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Wednesday, 17 May, 2000, 14:08 GMT 15:08 UK
Fighting against child soldiers
Kamajor militia members
Child soldiers from the Kamajor militia (UNICEF/Pirozzi)
The UN's Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Olara Otunnu, writes about the continued use of child soldiers in two conflicts currently grabbing the headlines - Sri Lanka and Sierra Leone.

The widespread use of children in armed conflicts is one of the most horrendous trends in wars today, seen from Colombia to Sierra Leone, from Sri Lanka to Sudan and Uganda, from Burma (Myanmar) to Angola.

Compelled to become instruments of war, to kill and be killed, child soldiers are forced to give violent expression to the hatreds of adults.

UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Olara Otunnu
Olara Otunnu: Pushing to end the use of child soldiers
Today, more than 300,000 young persons under the age of 18 - some as young as seven or eight, girls as well as boys - are taking part in hostilities in more than 30 countries. They are often abducted from schools, refugee camps or their homes, drugged and killed if they attempt escape.

Once recruited, children may be used in direct combat, or as porters, cooks, guards, messengers and spies. Young girls may be forced to become the "wives" of military personnel. Often, as children can easily be manipulated into becoming ruthless and unquestioning tools of war, some of the worst atrocities are committed by child soldiers.

I am particularly concerned about two situations - Sierra Leone and Sri Lanka - where fighting is raging and where the use of child soldiers is widespread.

International pressure

On 8 May 1998, the LTTE leadership pledged to me personally that no children under 18 would be used in combat and no children under 17 would be recruited. Since then, I have continued to urge them to translate their commitment into practice and implement a framework to monitor progress.

In Sierra Leone, more than 10,000 children have been recruited by the RUF, the Kamajor militia, and other armed groups. Here, too, all the groups have made commitments to end the recruitment of children under 18.

A military policeman directs child Tamil Tiger guerrillas captured by the military
Tamil children are fighting in Sri Lanka
I was greatly encouraged when the international community reached a consensus this year on raising the age of compulsory recruitment and deployment in conflict from 15 to 18. I expect this document - the draft Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child - to be swiftly ratified.

The protocol applies to both internal and inter-state conflicts. It also makes clear that guerrilla groups, such as the LTTE and the RUF, will be expected to adhere to a minimum age of 18 - and held to account if they fail to comply with this new international standard.

The international community must exert real political pressure to lean ever more urgently on all fighting groups who abuse children as combatants.

Most insurgency groups around the world insist that they are fighting for a better future and society. How can they do that by destroying that very future? When youngsters are deprived of their education, their training and their health, who will be the teachers, the nurses, the carpenters and electricians of tomorrow?

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See also:

25 Jun 99 | Africa
The child victims of war
22 Jun 98 | South Asia
Sri Lanka's children of war
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