Human rights campaigners are heralding a new United Nations treaty that bans the use of children in armed conflicts. The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers told reporters in Geneva that more that 300,000 children under 18 are actively engaged in combat worldwide and an even larger number are being recruited.
While most child soldiers are age 15 to 18, researchers say some are recruited even before the age of 10. Rory Mungoven is the head of the Coalition To Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. Speaking Monday at a news conference called to draw attention to the new U.N. treaty, he warned that as small lightweight weapons become more available, children are able to play a bigger role in today's armed conflicts.
He says, in the past, children were recruited because there was a shortage of adult fighters. Now, Mr. Mungoven says they are recruited simply because they have advantages over older soldiers. "They are cheap," he said. "They are obedient. They can be easily conditioned and brainwashed into committing the most extreme violence and atrocities against their own community. They can be abused for labor. They can be abused sexually."
Former child soldier Napolean Adok, now 28, once served with the Sudan People's Liberation Army. He told reporters he was recruited when he was 11. His job was to blow up government property and lay landmines. "You know nothing else than orders," he said. "You do not see being forced into it. It is now when I look back, I recognize the danger. In fact, I feel scared when I try to recall the things I used to do because the more you do - the more heroic people think you are."
Mr. Adok eventually was able to leave the rebel army and became involved in humanitarian relief efforts in Sudan. He says the fact there is now a U.N. treaty banning children under 18 from combat will put added pressure on governments and armed groups to stop using kids. "There is something there, unlike many years back when there was nothing," he said. "There wasn't anything at all to protect many children that are running around in many war zones around the world. But today there is something that anyone who is concerned about the wellbeing of children will have at hand."
The 94 countries that have signed the treaty must report, every two years, to the U.N. human rights committee on children about their activities. It is believed this kind of public exposure will force the states to respect the treaty.
The U.N. Security Council has also recently called on Secretary General Kofi Annan to produce a blacklist of countries and armed groups recruiting and using children in combat.
Mr. Mungoven says international public opinion on the issue has grown so strong that the political costs of using child soldiers now far outweighs the military advantages.
He says that a number of governments, such as Colombia and Sri Lanka, have enacted their own legislation against the use of child soldiers, and rebel groups in Southern Sudan and Sierra Leone have demobilized large numbers of child combatants. But he says elsewhere in Africa, combatants continue to rely on children.