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The ultimate exploitation

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bullet"We want a society where people are more important than things, where children are precious; a world where people can be more human, caring and gentle." Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaking at the Eminent Persons Group meeting for the United Nations Study on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children, Tarrytown, New York, 1995-MAY-9

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There is a global trend towards the exploitation of children in military conflicts. They are easily kidnapped, require little food, are often considered expendable, are able to carry and aim the newer lightweight rifles, are strong enough to pull the trigger, and heavy enough to clear mine fields with their own bodies. "Child soldiers are 'more obedient, do not question orders and are easier to manipulate than adult soldiers.' " 8

Combating this trend is a movement of concerned individuals and non-government organizations (NGOs) who are promoting a ban on the use of soldiers under the age of 18. The U.S. Pentagon and executive branch of the government initially opposed such a ban. However they reached a compromise before the United Nations protocol was finally negotiated. 

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The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child requires countries to:

bullet"take all feasible measures to ensure that persons who have not attained the age of fifteen years do not take a direct part in hostilities."
bulletnot recruit anyone under the age of 15 into their armed forces, even as non-combatants.

The Convention is the "first, nearly universally ratified human rights treaty in history." 3 It has been signed and ratified by 191 out of the world's 193 nations. The two holdouts are:

bulletSomalia, which does not have an internationally recognized national government. Thus it has not been able to either sign or ratify any convention, and
bulletThe United States, which has signed but has not ratified the convention. Treaties in the US go through a long process of review before being ratified. "...The 'Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide' took more than 30 years to be ratified...and the 'Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women,' which was signed by the United States 17 years ago, still has not been ratified." 4

In 1994, a working group at the United Nations was formed to prepare a optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child that would raise the minimum age for armed forces recruitment and participation in hostilities from 15 to 18 years. Although most countries would accept such a change, Bangladesh, Cuba, Israel, Pakistan, the United Kingdom and the United States resisted it. The U.S. has a long standing policy of allowing 17 year olds to enter the military if they have the permission of a parent. However, they are not assigned to active combat. "Since the U.N. Working Group takes decisions only by consensus, all participating nations must be in unanimous agreement on the wording of the draft protocol. The United States alone has said that it would refuse to accept a consensus stipulating 18 years as the minimum age for recruitment." 10

Many NGOs support 18 as the minimum age for entry into the armed forces. These include: Amnesty International, Friends Committee for World Consultation, Human Rights Watch, International Catholic Children's Bureau, International Save the Children Alliance, the World Council of Churches, etc.

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Scope of the problem:

According to a letter sent to President Clinton in 1997 by 36 senior retired U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force officers, and one Canadian Armed forces officer: 6

bullet"As many as 250,000 children, some as young as 8, have been recruited, often by force, into government armies or armed rebel groups in over 30 countries." More recent estimates quote 300,000 or more child soldiers.
bulletOver 2,000,000 children have been killed in armed conflicts during the previous decade
bulletOver 6,000,000 children have been seriously injured or permanently disabled - many by abandoned anti-personnel mines.

Graça Machel, the U.N. Secretary-General's Expert on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children reported. 8

"In Liberia, children as young as seven have been found in combat, while in Cambodia, a survey of wounded soldiers found that 20 per cent of them were between the ages of 10 and 14 when recruited. In Sri Lanka, of 180 Tamil Tiger guerrillas killed in one government attack, more than half were still in their teens, and 128 were girls. Solid statistics are hard to come by, however, as most armies and militia do not want to admit to their use of child soldiers."

Elsewhere Machel wrote: 9

"In Afghanistan, where approximately 90 per cent of children now have no access to schooling, the proportion of soldiers who are children is thought to have risen in recent years from roughly 30 to at least 45%."

"Children are very impressionable and may even be lured into cults of martyrdom. In Lebanon and Sri Lanka, for example, some adults have used young people's immaturity to their own advantage, recruiting and training adolescents for suicide bombings."

"In many countries, including Afghanistan, Mozambique, Colombia and Nicaragua, children have even been forced to commit atrocities against their own families or communities."

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Recent developments:

bullet1998: By 1998-JAN-20, 63 members of Congress (57 Democrats, 5 Republicans, 1 "L") had signed a letter to President Clinton. They asked that he advise the U.S. delegation to the U.N. working group that they cease their opposition to a ban on child soldiers.

On JUN-30, a coalition of NGO's called "Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers" launched a campaign. Chairperson Jo Becker stated that 44 countries recruit children under the age of 18 into their armed forces. 

Senator Paul Wellstone (D-MN) introduced a Congressional resolution, calling on the U.S. to not block efforts to establish 18 as a minimum age for engaging in armed conflict. It was passed in 1998-OCT.

