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World: Researchers Assess How Children Are Used In Combat Around The Globe

  • Ron Synovitz

A coalition of human rights groups and developmental organizations released a report today about how children around the world are being encouraged, recruited, or even forced to join military units that do battle in armed conflicts. The Coalition to Stop The Use of Child Soldiers has compiled three years of research by groups like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, World Vision, and the Save the Children Alliance. The report concludes that at least 10 governments -- most of them in African countries -- continue to use children under the age of 18 as combat troops, scouts, messengers, or spies. Outside of Africa, the report says governments that do not directly recruit children sometimes support paramilitary groups or local militias that employ child soldiers. It says scores of armed political groups across the world also continue to recruit children and force them into combat -- subjecting them in the process to rape, violence, hard labor, and other forms of exploitation. RFE/RL speaks with the project's research coordinator, Victoria Forbes-Adams, about the aim of the study and what it reveals about conditions for children in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Chechnya.

Prague, 17 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Forbes-Adams says the primary goal of the report is to focus international attention on how children are separated from their families and forced into brutal combat situations around the world.

"What we would like to achieve is for [United Nations] Security Council members to act in a concerted and determined way to ensure that those recruiting and using children as soldiers stop doing that," Forbes-Adams says. "This could be done in a number of ways. First, by dialogue and formulating action plans which will assist those groups in order to get the children out of their group. Then moving on in a graduated way to sanctions, to the withdrawal of assistance and ultimately, if necessary, to prosecutions in the International [Criminal] Court."

The report says the landmark development during the past three years toward ending the use of child soldiers has been growing support for the "Optional Protocol" to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

When the convention came into force in February 2002, only four countries had pledged not to employ child soldiers by ratifying the Optional Protocol. By August, 77 states had ratified the protocol and 115 had signed it.

But Forbes-Adams says questions remain about how the Optional Protocol can be enforced: "The question is then, what recourse is there? What action can be taken? Apart from international disapproval and condemnation and problems of legitimacy, it is not clear what the follow up action might be [when a country fails to meet its pledges under the Optional Protocol.] But a government who does contravene the Optional Protocol does open the door then to international sanctions being taken against it."

Forbes-Adams says the majority of child soldiers involved in armed conflict were associated either with government-backed paramilitary and militia groups or joined armed opposition groups like insurgents in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Chechnya.
"The question is then, what recourse is there? What action can be taken? Apart from international disapproval and condemnation and problems of legitimacy, it is not clear what the follow up action might be."


"The problem of child soldiers is most critical and acute and numerous in Africa. But we do see child soldiers fighting in different ways in many regions of the world including Iraq, in Afghanistan and in the Russian Federation -- particularly [on the side of Chechen separatists] in the Chechen Republic," Forbes-Adams says.

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IRAQ

The study says there were no reports of children under 18 serving in the Iraqi security forces set up in after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003. But Forbes-Adams says her organization is concerned about children being recruited by armed insurgent groups that are fighting in Iraq.

"The research period for our global report finished in March [of 2004]. So we documented what we knew up until that point. Now we have seen the video footage and photographic evidence of young children being involved [recently] in insurgency forces in Iraq -- and indeed, in Fallujah," Forbes-Adams says. "Documentation, written or even oral documentation on a case-by-case basis is clearly and obviously difficult to come by at this point because of the intensity of the conflict and difficulties in gaining access to these parts of the country. But we are very concerned and we will be closely monitoring the situation."

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AFGHANISTAN

In Afghanistan, Forbes-Adams says there are thousands of children actively associated with militia factions or warlords who are either fighting each other or battling the central government.

"In Afghanistan, in an economy which has been ravaged -- and given the collapse of certain social and economic structures -- not much in the way of employment, work or training is available," Forbes-Adams says. "So some youngsters are apparently attracted by the promise of perhaps power, social status -- the glamour in some ways of armed conflict. So it's the product of a social setting devoid of other possibilities for young people."

Forbes-Adams says a sign of progress toward getting children out of militia groups in Afghanistan has been the work of UN-sponsored "DDR" programs -- that is, projects to demobilize, disarm, and reintegrate militia fighters back into civilian life.

She also welcomes a decree issued by Afghan President-elect Hamid Karzai in May 2003 that sets 22 as the minimum age for recruitment into the Afghan National Army. That decree also prohibits forced or coerced recruitment into military forces.

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CHECHNYA AND THE RUSSIAN FEDERATION

"If we turn to Chechnya, what we have been able to gather suggests that children are involved with Chechen separatist fighters, with factional and clan-based groups or even in terms of being members of village defense units whose aim is to defend the village or the territory from Russian forces or from opposing Chechen groups," Forbes-Adams says. "The other way in which Chechen young people have been involved is through so-called suicide attacks. They have been known to wear explosives strapped to their waist and so on."

Forbes-Adams says there are concerns about orphans that are being brought into military programs in the Russian Federation, even though Russia does not appear to be recruiting children under 18 into actual combat units.

"There is very little, if any, evidence of the government forces recruiting under-18s into the Russian armed forces -- although there is conscription and there is a possibility [of that happening]. Another issue in the Russian Federation is the sponsoring of orphans -- maybe from the age of 10 up to the age of 18 -- who get kind of adopted into military units," Forbes-Adams says. "Now this is a practice that emerged in the absence of a functioning social services system in the country. It looks as though, in some cases, they may undergo military-style training, drills, possibly even weapons training. And it's not entirely clear what kind of authority structure they are under. But it is a worrying idea that very young children are living within the confines of a military barracks."

But Forbes-Adams is critical about the impact that the military tactics of Russian forces have had upon children in Chechnya.

"Russia's involvement in the Chechen conflict has spawned such serious human rights violations. In relation to children, children have disappeared. They've been detained in unknown places and never reappeared. They have been tortured to provide information. Young boys are often rounded up in these so-called 'clean up operations' and then taken away and detained," Forbes-Adams says. "The Russian government by its military strategy to quash the conflict is creating a vicious circle of violence. It, on one level, is pushing young people into the ranks of the opposition."

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CONCLUSIONS

Forbes-Adams concludes that child soldiers need protection because they are victims of armed conflicts who, very often, are forced to fight under duress. She says children who legitimately volunteer for combat duty are not capable of making an informed decision. She says they sometimes are heavily influenced by ideological dogma, tribal pressure, or even political pressure.

(The full text of the report can be found at http://www.child-soldiers.org/resources/global-reports)
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