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U.N. Calls for Universal Ratification of Ban on Child Soldiers

Hannah Rubenstein

UNITED NATIONS, May 26 2010 (IPS) - A decade after the passage of the Optional Protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the United Nations and human rights groups are urging 44 unsigned countries to join in ratifying the treaty.

Two-thirds of all U.N. member states – 132 countries – have ratified the optional protocols that call for protection of children from armed conflict and sexual exploitation – what U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has called a “moral and legal shield for children”.

The two-year campaign of universal ratification follows the release of a U.N. report identifying military and rebel forces that most persistently employ children in armed conflict and calling for stricter measures against the offenders.

“There are too many conflicts where children are used as soldiers, spies, or human shields,” Ban said in his remarks on the tenth anniversary of the protocols. “Each child has the right to grow up free of fear and exploitation.”

The optional protocol calls for ratifying governments to ensure that individuals under 18 years of age are not conscripted by armed forces.

“States Parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure that members of their armed forces who have not attained the age of 18 years do not take a direct part in hostilities,” reads the document, which was adapted from the text of 1949’s Geneva Convention.

According to the recent report, 16 armies and insurgent groups around the world have recruited or employed child soldiers within the past five years.

Persistent violators include groups involved in conflict in the Philippines, Myanmar, Colombia, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The report also identifies groups that subject minors to extreme violence, including killings, maimings, rapes, and sexual assaults.

There are several groups that are new to the annexes of the report detailing child soldier recruitment: the Afghan National Police, the Convention des Patriotes pour la Justice et la Paix in the Central African Republic, and Hizbul Islam in Somalia.

However, the report also points to progress that has been made.

In February, the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist released more than 2,000 soldiers who had been recruited as children; in Cote d’Ivoire, child soldiers have been liberated; in The Hague, former Congolese militia leader Thomas Lubanga is standing trial for war crimes against children.

In addition, The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the Philippines, Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), and the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist have all signed action plans agreeing to put an end to the recruitment and use of child soldiers.

Recommendations to the Security Council urging stronger measures against groups that persistently violate the rights of children will be discussed in an open debate next month.

In addition to banning the use of child soldiers, the optional protocols call for an end to sexual exploitation of children through trafficking, child prostitution, and child pornography.

Marta Santos Pais, special representative of the secretary-general for violence against children, explains that progress has been made in the decade since the passage of the Optional Protocols, but there is more work to be done.

Citing the statistic of 115 million children that are currently involved in hazardous, exploitative work, Pais says that the universal ratification of the protocol will “establish the campaign as a legal imperative” and “change the mindset concerning the exploitation of children” worldwide.

Radhika Coomaraswamy, special representative for children and armed conflict, agrees, explaining that the protocols need to be adopted globally because “universality implies a moral consensus”.

Ban echoed this statement in his address, pointing out the effectiveness of international cooperation in curbing pedophilia networks, online child pornography, and sexual exploitation by tourists. An increasing number of countries are reforming legislation to criminalise sexual exploitation of children, but, Ban says, “In too many places, children are seen as commodities.”

Universal ratification of the Optional Protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child is the first step in ending child exploitation, both violent and sexual.

“Combat is no place for children,” says Coomaraswamy. “Every year the release of this report should give us pause. Let us remember that we must protect the most innocent and most vulnerable.”

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