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  5. Not Toy Soldiers: Children in Armed Conflicts

 
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FOCUS June 2003 Volume 32

Not Toy Soldiers: Children in Armed Conflicts

Glenda Ramirez

I was afraid that first time. The section leader ordered us to take cover and open fire. There were seven of us, and seven or ten of the enemy. I was afraid to look, so I put my face in the ground and shot my gun up at the sky. I was afraid their bullets would hit my head. I fired two magazines, about forty rounds. I was afraid that if I didn't fire the section leader would punish me.

(Human Rights Watch Interview with Khin Maung Than, who was 12 years old when this happened.)1

Khin Maung Than 2 is one of the more than 300,000 child soldiers in the world, children under eighteen years old fighting as soldiers in armed groups, whether with government or opposition forces. Hundreds of thousands more have been recruited into government armed forces, paramilitaries, civil militia and various non-state armed groups. The average age of the children ranges between fifteen and eighteen, with the youngest recorded age at seven.

The use of children as soldiers is most serious in Africa and Asia, though governments and armed groups in several countries in the Americas, Europe and Middle East have also used and recruited child soldiers. There has been widespread and substantial child participation in armed conflicts across Asia and the Pacific, with Afghanistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and, in the recent past, Cambodia, as the worst affected countries. Children are also used as soldiers in ongoing lower-intensity conflicts across India, Nepal, the Philippines, Indonesia and, in the past, Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands. 3 It is estimated that about one in four child soldiers are in Asia.

Recruitment of children

Realistically, if the enemy is approaching and destroying your community, how can you stand back?... Sometimes people were exploiting us...I want to save my island and my people...I have five brothers. Four joined the fighting, three joined before me. I want to defend my island and my people...
   (Interview of a child who joined the Bougainville Revolutionary Army in Papua New Guinea when he was 17.)4

In 1999 I went with my mother to visit Yangon. My mother returned home first, and I left for home five days later. On the way home there were many checkpoints. At one checkpoint the police stopped me because I had no ID card, and took me to the police station. There the police threatened me, saying that because I had no ID card I could be put in jail [for] 6 years. Then they told me that I could choose to either go to jail for 6 years or join the army. I was afraid of spending 6 years in jail so I decided to join the army. At this time I was 11 years old.
   (Interview of Min Zaw by the Human Rights Documentation Unit.)5

The recruitment of children into armed groups can be compulsory, "voluntary" or through the use force. Compulsory recruitment, or conscription, consists of the legal obligation of nationals of a country, which may include those under the age of 18, to perform military service.6 Forced recruitment, as practiced by government and opposition armed forces, involves the use of threat of or actual physical violence on the children or someone close to them. 7 There are cases of children being kidnapped and forced to become soldiers.

Children, without force or compulsion, may decide to join an armed group for various reasons such as desire for revenge, nationalism, lack of educational opportunities, financial problem, heroism, and influence of family members. Economic, cultural, social or political factors may influence the decision of a child to become a child soldier, hence, it may be misleading to call such recruitment as "voluntary."8

Role of children in armed conflict

[I was best at] close range fighting. [But the most difficult job] was when I was assigned to assassinate somebody at Isabela, which is surrounded by the army and police.
(Interview of a child solider in the Philippines who joined when he was 17.)9

When children participate in armed conflict, they perform various tasks, either as combatant, bomb carrier, executioner or assassin, informant, porter, spy, courier, construction worker, cook, domestic worker, thief, and sexual slave, or a combination of all of these. Regardless of the role they perform, the children's physical security and entire well-being are placed in grave danger. Children are exposed to conditions that endanger their life and physical health. Social and psychological effects on children include difficulty in interacting with others, apathy, militarist attitude, hatred, sense of insecurity, cold-bloodedness, sense of isolation, and violence.10

Sometimes, about once a month, I have bad dreams of killing people. I become angry in situations when I feel I'm not good. Yes, I think of myself as violent. I drink to enjoy myself.
(Interview with a child soldier in Papua New Guinea who joined an armed group when he was 17.)11

Protecting the children: The Optional Protocol

The United Nations General Assembly adopted on 25 May 2000 by consensus the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict. It entered into force on February 12, 2002.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child sets 15 years as the minimum age for direct participation of children in hostilities and recruitment in government armed forces, with State Parties giving priority to those who are oldest. The Optional Protocol, however, raises the minimum age level to 18 years. It also calls upon State Parties to raise the minimum age for voluntary recruitment and to maintain safeguards to ensure that the recruitment is genuinely voluntary.

The Optional Protocol prohibits non-state armed groups from recruiting, whether voluntary or forced, and using children under 18 years of age.

