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UN Urges Sanctions on Use of Child Soldiers - 2004-01-21

The United Nations is being urged to impose penalties against warring factions that use children in armed conflict. Children's advocates are trying to build on a "first-step" Security Council resolution passed a year ago.

It was January 30, 2003 that the Security Council -- by a unanimous vote -- adopted Resolution 1460, calling for an immediate halt to the use of child soldiers. The vote followed a Secretary-General's report listed 23 warring factions recruiting and using children in various parts of the world.

But the resolution carried no penalties.

A year has passed, and the Secretary General's list of violators has grown to 54 warring parties involved in 15 different conflicts. In the Democratic Republic of Congo alone, the list contains the names of ten different factions allegedly using children in combat.

Speaking to the Security Council this week, United Nations Children's Fund Director Carol Bellamy lamented that last year's Security Council resolution -- and the work of scores of children's advocacy groups -- has had little effect on the lives of children in conflict zones.

"As the past year has demonstrated, our efforts have fallen short of what is required. During the siege of Monrovia, the inability of the humanitarian community to gain access led to the unnecessary suffering of children and women," says Ms. Bellamy. "Southeastern Afghanistan, and the Darfur region of Sudan also, illustrate the life-threatening consequences when access to women and children in need is denied."

Another Security Council resolution on children and armed conflict is being drafted, and should be ready for consideration within weeks. But like the one adopted last year, it will not include penalties for violators.

Jo Becker of Human Rights Watch says the council shies away from the question of sanctions because of the difficulty of monitoring conditions in conflict zones. "Clearly, the Security Council believes this is a grave problem, but at the same time, it appears that they don't yet feel they have a strong enough system to adequately monitor the progress that's being made by parties," she says. "They need to believe they have accurate information about who's moving forward and backward before they take the very serious step of applying sanctions."

Ms. Becker says her group's monitoring effort have shown a few areas of progress over the past year. She pointed to Colombia, Liberia and Burundi as examples. But she said such progress has been offset by some severe setbacks in places such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, or DRC.

"In the last year, we saw recruitment shoot up in parts of the DRC. Child recruitment is at its highest level ever in Northern Uganda," says Ms. Becker. "In the early part of last year, we saw widespread child recruitment and abduction in Liberia. Myanmar, which has the highest number of child soldiers in the world, has shown no discernible progress."

While there are currently no penalties for parties using child soldiers, Ms. Becker said many countries are responding to international scrutiny.

The U.N. ambassador from Myanmar -- also known as Burma -- told the Security Council this week his country has established a committee for the prevention of child soldiers. Colombia's ambassador took the floor to argue that it is anti-government forces recruiting children -- and not the government, though both sides are accused of violations.

Undersecretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict Olara Otunnu welcomed signs of progress. But he said the battle cannot be won in the absence of enforceable penalties for violators. "At this watershed moment, I urge you to respond to the lists with concrete action - action commensurate with the gravity and scope of the violations in question," he said.

Experts say it will take years before conditions exist that would allow passage of real sanctions against those recruiting and using children in armed conflict.

In the meantime, U.N. and human rights activists say naming and shaming violators remains their most effective tool. Regular reports from the secretary general, along with annual Security Council debates and resolutions, are -- for the time being -- effectively all that can be done.