Innocence lost as recruitment of children continues

© The Sydney Morning Herald  |  Article link

February 15, 2010

There are approximately 300,000 children acting as front-line troops in armed conflict worldwide, with another 500,000 who are conscripted into government, paramilitary and guerilla groups as sex slaves, porters, cooks, spies and to plant landmines.

These young boys and girls, who under international law are regarded as ‘children’, are often forced to participate in the commission of heinous crimes.

This horrific trend has a number of root causes. Children are seen as ‘attractive’ participants in armed conflict. They are vulnerable to outside influences, can be trained to become efficient soldiers and can be made to perform the most dangerous (and brutal) of tasks, through intimidation, manipulation, or under the influence of drugs.

In addition, the proliferation of lightweight weapons such as the AK-47 means that children can be effectively deployed in active combat.

Adding to the enormity of the problem, the world continues to be racked by armed conflict. Between 1990 and 2007, 16 of the world’s 20 poorest countries – where the use of child soldiers is particularly prevalent – endured violent internal conflict. Recruiting children becomes an easy way to make up for shortages of personnel caused by death or injury.

This is not just an ‘African’ problem. Child soldiers are used in all corners of the globe. The military regime in Burma, for example, can only survive due to the strength of its armed forces, a quarter of which are children under the age of 18. The majority of these soldiers have been forcibly recruited. Human Rights Watch estimates Burma has the largest number of child soldiers in the world.

Neither is this is a new problem. Children have been used in conflict for decades, if not centuries. But alarmingly the situation appears to be worsening. There have been many warning signs demanding that international law establish a more stringent regulatory regime to deter the recruitment and use of children as weapons of war. Yet, sadly, this has not happened, primarily due to the highly sensitive and political nature of armed conflict.

Voluntary recruitment of children is still permitted by international law. Indeed, many developed countries, including the United States, Britain and Australia, permit children under the age of 18 to join their armed forces.

While recruitment in these countries would be on a genuinely voluntary basis, other so-called instances of volunteering are not. Many government and paramilitary commanders claim they cannot stop the flow of children seeking to join their ranks. Yet it is the extreme circumstances in which these children find themselves – hunger, poverty, abandonment, the death of parents and family, disease or the threat of violence – that often leave them with little choice but to join a ’cause’.

The international courts are beginning to prosecute those responsible for recruitment. Last year the Special Court of Sierra Leone sentenced three former leaders of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council to imprisonment for up to 50 years for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the conscription of children under the age of 15, to fight during that country’s internal conflict.

Similarly, the International Criminal Court in The Hague is proceeding with two separate trials over the use of children during the deadly civil war that still continues in parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

These judicial proceedings merely scratch the surface. Unless more is done, another 800,000 (or more) children will, over time, replace those being used. For every child forced to participate in armed conflict, there is a childhood lost.

More determined international action is needed. This can only be led by the developed countries setting an example so the real offenders cannot hide behind a ‘people in glass houses’ argument.

Australia has an important role to play, consistent with the government’s desire to promote this country as a leader on issues of global concern.

The Australian Defence Force continues to maintain a minimum voluntary recruitment age of 17 years, provided that those volunteering have the written informed consent of their parents or guardians. The benefit of such under-age recruitment is minimal – yet changing this policy and speaking out against the use of children in war would represent a real opportunity to come to the fore in this debate. It would cost us very little, and give us real moral authority on this issue.

If there were more concerted efforts like this to set positive examples, as well as to improve the enforcement mechanisms, those regimes and militia relying on children to fight their wars may begin to decline.

Australia has the opportunity to play an integral role in protecting innocent children around the world, but our voice will not be heard as it should if our hands are not seen to be absolutely clean.

Steven Freeland is a professor of international law at the University of Western Sydney and a visiting professional at the International Criminal Court. These are his personal views.