The United Nations children's agency UNICEF says there are more than 300,000 child soldiers in the world, at least a quarter of them in Asia. UNICEF wants all nations to stop using children as soldiers.
UNICEF executive director Carol Bellamy says it is time governments recognize the forced recruitment of child soldiers in government and rebel armies is morally and legally wrong and had no place in "civilized society." Wednesday in Bangkok, UNICEF released a new report on child soldiers, based on interviews with 69 current and former child soldiers in Asia. Mark Thomas, a UNICEF spokesman in Bangkok, says having all countries sign a treaty protocol setting the minimum age to 18 would be a crucial step toward keeping children out of the military.
"We are calling upon all governments in this region, especially those countries where there are current or former child soldiers, to do whatever needs to be done to end their recruitment, to bring about their disarmament, to help rehabilitate them and also to help reintegrate them with their families," Mr. Thomas said.
Some of the children interviewed in the UNICEF report fought in ethnic and civil wars in East Timor, Cambodia and Papua New Guinea, which have been over for several years. Others are serving in ethnic, religious or communist rebel groups in the Philippines, Indonesia and Burma.
The Burmese government also forces children into the military, and as many as 70,000 children are thought to be fighting in Burma.
Many of the children had been forced to participate in atrocities, including rape and murder, and endure cruel training and harsh punishments. The report says children as young as seven are forcibly recruited.
The report says that even in countries now at peace, little is done to move children back into civilian life. Part of the problem is that governments do not want to acknowledge having children in their militaries. The report also said several of the interviewees did not want to be demobilized, because the military came to represent protection and security for them.