Child Soldiers

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By Anna Cataldi and Jimmie Briggs

“I didn’t think I would live,” said Owo Peter, a thin, slightly built boy in his teens.  “I can’t return to my village because they would attack my family. If I am caught now, they will kill me with no explanation.”

Peter, recovering from a serious gunshot wound at the World Vision Center in Gulu, Uganda, looked away as he recounted the story of how he’d been abducted and forced to fight by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebel group.  He said that he’d been snatched from his home in the village of Odek, in northern Uganda by members of the LRA several years before, as he worked on the arts and crafts he sold by the side of the road. Somehow, the raggedy group of rebels—themselves children in their teens—knew that Peter had once served with the local home guard. As the guerrillas moved with him and other captives, the commanders singled him out for a beating with tree limbs. Ten grunts were chosen to lash his back, torso and legs. The guerrillas and their captives were headed to southern Sudan, where the rebel camp awaited.

Peter survived the journey despite his severe wounds, and remained at the rebel outpost for the next four years.  His captors sent him, with very little training, into major battles. When Peter was shot in the arm during an incursion into Uganda, he saw his opportunity to escape. He was unable to say how many people he’d killed during his time as a child soldier.

One of the most alarming trends relating to children and armed conflict is their participation as active soldiers. Children as young as eight years of age are being forcibly recruited, coerced and induced to become combatants. Manipulated by adults, children have been drawn into violence that they are too young to resist and with consequences they cannot imagine.

Child soldiers are recruited in many different ways. Some are conscripted, others are press-ganged or kidnapped, and still others are forced to join armed groups to defend their families. Sometimes, children become soldiers simply in order to survive.

The employment of children in this way is anything but a recent phenomenon – for millennia, children have gone to war as drummer boys, messengers, porters, and servants – but the escalating number of children bearing arms in contemporary conflicts is terrifying.  Non-governmental organizations estimate that there are now some 300,000 children serving as soldiers in over 30 conflicts around the world. Africa has the highest numbers of child soldiers, but they have also been used in Colombia, Sri Lanka, Nepal and many other places.  Both boys and girls are affected.  Human Rights Watch has said that in Uganda—as well as in Ethiopia and El Salvador—as many as one third of children pressed into service or recruited by armed groups are girls.  Often they are forced to act as sex slaves in addition to their other tasks.

Many branches of international law forbid the recruitment of child soldiers.  The two Additional Protocols of 1977, applying to international and internal conflicts respectively, impose on the parties to a conflict the obligation to do everything feasible to prevent children under fifteen from taking part in hostilities” and to refrain from recruiting them into their armed forces. Using child soldiers below the age of fifteen is also generally agreed to be a violation of customary law. The 1998 Rome Statute for an International Criminal Court lists conscription or enlistment of children under the age of fifteen and using children to participate actively in hostilities as war crimes in international and non-international armed conflict.

Human rights law also addresses the issue of children in armed conflict. The 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which has gained nearly universal acceptance, is the primary instrument. The convention defines a child as a person below the age of eighteen, but sets fifteen as a minimum age for going to war.  Only two countries have not ratified it: Somalia and the United States.  (In the United States, opposition is based in part on its prohibition on executing people for crimes committed between the ages of 16 and 18.)  In January 2000, an Optional Protocol was passed to the CRC, requiring governments to take all feasible measures to prevent children below 18 from taking part in hostilities.  The Protocol also forbids the forcible recruitment by governments of children below 18, and bans non-governmental forces from enlisting children below 18 in any circumstances.

In October 2005, the International Criminal Court announced that it had issued warrants for the arrest of five leaders of the Lord’s Resistance Army, the first such step taken by the new court. The ICC prosecutor accused Joseph Kony, leader of the LRA, and four of his closest commanders of killing, raping and robbing civilians.  The ICC chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno Ocampo, put a special emphasis on the LRA’s systematic kidnapping of children, forcing them to fight and using girls as sex slaves.

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