Liberating child soldiers as a path to peace

The UN reports progress in getting armed groups to end recruitment of children as soldiers. Such success often brings a side benefit: It can open a door for peace talks.  

Former child soldiers wait to be released in Bambari, Central African Republic, as part of a United Nations-brokered deal in 2015.

In recent years, the United Nations and others have discovered a new tool to curb violence in war-torn nations: Ask the combatants to stop recruiting children as soldiers. It is a heart-touching appeal to protect the most innocent in a society, and one that has brought some progress, according to a new UN report on children and armed conflict.

Last year, for example, the UN was able to remove armed groups in two countries, Congo and the Philippines, from its registry of parties that recruit child soldiers. The UN also obtained new agreements with militants in Mali and Sudan, adding to a couple dozen “action plans” in other countries aimed at halting the practice. In addition, last year’s peace deal in Colombia greatly reduced the number of child soldiers after decades of civil war.

Overall, more than 100,000 children have been released by armed forces or groups. These successes, the UN report states, prove that “engagement on issues such as the separation, release and handover of children can provide an entry point for difficult or protracted negotiations.”

In other words, a path to peace often lies in tapping a shared desire to recognize the need to protect the innocence of children.

In other conflict areas, the UN is finding less success. Last year, the number of child soldiers in Syria and Somalia more than doubled from the year before. And terrorist groups such as Al Shabab, Boko Haram, Islamic State, and the Taliban still use children as suicide bombers.

Still, the progress made so far shows how much global attitudes about child soldiers have changed since 1989, the year the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child was ratified. In 2014, the UN launched a campaign to end the recruitment of child soldiers. In addition, many activist groups have been successful in rehabilitating child soldiers from a life of violence in post-conflict societies.

Sadly, the UN says more than 8,000 children were killed and injured in conflicts last year. But one way to end those wars is to focus on children, especially those trained for war. Their innocence is not only retrievable but an easy excuse for peace talks.

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