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Q&A: As Civil Wars End, Child Soldiers Decline

Interview with Radhika Coomaraswamy

UNITED NATIONS, Feb 26 2008 (IPS) - The number of child soldiers, who are forcibly pressed into military service in conflicts worldwide, has declined: from about 300,000 in 1997 to an estimated 250,000 now, says U.N. Under-Secretary-General Radhika Coomaraswamy.

Radhika Coomaraswamy, U.N. Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict Credit: UN Photo

Radhika Coomaraswamy, U.N. Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict Credit: UN Photo

The primary reason for the decline, she points out, is the end of civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone, which depended heavily on child soldiers as frontline fighters.

"The United Nations came in, and demobilised children, put them into rehabilitation programmes," said Coomaraswamy, the U.N. Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, in an interview with IPS correspondent Nergui Manalsuren.

Coomaraswamy also said that religious organisations have played a very important role in the rehabilitation and education of the more than 50,000 children who have been demobilised from military service.

Excerpts from the interview:

IPS: Human Rights Watch says the U.N. Security Council should impose sanctions against government and rebel forces that persist in using child soldiers. However, in the Security Council’s open debate China – a veto wielding permanent member – along with Libya, Indonesia, and Vietnam are opposing sanctions. Under these circumstances, are sanctions feasible at all?

Radhika Coomaraswamy: The SC’s resolution 1612, speaks about imposing targeted measures against persistent violators… China and all these countries agreed on it at that point. I feel that if these violators continue to persist, and do not respond at all in the coming years, that possibility of sanctions is there. But we will have to convince the countries to impose sanctions. We must remember that these are the member states and sanctions are the most extreme measures that the U.N. can take. Therefore, they feel that the countries were only reviewed once, and there should be more opportunities to get into action plans, and those kinds of measures should be tried first before we move to sanctions.

IPS: In a recent report, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he is concerned about the increasing use of children in suicide attacks in Iraq and Afghanistan. Is there anything the U.N. can do to prevent or eliminate this practice?

RC: I think this is a very difficult area because it requires the U.N. have access to the non-state actors, and be able to persuade them that they shouldn’t engage in this. This is very difficult. Firstly, it is difficult to meet these non- state actors, who are seen as terrorist groups. Secondly, they themselves have a very negative view of the U.N. due to particular history. So this is very difficult point. I don’t think that naming and shaming would work because they don’t accept the U.N. as a shaming mechanism. They come from another worldview. So, I think we have to keep working at the grass-roots level. We have to try to get communities to put pressure on them and to stop them. So at the moment, we have to work through local communities.

IPS: How far has the U.N. succeeded in rehabilitating and re-integrating child soldiers? Are there any specific programmes for this? And does the U.N. have enough funding?

RC: Well, this is a big issue because re-integration programs are things that are under-funded. Basically UNICEF [The U.N. Children’s Fund] and other organizations who deal with these programmes have realized that just demobilizing a child, and sending him home, or keeping him in an orphanage if there are no parents is not an answer. Actually, you have to take them home, and you have to develop the community to receive them. This is a more complex process.

In the funding world – there is emergency assistance and development assistance – the two are in different categories. But in the case of child soldiers, demobilisation is an emergency issue, but reintegration must be seen as a development issue. So often there is money to demobilise but the development agencies do not get involved fast enough for reintegrating child soldiers successfully. On issues like this we should think more holistically and what is best for the child.

IPS: Can we say that it is poorly funded?

Yes, it’s poorly funded. The long time re-integration is poorly funded, but actual demobilization is all right.

IPS: The Tokyo based Global Network of Religions for Children will be focusing on children under siege, including child soldiers, at an international conference in Hiroshima in May highlighting the role of education, ethics and religion in the rehabilitation of children. What are your thoughts on this? Would inter-faith dialogue help?

RC: Well, religious organizations play a very important role because whatever said and done in the end UNICEF funds local groups to do the rehabilitation. UNICEF itself doesn’t do the rehabilitation. So, the local groups involved in these programmes – many of them are religious – some of them are very dedicated workers. So, religious NGOs are very important, but I think that it is also true that the education is important. We are trying to make safety zones so that even in the war zones children can continue to study and play. So, I think that all faiths are against child soldiers. The issue is not one of dialogues so much, but that the faith organizations that work with child- soldiers and who have done a good job, should be supported.

IPS: What, in your view, are the root causes of child soldiering? How many of the children offer themselves voluntarily, and how many are forced into military conscription?

RC: This is a very interesting question. Of course in certain wars they were hit on their heads and abducted. They were forcibly taken away – like most of them in Sierra Leone and Liberia. It was recruitment through abduction. But in many parts of the world children voluntarily joined these groups. There has been some research done. One reason appears to be of course that some of them are orphans in poverty and these groups are the place where they can find a home and a meal. Secondly, many join because of ethnic wars, and their families and communities feel that it is noble to fight for a cause even if you are child – sometimes due to political ideology such as in Colombia. Sometimes because these men with guns are role models for the children – they also want to have guns and sunglasses, and some kind of masculinity model.

There are all sorts of reasons why children may join so-called ‘voluntarily’. But as we know those are not truly voluntary choices – they are not provided any other options sometimes – it’s more what the war reality produces.

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