A United Nations expert on children used in armed conflict says child soldiers are found worldwide, but he says the problem is most severe in Africa. The U.N. official recommends the creation of an international system to pressure countries into ending the recruitment of children for war.
The U.N. representative on children in armed conflict, Olara Otunnu, says the use of child soldiers remains acute in Africa, despite some recent successes. He says Sudanese rebels released some child soldiers in the past couple of months.
More recently, he says the Ugandan government began the return of 165 children to their homes in Bunia, in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He says the children had been abducted in Congo and brought to Uganda to be trained as child soldiers.
Mr. Otunnu says that in Sierra Leone, the Revolutionary United Front, or RUF, has begun to release many child soldiers. "The bad news is that the numbers overall, I do not want to give you precise figures, the numbers overall are still much, much too large," he says. "I was in the Congo recently, and in the Congo there is the widespread practice of recruiting and using children. And, even as we speak, I believe that children continue to be recruited. Certainly, all the groups in the Congo have child soldiers within their ranks. I met some of them. And, we cannot possibly be complacent. The situation is still very grave." Mr. Otunnu says no one knows the magnitude of the problem facing children in countries such as the Sudan, Congo and Sierra Leone.
Mr. Otunnu suggests that a system be set up to monitor what the various parties to a conflict are doing. He says local people in African villages know what is going on, and he suggests they could provide information such as naming the villages from which children were abducted and where they are being trained and by whom.
He says issuing periodic reports which name those responsible for these practices could have a positive impact on reducing the number of child soldiers. "Nobody wants to be named publicly and told, you are recruiting kids, you are abducting children," he says. "You said you would release and you did not release. You bombed this school, you attacked this hospital, you are training children in your camp. Nobody wants to be put in that position. We are not in a position right now to do that and we should be able to do that. It is a lever which is potentially at our disposal and we have to organize ourselves to make use of that lever."
Mr. Otunnu says political pressure can work to end the recruitment of children for war. He says if government and rebel groups know they are being watched, they may be more careful about their actions.