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RIGHTS: Around the World, Children Make "Good Soldiers"

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Oct 17 2007 (IPS) - When the former first lady of Mozambique Gracha Machel authored a 1996 landmark report on child soldiers, she said that military commanders on the ground had told her that children were "impressionable and easy to dominate".

"They were good soldiers because they obeyed orders without challenge," the commanders told Machel.

Moreover, when most children lost their parents and communities, they often joined the military primarily "for food and safety", Machel pointed out in her groundbreaking study titled "Children in Armed Conflict".

But more than 10 years – and dozens of conflicts – later, the landscape has not changed significantly.

"Threats to children caught up in conflicts are increasing," says Ann Veneman, executive director of the U.N.&#39s children&#39s agency UNICEF.

"They are no longer just caught in the crossfire. They are increasingly the intended targets of violence, abuse and exploitation, victims of myriad armed groups that prey on civilians," she adds.

A special study on child soldiers that follows on the Machel report, released Wednesday, says that dozens of conflicts worldwide are still "robbing children of their childhood."

Authored by Radhika Coomaraswamy, the special representative of the secretary-general for children and armed conflict, the report says that despite the gloomy picture, the international community has been very active in developing "a solid legal protection framework" for children.

"But much more has to be done to ensure compliance, to fight impunity and to address all violations against children."

Asked whether there has been a decline in child soldiers during the last 10 years, Coomaraswamy told IPS: "The figures with regard to child soldiers have always been guesstimates, as they say."

She said it is generally agreed that with the conclusion of the wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone, the number of child soldiers may have gone down: from about 300,000 to about 250,000 "but these are still guesstimates".

Asked what the United Nations has done to curb the widespread use of child soldiers, Coomaraswamy singled out the establishment of the International Criminal Court, which recognises child soldiering as a war crime, and Security Council resolution 1612 of 2005, which created a monitoring and reporting mechanism regarding the use of child soldiers.

"We now have to go ahead and implement these frameworks, convict perpetrators and impose sanctions," she added.

In addition, said Coomaraswamy, the United Nations has a lot of important work to do with regard to a programmatic response involving all children in armed conflicts.

For example, "we have to do much more to ensure the successful reintegration of children affected by armed conflicts back into their societies through building up community support with regard to education, health, livelihoood sports etc…"

"We also have to do much more to protect internally displaced children, besides providing them with basic services. It is estimated that there is a direct link between child recruitment and security among internally displaced children," she said.

She said many children are recruited directly from the camps, "So there is a lot the United Nations still has to do."

In 2006, over 18 million children were affected by displacement – both with and without their families. About 8.8 million of these were internally displaced children, and 5.8 million are estimated to have fled across borders as refugees, according to the report.

At least 50 percent of the world&#39s out-of-school children of primary school age are living in conflict-ridden countries.

In her study, Coomaraswamy also singles our several success stories. In Cote d&#39Ivoire, about 1,200 children have already been released to UNICEF.

In June, the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army, one of the signatories to the Darfur Peace Agreement, agreed with UNICEF the modalities for the identification and release of children associated with its forces and ongoing verification to prevent child recruitment.

Last year, the Ugandan government committed to strengthening the implementation of the existing legal and policy frameworks on the recruitment and use of children in armed conflict.

In Chad, a dialogue between UNICEF and the government led to an agreement on protecting children who are victims of armed conflict and their sustainable reintegration into communities and families.

Still, recent reports by the secretary-general have noted abductions in Burundi, Chad, Cote d&#39Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nepal (where some 22,000 students were abducted by Maoists between 2002 and 2006), Somalia, Sri Lanka and Sudan.

Coomaraswamy said her report urges all member states to fulfill their responsibilities to children, by providing them with access to basic services like education, health, nutrition, water and sanitation.

"The needs of children must be prioritised before, during and after conflict. They must be part of all peace-making and peace-building processes," she noted.

Other key recommendations include a call to end impunity for those responsible for heinous crimes against children.

"This means ensuring prosecution of war crimes and adherence to relevant international norms, many of which have been established since the original Machel study was published."

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