Africa, Global, Global Geopolitics, Headlines, Human Rights

RIGHTS: Despite U.N. Force, Child Soldiers Multiply in Congo

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Apr 26 2006 (IPS) - The United Nations, which is fielding over 19,800 peacekeeping troops in war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is virtually fighting a losing battle to contain the ongoing recruitment of child soldiers in a country the size of Western Europe.

Asked why child soldiers continue to be a recurring problem in the DRC despite the presence of the largest single U.N. peacekeeping force in the sprawling African nation, Julia Freedson, director of Watchlist of Children and Armed Conflict, told IPS: “The size and broken-down infrastructure of DRC prevents U.N. personnel from reaching many corners of the country.”

And egregious abuses against children and other civilians, she pointed out, take place daily in areas that are far from international reach. “In addition, armed conflict, political disorder and poverty have led to a weak or non-existent judicial system in most areas,” she added.

As a result, the majority of crimes committed in DRC, including the ongoing use and recruitment of children by military forces and armed rebel groups, are perpetrated in an environment of near complete impunity.

In a new 63-page report released Wednesday, Watchlist said children in DRC continue to endure some of the most inhumane treatment found anywhere in the world, despite outward signs of progress.

The study, titled “Struggling to Survive: Children in Armed Conflict in the DRC”, said at least 30,000 boys and girls are currently taking an active part in combat, or are attached to military forces or armed groups and used for sexual or other services.

An estimated 10,000 children fought with the Congolese government forces under the leadership of Laurent Kabila during the war against President Mobutu in 1996-1997. The current president, Joseph Kabila, took power when his father Laurent Kabila was assassinated in 2001.

“Children often fight on the front lines and witness or are forced to participate in serious human rights abuses against civilians,” the study noted.

The United Nations has identified at least 10 armed groups in DRC, including the Mai Mai, the Congolese Rally for Democracy-Liberation Movement, the Democratic Forces for Liberation of Rwanda and its new splinter group, known as the “Rastas”, as well as the forces of General Laurent Nkunda and several others.

DRC continues to endure the world’s deadliest humanitarian crisis, with more than 38,000 people dying every month as a direct or indirect consequence of the armed conflict, according to the International Rescue Committee (IRC). And approximately 45 percent of these deaths occur among children under 18.

“Despite the presence of the United Nations’ largest peacekeeping operation, the promise of upcoming elections and billions of dollars granted by donors for post-conflict reconstruction in DRC, most Congolese children are not faring any better than they were three years ago – and for some children, health, safety and well-being have drastically deteriorated,” said Freedson of Watchlist, a global network of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) based in New York.

Kathleen Hunt, CARE International’s U.N. Representative and chairperson of the Watchlist, said there was stark evidence of the ongoing rape and mutilation of girls, recruitment and use of children by armed groups and other despicable abuses against children.

“In addition, it’s widely known that thousands of Congolese children are dying of preventable diseases every day and others are missing out on educational opportunities and other possibilities for advancing their lives,” she said in a statement released Wednesday.

The U.N. Development Programme (UNDP), in cooperation with the U.N. Mission in DRC (MONUC), is undertaking “the largest and most complex U.N. electoral assistance mission”. The upcoming elections, scheduled to take place mid-June, are described as the first in DRC’s 46-year history as an independent nation.

The elections, both for a new president and a new parliament, are expected to cost over 422 million dollars, with 25.7 million Congolese registered to vote

“There are about 1,200 Congolese who die every single day from the effects of the conflict,” says Ross Mountain, UNDP resident representative in DRC and deputy special representative of U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. “That’s a tsunami every six months..”

According to UNDP, the elections are an important first step in a peace process aimed at ending a five-year civil war that has affected six neighbouring countries and killed four million people. But the fighting still continues in some of the country’s 11 provinces.

On Tuesday, the U.N. Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution authorising the deployment of a European Union reserve force of about 1,450 troops – specifically to provide security at the upcoming elections.

Freedson told IPS that despite the investment of hundreds of millions of dollars by donors into the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) programme for ex-combatant children and adults in DRC, the overall DDR process for children has been extremely protracted and plagued by re-recruitment, disorder and other significant challenges.

“We share widespread concerns over the lack of capacity and technical expertise of the Congolese national body charged with managing the overall DDR process, the National Commission for Demobilisation and Reintegration (known by its French acronym CONADER). We urgently call on the governing authorities of DRC and relevant donors to ensure that the CONADER structure is immediately adjusted to address these problems,” Freedson said.

Since most of the current conflicts, including the one in DRC, are being fought primarily with small arms, there is a proposal for an international treaty against the proliferation of small arms.

Freedson said she “strongly endorses” the proposed treaty, which is expected to be discussed at the upcoming review conference on small arms, scheduled to take place in New York in June-July.

“The proliferation and misuse of small arms harms children caught in armed conflicts in myriad ways. Children and women are the majority of victims of small arms violence worldwide,” she said.

In DRC, the widespread availability of small arms and light weapons continues to generate insecurity and violence, wreaking havoc on children and their communities.

And the easy availability of small arms in eastern DRC, she pointed out, enables soldiers, militias, bandits and others to commit heinous crimes against children, as well as other human rights violations.

Small arms are often lightweight and simple to operate, making it easy for young children to maneuver and repair them without difficulty, clearly contributing to the widespread use and abuse of child soldiers in DRC and other hotspots around the world, Freedson added.

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