More children going straight from playpen to front lines

Fewer child soldiers in Latin America and Mideast, says new report, but Africa, parts of Asia still recruiting.

They peer hauntingly from television screens and the pages of newspapers, mournful-eyed children in combat fatigues, shouldering murderous weapons.

From Africa to Asia to the Middle East, they seem to go directly from the playpen to the front lines, leapfrogging childhood.

In war zones, many of these child soldiers are abused - beaten, raped. Others, in turn, are abusive - programmed to maim and kill even innocent civilians.

Much of mankind is struggling to banish children like these from fighting in armed conflict. A new report, released today, details progress and regression. "The situation is improving in some regions of the world," says Jo Becker, chair of the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, an umbrella group of several human rights organizations, which put out the report. The number of child soldiers is decreasing in Latin America, the former Yugoslavia, and the Middle East.

But in other areas - Africa, parts of Asia, and the Pacific - "a new generation" of children is being turned into soldiers, says Ms. Becker, who is also children's rights advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, a member of the coalition.

Worldwide, more than 300,000 children - girls and boys under 18 - are under arms and in the front lines, the report concludes. Several hundred thousand others, while not actually fighting, have been recruited by government armies and a host of non-government armed camps.

Beyond such massive statistics are many smaller ones. In a positive move, Sierra Leone rebels - known for forcing children to fight for them and maim civilians - have released more than 800 of their child soldiers in the past month. The youngest was 8.

Having children in the army is not new. During the Civil War, many drummer boys were in their early teens or younger, albeit armed simply with drumsticks. During the last stages of World War II, manpower-short Germany conscripted youth in their preteens and early teens and sent them into battle. Throughout World War II and the Vietnam War, 17-year-olds fought in the American military.

"But we haven't seen it on the scale that we see it today," Becker says. What's made the difference are quantum advances in making weapons smaller and deadlier, which "enable 10-year-old children to be warriors."

What constitutes a child soldier is the subject of some controversy. Today, most such soldiers are between 15 and 18. Many are 12 or younger. Few people would support making soldiers of children that young - but the coalition also concludes that 17-year-olds are children. "International law has become very clear," says Becker, "that the age of 18 is the dividing line between childhood and adulthood." But not everyone agrees with this age line.

The United States and some other nations, for example, allow 17-year-olds to volunteer for the military. Most American soldiers are 18 before they finish training, but a few aren't, and the military doesn't want to be proscribed from sending them into combat. That's the primary reason Congress has been unwilling to ratify a protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which says no soldiers under 18 are to be in armed combat.

Former President Clinton did take the first step, however, by signing the protocol a year ago. So did officials of 79 other nations. Only five have ratified it.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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