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UN Says Use of Child Soldiers Widespread, But Declining

The United Nations reports slow but significant progress in the campaign to protect children exposed to war. The Security Council is being urged to impose targeted sanctions on governments, armed groups and individuals involved in the use of child soldiers.

A report presented to the Security Council says 42 parties in 11 countries are violating international laws prohibiting recruitment and use of children in war.

Of the 42, half are three-time offenders, including the governments of Burma and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Others on the list for a third time are rebel groups or government-allied militias in Burundi, Nepal, the Philippines, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Uganda.

U.N. Undersecretary-General for Children in Armed Conflict Olara Otunnu told the Council there has been scant progress in protecting children from the horrors of war.

"Over 250,000 children continue to be exploited as child soldiers, used variously as combatants, porters, spies and sex slaves. Tens of thousands of girls are being subjected to rape and other forms of sexual violence, including as a deliberate tool of warfare," he said. "Abductions are becoming widespread and brazen, as we have witnessed for example in northern Uganda, Nepal and Burundi."

Mr. Otunnu, himself a native of northern Uganda, noted a few bright spots in the latest U.N. report. One of the most significant is that the figure of 250,000 child soldiers is 50,000 less than in previous years.

He also said the overall situation of children has improved in countries such as Afghanistan, Angola, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and East Timor.

In addition, the undersecretary-general says he received a note this week from a Sri Lankan rebel group known for using children as soldiers and suicide bombers. He says the group, known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, is offering to negotiate an end to the practice.

"While I welcome this message from the LTTE I call on their leadership to embark immediately on tangible actions, leading to a time-bound action plan to end, once and for all, the practices of recruitment, abductions, and use of children as soldiers," he said.

Mr. Ottunu noted that the United Nations itself has not been immune from abusing children in conflict zones. He called recent revelations of abuse by peacekeeping troops in Congo "a particularly shocking and unacceptable betrayal of trust."

Critics have noted that the world body has no power to discipline peacekeepers accused of crimes, and must depend on home countries for prosecution.

Morocco recently announced the start of court martial proceedings against six soldiers accused of sexually exploiting children in the Congo. Two French civilians employed by the Congo mission are being prosecuted on separate sex abuse charges in France.