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UN: Exploitation Of Children Gets Attention With Clinton Visit

  • Robert McMahon

A UN signing ceremony featuring U.S. President Bill Clinton has shed light on two areas of growing concern for child advocates -- the sexual exploitation of children and recruitment of children to fight in wars. UN experts say the exploitation of children, in particular child trafficking, has risen in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, among other regions. UN correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

United Nations, 6 July 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Images from Sierra Leone of 10-year-olds bearing guns in the civil war has raised outrage worldwide about the use of children as soldiers.

Child exploitation of another kind, in which children are forced into prostitution or pornography, is also causing new alarm. It is reported to be a growing part of the lucrative human trafficking trade dominated by organized crime.

To combat these trends, the UN General Assembly two months ago approved two documents that would require more strenuous actions by states to protect children from such exploitation.

The campaign gained momentum on Wednesday when U.S. President Bill Clinton visited UN headquarters in New York to sign the two protocols. Clinton told a gathering of diplomats and reporters that the protocols represent a worldwide consensus on some basic, shared values.

"They speak to an international sense of justice and to the belief shared by our people that children deserve love and protection," Clinton said.

The protocols are additions to the UN's 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child. The first would require states to make sure that no one under 18 takes part in combat or is forcibly recruited. Current U.S. policy allows 17-year-olds to join the military with their parents' permission, but under a compromise, 17-year-old volunteers will not be eligible for combat until they turn 18 years old.

The second protocol would require states to ensure that their criminal laws prohibit a wide range of activities that threaten children, including the sale of children, child prostitution, and child pornography. Among the offenses outlined by this protocol are transferring a child's organs for profit or engaging a child in forced labor.

The United States is among the first countries to sign the protocols, and UN officials are hoping it will help lead the way toward more signatures. Twenty countries must ratify the measures before they enter into force. The U.S. signature is also significant because the United States is one of only two countries -- Somalia is the other -- that have not signed the 1989 convention.

UN experts credit the United States with helping to craft both the convention and the protocols. But they acknowledge that U.S. ratification of UN treaties is uncommon. The U.S. Congress has also failed to ratify the Convention on All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and is blocking acceptance of an international war crimes court.

Clinton on Wednesday noted with special concern the use of children in the human trafficking trade.

"In the 21st century, it is difficult to believe that the global traffic in human beings is the third largest source of income for organized crime -- hundreds of thousands of children bought and sold, exploited and prostituted every year. Yet many countries don't even have laws against this kind of trade," he says.

Clinton says the new protocols can be a force for change by specifying that child prostitution, pornography, and enslavement are crimes worldwide.

A spokeswoman for the UN Children's Fund, UNICEF, Marjorie Newman-Williams, told reporters on Wednesday that child trafficking is associated with poverty. And where social systems have broken down, such as in parts of the former Soviet Union, she says women and children become particularly vulnerable to abuses.

Newman-Williams called the victims of such trafficking "invisible children" and said it is difficult to estimate their numbers. But she referred to an upcoming UNICEF report that says that between 5,000 and 7,000 young girls have been trafficked between India and Nepal. She also says it is clear that organized crime structures are running the trade.

"They are highly organized and there is lots of money at stake. It's a very powerful network in the world that is involved and this is why it's so hard to deal with," she says.

Newman-Williams also cited some successes. In Romania, for example, she says cooperation between the government and organizations such as UNICEF and Save the Children has brought the problem of illegal adoptions under control.