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Global action on child soldiers

10 June 20160 comments

The United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) has launched a program to support former child soldiers reintegrate into their communities across the globe.

The initiative comes as Colombia’s largest guerrilla group has agreed to release all of its soldiers under age 15 – a move welcomed by child rights groups.

But the progress in Colombia highlights the continued use of child soldiers in conflicts around the world.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) made the pledge during talks in Cuba aimed at ending its five-decade war against successive governments.

The administration of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC now need to decide upon the terms under which the child soldiers will be reintegrated into civilian life.

“UNICEF stands ready to support the release of all children and their reintegration into their families and communities, in accordance with national and international law,” the UN agency’s representative to Colombia, Roberto de Bernardi, said in a statement.

He said reintegration was the most difficult part of demobilisation.

“It’s easy to release child soldiers from service, but what do they do then? Often, they have been deprived of education and have only the skills they picked up while under arms,” Mr de Barnardi said.

Aid agencies offer support for former child soldiers by funding programs to provide them with education, skills training and micro-loans to start small businesses, but the children often find it hard to adjust to new lives.

According to principles adopted at a Paris conference led by UNICEF in 2007, a child soldier is anyone under age 18 “who is or who has been recruited or used by an armed force or armed group in any capacity”, which can include non-combat roles such as cooks and porters.

But it’s not just rebel groups that recruit child soldiers. Children form part of many states standing armies.

As part of its reform process in Myanmar, the military signed a joint action plan with the UN in 2012 to demobilise all child soldiers.

It has released them sporadically over the last four years, most recently last March. The task is harder than it may appear: families sometimes send young sons to join the army for financial reasons, and recruitment may be ongoing in remote areas although the military officially banned the practice and even set up a telephone hotline to report child soldiers in its ranks.

The UN has listed seven non-state armed groups in Myanmar that also use child soldiers.

More than 30,000 children were released from the Democratic Republic of Congo national army between 2004 and 2006 as part of a military reform process following a peace agreement in 2002.

But the reforms were not successful and the war did not end. Those failures also represented a big step backwards for those advocating the release of child soldiers.

Recruitment continues today, and hundreds of children are reported to be serving in the armed forces, according to Child Soldiers International. Many more have been recruited by rebel groups.

Even before splitting from Sudan in 2011, South Sudan passed laws that made it illegal to use child soldiers and began releasing them.

But in December 2013, the world’s newest country descended into civil war and the recruitment of child soldiers began anew. Since then, government and rebel forces have used as many as 16,000 children, according to UNICEF.

A December 2015 report by Human Rights Watch named more than 15 commanders and officials from the government and rebel forces who used child soldiers.

In 2014, Yemen signed up to a UN action plan to end recruitment of child soldiers by the country’s armed forces.

The last 18 months of war have not only put that plan on hold but meant an increase in children taking part in the conflict.

UNICEF estimates that children make up a third of the people fighting in Yemen, including Houthi rebels and forces loyal to the deposed but internationally recognised, and Saudi Arabian-backed, President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

Human Rights Watch said last year that the Houthis have intensified their use of children as scouts, guards, runners and fighters.

Perhaps surprisingly, child rights groups in Britain have campaigned to end the army’s practice of recruiting 16-year-olds.

Some 17-year-olds were deployed to the Gulf War in 1991 and to Kosovo in 1999, but the British Army subsequently barred anyone under 18 from combat.

The British Army now requires parental consent for any recruit under the age of 18.


Laurie Nowell
AMES Australia Senior Journalist