Many of the government and rebel soldiers fighting in Liberia are children. Experts say, as other wars have shown, child soldiers may become “efficient killers,” or be exploited as servants or sexual slaves.
Christina Clarke is program officer for Africa at the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. She says the group is opposed to the military recruitment and use of children under the age of 18.
She says, "So, obviously in the case of Liberia where we see kids as young as nine years old fighting on all sides of the conflict this is a particular concern to us. And is something we would like to see addressed both nationally but also at the international level."
She says child soldiers have been fighting on the front lines in Liberia - but warns there are many other ways in which they may be exploited.
She says, "We also have to recognize that a number of children are already involved in support roles. So, for example, as camp followers or as cooks - and in the case of girls they’re often used as sexual slaves or concubines."
The Coalition estimates there are more than 300-thousand child soldiers worldwide – with most in sub-Saharan Africa.
Ms. Clark says, "Basically, in every major conflict in Africa there are children fighting as soldiers. The estimates are between 100 and 200-thousand children fighting currently in Africa."
Ms. Clark says once the fighting ends child soldiers face a long and difficult road of rehabilitation and reintegration into society.
She says, “They’ve undergone experiences that are not normal for children -and participated in something that would be difficult even for adults to come to terms with.”
She says, "Obviously, they just need to be taken out of armed forces, demobilized, given demobilization orders and then put into some kind of transit camp or center that will help them come to terms with their experiences in terms of psycho-social healing. But also in terms of health and basic education. But then there’s the issue of reintegration with families and communities and this is a whole other issue. And this involves some longer-term development and peace building processes that involve community and sort of traditional healers, etc."
For example, such programs are currently underway in Sierra Leone following that country’s long civil war. Also, with the creation of the International Criminal Court, trials concerning the use of child soldiers may soon be held.
Ms. Clark says, "The International Criminal Court defines the recruitment and use of children under the age of fifteen as a war crime. So this provides, obviously, an important legal precedent to try and bring to account those who recruit child soldiers. I believe that the ICC is looking at the Democratic republic of Congo as one of the first countries in which they would possibly prosecute child recruiters. But we also have a more localized precedent in Sierra Leone. There, the special court has already indicted a number of different individuals who have been accused of recruiting and using child soldiers. And I think this is a very positive development."
The Coalition to Stop the Use of child Soldiers says children are recruited because “they are easier to condition into fearless killing and unthinking obedience.”