The Protocol also requires State Parties to undertake the following actions:

  • Take all necessary legal, administrative and other measures to ensure the effective implementation and enforcement of its provisions;
  • Make the principles and provisions of the present Protocol widely known and promoted to adults and children alike;
  • Take all feasible measures to ensure that persons within their jurisdiction recruited or used in hostilities contrary to this Protocol are demobilized or otherwise released from service;
  • Cooperate in its implementation, including in the prevention of any activity contrary to the Protocol and in the rehabilitation and social reintegration of persons who are victims of acts contrary to the Protocol, including through technical cooperation and financial assistance;
  • Provide, if in a position to do so, such assistance through existing multilateral, bilateral or other programs; and
  • Submit, within two years following the entry into force of the Protocol for that State Party, a report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child providing comprehensive information on the measures it has taken to implement its provisions.

As of April 25, 2003, there are 111 signatories and 53 State Parties to the Optional Protocol. The following countries in Asia have already signed or ratified the Protocol:

States
[Eastern Asia, South-Central Asia, Southeast Asia and Western Asia and the Middle East]
SignatureRatification
Azerbaijan8 September 20003 July 2002
Bangladesh6 September 20006 September 2000
Cambodia27 June 2000
China15 March 2001
Indonesia24 September 2001
Israel14 November 2001
Japan10 May 2002
Jordan6 September 2000
Kazakhstan6 September 200010 April 2003
Lebanon11 February 2002
Maldives10 May 2002
Mongolia12 November 2001
Nepal8 September 2000
Pakistan26 September 2001
Philippines8 September 2000Final instruments to be submitted
Qatar
25 July 2002 (a)
Republic of Korea6 September 2000
Singapore7 September 2000
Sri Lanka21 August 20008 September 2000
Tajikistan
5 August 2002 (a)
Timor-Leste
29 January 2003 (a)
Turkey8 September 2000
Viet Nam8 September 200020 December 2001

In spite of the universal ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, only half of the countries in Asia 12 have signed the Optional Protocol. And of these countries, only eight have ratified or acceded to it so far. Countries which have not yet signed or ratified the Optional Protocol include those which have already been violating it: countries whose armed forces are known to recruit and use child soldiers in the armed conflict. Both state and non-state armed groups across Asia continuously and consistently defy the provisions of the Optional Protocol.

Some countries that have already signed the Optional Protocol expressed support to the "straight 18 ban" position of the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers on both compulsory and voluntary recruitment. However, with the lapse of a reasonable amount of time from the date of signing the Optional Protocol, these countries have not yet undertaken the necessary steps for its ratification. For other countries, the Optional Protocol is simply not a matter of national priority at this point. Considering the continuous violation of the rights of children who are recruited and used in armed conflicts around the world, the urgency of protecting their rights, and the need to further prevent their recruitment and use as soldiers, all governments in Asia are strongly urged to sign and ratify the Optional Protocol. The governments are urged to do so without reservations and specifying at least 18 as the minimum age for all forms of military recruitment, whether compulsory or voluntary.


Glenda Ramirez is the Regional Coordinator of the Southeast Asia Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers

For more information, please visit the website of the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers: www.child-soldiers.org, or contact: Southeast Asia Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, 17B Kasing-Kasing St., Kamias, Quezon City, Philippines 1011; ph/fax (63)(2)927-6008; ph (63)(2)9279856, e-mail: seacoordinatorchildsoldiers@yahoo.com; info@child-soldiers.org

Endnotes

1. Human Rights Watch, My Gun Was As Tall As Me: Child Soldiers in Burma (New York: 2002), page 83.

2. Not his real name

3. Child Soldiers Global Report 2001, Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers (London: 2001).

4. UNICEF, Adult Wars, Child Soldiers: Voices of Children Involved In Armed Conflict in the East Asia and Pacific Region (New York: 2002), page 26.

5. The Impact of Armed Conflict on the Children of Burma, submission by the Burma UN Service Office-New York and the Human Rights Documentation Unit - Bangkok, both of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, to the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict for the preparation of the Secretary-General's third report to the Security Council on children and armed conflict, in compliance with UNGA resolutions 1261 (1999), 1314 (2000), and 1379 (2001).

6. Brett, R. and McCalin, M., Children: The Invisible Soldiers, Save the Children Sweden (Stockholm: 1998), pages 41-42.

7. Goodwin-Gill and Cohn, Ilene, Child Soldiers: The Role of Children in Armed Conflicts, Henry Dunant Institute,(Geneva:1994), page 24.

8. UNICEF, op cit., page 23.

9. Ibid, page 44.

10. Result of workshop discussion during the Consultation Workshop Against the Use of Children as Solders in Indonesia, organized by KKSP Foundation Education and Information Center for Child Rights on 29 -31 October 2001 in Parapat, North Sumatra, Indonesia.

11. UNICEF, op cit, page 64.

12. Including the Middle East.


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