On DEC-21, the leaders of 40 human rights, religious, peace, humanitarian, child welfare, veterans and professional organizations wrote an open letter to President Clinton asking him "to support an international prohibition on the use of child soldiers." 1 Included were leaders of  the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Amnesty International USA, Human Rights Watch, National Council of Churches, National Education Association, TransAfrica, US Committee for UNICEF, and Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation. The letter states, in part:

"Robbed of their childhood, child combatants are subjected to a cycle of violence that they are often too young to understand, or resist. While many of these young recruits may start out as porters or messengers, too often they end up on the front lines of combat. Some are used for particularly hazardous duty, such as entering mine fields ahead of older troops, or undertaking suicide missions. Some have been forced to commit atrocities against family members or relatives. Inexperienced and immature, these children suffer far higher casualty rates than their adult counterparts. Those who survive are often physically or psychologically scarred. Typically lacking an education or civilian job skills, their futures are often bleak."

bullet1999: After 5 years of negotiations, governments had reached agreement on a limited treaty. Rather than an outright banning of child soldiers, it only prevents the "forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflicts." Jo Becker, Children's Rights Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch, commented: "This narrow provision fails to protect thousands of child soldiers who are lured or coerced into warfare." 12  The U.S. opposed a wider ban, because it wanted to continue its practice of allowing 17 year olds to volunteer for military service. Minors represent about 4% of the new recruits each year and fewer than 0.5% of the total active duty force.
bullet2000-JAN: After six years of negotiations, on JAN-22, governments finally reached a full treaty to ban the use of child combatants. 18 will be the minimum age for participation in any armed conflict. Jo Becker, Children's Rights Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch said: "This treaty could really make a difference to hundreds of thousands of children around the world," said  "For the first time, governments have agreed that the use of children in war is simply unacceptable."

The accord is an optional protocol, which forms part of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. This enables the United States to sign the accord without ratifying the convention itself. The U.S. is the only national government on earth that has refused to sign the convention.

The compromise reached implies that:

bulletThe U.S. will be able to continue recruitment of 17 year olds.
bulletThe U.S. will "take all feasible measures" to ensure that soldiers under the age of 18 do not participate in armed conflict.
bullet18 is "the minimum age for direct participation in hostilities, for compulsory recruitment, and for any recruitment or use in hostilities by non-governmental armed groups.  However, it allows government forces to accept voluntary recruits from the age of sixteen, subject to certain safeguards including parental permission and proof of age." 13  

This accord is the first time that the United States has promised to change its practices in order to meet a human rights standard. In most cases, the U.S. already exceeded the requirements of human rights standards when treaties were finalized. In other cases, (e.g. the land mine treaty and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights), the U.S. has either refused to ratify the treaty or has obtained reservations which exempted the U.S. from certain clauses. 12

bullet2000-MAY: The United Nations adopted the protocol.
bullet2000-JUN: The United Nations opened the protocol for signatures and ratification by countries.
bullet2000-JUL-5: The Clinton administration signed the international protocol. It was the eighth country to do so. However, the protocol must be ratified by the U.S. Senate to be effective. This will probably take decades.

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  1. "Leaders Call on President Clinton to Support International Ban on Child Soldiers," Human Rights Watch news release, 1988-DEC-21
  2. "Stop the Use of Child Soldiers," Human Rights Watch at: http://www.hrw.org/hrw/campaigns/crp/index.htm
  3. "Convention on the rights of the child," at: http://www.unicef.org/crc/status.htm
  4. "Convention on the rights of the child, FAQ" at: http://www.unicefusa.org/infoactiv/rights.html
  5. "Draft Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on Involvement of Children in Armed Conflicts,"at: http://www.hrw.org/campaigns/crp/crcop.htm
  6. Letter to President Clinton, 1997-DEC at: http://www.hrw.org/campaigns/crp/mil2.htm
  7. Letter to President Clinton, 1998-JAN-20 at: http://www.hrw.org/campaigns/crp/congsig3.htm
  8. Graça Machel, "Impact of Armed Conflict on Children," (report review) at: http://www.unicef.org/graca/
  9. Graça Machel, "Impact of Armed Conflict on Children," (report text) at: gopher://gopher.un.org/00/ga/docs/51/plenary/A51-306.EN
  10. Thalif Deen, "Conflict: NGOs Launch Global Campaign to Ban Child Soldiers," Inter Press Service news report for 1998-JUN-30 at: http://www.oneworld.org/ips2/june98/22_29_096.html
  11. "U.S. Blocks Efforts to Ban the Use of Child Soldiers; Clinton Urged to Back Stronger Measures in Geneva," Human Rights Watch, news release, 1999-JUN-15.
  12. "New treaty bans children in combat," Human Rights Watch, news release, 2000-JAN-21.
  13. "Clinton hailed for signing ban on child combatants," Human Rights Watch, news release, 2000-JUL-5.

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G.S. Goodwin-Gill & Ilene Cohn, "Child Soldiers: A Study on Behalf of the Henry Dunant Institute," Geneva, Oxford University Press, (1994). You can safely order this book online from Amazon.com book store


A. Kosonen, "The special protection of children and child soldiers: a principle and its application." This book is out of print but may still be obtainable


Human Rights Watch Staff, "The Scars of Death: Children Abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda," (1997). Order this book

Copyright © 1999, 2000 & 2004 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolernace
Latest update: 2004-JUL-28
Author: B.A. Robinson

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