efforts have been dealt a blow with the fresh resumption of hostilities just across the border in Ivory Coast. Staff are finding evidence of Ivorian government and rebel forces recruiting recently demobilized Liberian children.

"When children go back to communities where they have no economic or educational options, the obvious thing they're going to do is roll up and fight again when there's an opportunity," says Sarah Uppard, the agency's global child protection adviser.

Her comment echoes the report's call for governments to reduce unemployment and improve access to education. "States will only prevent child recruitment by offering alternatives to young people to joining an armed force," say the authors.

Where child soldiers fight

• Since 2001, some 40,000 children have been demobilized as wars ended in Afghanistan, Angola, and Sierra Leone.

• Governments that use child soldiers include Burma, Burundi, Congo, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Rwanda, Sudan, and Uganda.

• Since 2001, 25,000 children have been drawn into new conflicts in Ivory Coast and Sudan alone.

• The US has used 17-year-olds in Iraq, but later withdrew them.

• Colombia and Zimbabwe back militias that use child soldiers, while Israel, Indonesia, and Nepal use children as informants, spies, or messengers.

Source: Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, www.child-soldiers.org

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