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Tuesday, 12 February, 2002, 14:32 GMT
Enforcing child soldier ban
Child soldier
The protocol bans the recruitment of child soldiers
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By Tom Housden
BBC News Online
A United Nations treaty which bans child soldiers has been signed by 94 countries, but enforcing the ban will be difficult.

Lobby group the Coalition To Stop The Use Of Child Soldiers says the treaty is "a real leap forward", but says much remains to be done in practical terms.

International consensus will be an important and persuasive tool in convincing armed groups that the cost of using child soldiers is simply too high

Coalition To Stop The Use Of Child Soldiers
"An international consensus really exists now, but NGOs and aid organisations are still carrying out most of the work on the ground," a spokeswoman for the coalition told BBC News Online.

The spokeswoman added that the coalition has already had some success in lobbying European governments to raise their minimum recruitment ages.

Elsewhere, the coalition is campaigning for the demobilisation of child soldiers to be included in UN-brokered peace processes, and working to implement programmes to demobilise and reintegrate child soldiers within society.

But the coalition concedes that projects to help child soldiers in countries particularly affected lack cohesion and remain variable in terms of range and quality.

Limited resources

Some countries, such as Sierra Leone, have coordinated schemes run by governments, NGOs and aid agencies, while elsewhere resources are far more limited.

"In regions where there are armed conflicts, the challenges are difficult," the spokeswoman added.

Ugandan child soldier
Uganda has a large number of child soldiers

Some organisations - including Unicef - focus their attention in countries such as Uganda and Sudan on attempting to persuade armed rebel groups not to recruit child soldiers.

The boundaries between voluntary and compulsory recruitment are often blurred.

Campaigners call for armed groups who accept children wanting to join them voluntarily to be brought to account.

The coalition believes successful monitoring coupled with sustained political pressure is the key to long term success in eradicating the problem.

Widespread problem

It is estimated that roughly 300,000 children under the age of 18 are participating in armed conflicts around the world, and the coalition believes that at least one million children have played an active role in warfare over the last decade.

Sierra Leone
Some young people are forcefully recruited

Most child soldiers are fighting in conflicts in Africa and Asia, although children under 18 are also legally recruited into the armed forces of countries in Europe and the Americas.

Seventeen-year-olds serving with British forces were killed in the Falklands conflict and Gulf War, while many are currently serving with UN-led K-For peacekeepers in Kosovo.

But in developing countries, children often of a much younger age are drafted whether voluntarily or otherwise by armed militant groups.

Activists identify a number of factors behind the child soldier problem, including the need for manpower and development of weapons light enough to be handled by children.

International inertia

They believe the problem has been exacerbated by inertia on the part of the international community, and a lack of initiative to enforce established standards.

International law currently sets 15 as the minimum age for military recruitment and participation.

But the newly-ratified optional protocol to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, signed by 94 countries:

  • Prohibits governments and armed groups from using children under the age of 18 in conflicts

  • Bans the compulsory recruitment of under 18s

  • Raises the minimum age and requires strict safeguards for voluntary recruitment

  • Bans all forms of recruitment of under 18s by armed groups

Most countries currently set 18 as the minimum age for recruitment, in line with the minimum age for voting in the vast majority of countries worldwide.

Much practical work remains to be done, but the campaigners are hopeful that with the ratification of the optional protocol, the political will to crack down on the problem is finally in place.

See also:

21 Nov 01 | Africa
Child soldier asks UN for help
14 Nov 01 | Europe
French children urged to disarm
08 May 02 | Africa
Sierra rebels free child soldiers
12 Jun 01 | Europe
UK 'shamed' over teenage soldiers
21 Feb 01 | Africa
UN finds Congo child soldiers
25 Jun 99 | Africa
The child victims of war
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