Child Soldiers Add Questions for Pakistan

Bill Gunyon, OneWorld Guides

( – A new focus on Pakistan in the UN Secretary-General’s annual report on Children and Armed Conflict may complicate the task of rebuilding relations with the US in the aftermath of the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Submitted to the Security Council as part of the UN’s responsibility for promoting and protecting the rights of children, Ban Ki-moon’s 55-page report paints a grim picture of the entrapment of both boys and girls in the world’s most degrading conflicts.

From the section headed “Developments in Pakistan”, it is clear that children have become active agents within the flow of warmongering personnel and equipment across the notoriously porous border with Afghanistan. Their assignments range from passive couriers to tragically unwitting suicide bombers in both countries.

The report refers to the escalation of terrorist and sectarian violence across Pakistan by groups linked to the Taliban and Al Qaeda, such as Tehrik-i-Taliban and Lashkar i Jhangvi. “Children have been used by these armed groups to carry out suicide attacks,” the UN says.

The most damning evidence is cited by the UN child rights monitoring team in Afghanistan which claims to possess “documented and verified cases of Afghan children recruited and trained in Pakistan by armed groups, including the Taliban.”

Such exploitation of children from both countries inside Pakistan will come as a disappointment to UN agencies after earlier reassurances given by Pakistan authorities.

In his corresponding report published a year ago, the Secretary-General referred to Pakistan’s formal submission to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. This promised “strict measures to stop recruitment of children by non-State actors, in addition to initiating reforms to streamline and regulate the madrasahs that were the major source.”

Nevertheless, advisers to Ban Ki-moon have stopped short of recommending that militant groups active in Pakistan should be included in the report’s “list of parties” that recruit or use children in armed conflict.

This annexed list is significant in that it may provoke the UN Security Council into demanding government action plans to enforce protection of children.

In some circumstances the list can also trigger a response under the US Child Soldier Prevention Act. Signed into law in 2008, this law blocks US military aid to countries which support paramilitary or militia groups recruiting under-age personnel. The armed forces in Pakistan are very substantially dependent on US aid.

The question of whether or not the Pakistan government and its institutions “support” terrorist groups lies at the heart of recriminations following the death of bin Laden on Pakistan territory at the hands of special US forces.

There is an unexpected twist in the UN report on Children and Armed Conflict which may add fuel to this bonfire of ambiguities.

The report addresses circumstances in which children are the victims of violence, as well as perpetrators. The Secretary-General has highlighted his concerns about attacks on schools and hospitals by anarchic militant groups. In conflict zones, schools may find themselves in the firing line from various quarters, from religious zealots to recruiting sergeants.

Amongst 15 countries identified by Ban Ki-moon as suffering such attacks, Pakistan stands out. Groups opposed to secular education and girls’ education have destroyed no fewer than 273 schools in Malakand, in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.

The Secretary-General has chosen this issue for the headline recommendation of his report. He requests that “the Security Council add parties to conflict that are attacking schools and hospitals to the annex of the report.”

It seems very likely therefore that militant groups in Pakistan will be added to what is described in the UN press release as the “List of Shame”.

Whether exposure in a child rights context will trigger consequences for US-Pakistan relations is very uncertain. Indeed Ban Ki-moon has stamped his impartiality on the report by including reference to controversial US drone attacks on targets inside Pakistan.

“No data is available on the number of children killed or injured in those attacks,” the report says. “The United Nations does not have access to these sites to undertake any independent verification.”