Today is the Day to Think about the Plight of the World’s 300,000 Child Soldiers

Today is an important day if you care about the welfare of children. Advocates have named February 12 “International Day against the Use of Child Soldiers” to highlight one of the worst forms of child labor. It’s hard to imagine that in 2013 the use of child soldiers is alive and thriving, but the BBC estimates that there are 300,000 child soldiers internationally. This number includes children of elementary school age who are handed automatic weapons and asked to kill, as well as others who are used for slave labor to support armies. Since January 2011, child soldiers have been used in at least 19 countries.

Many of the children suffer the worst forms of psychological warfare from their captors, who in many cases break them down by forcing them to kill or maim their friends or family. Many girls are sexually assaulted and forced to serve as sexual slaves. Many child victims are given drugs to keep them compliant. Their years of enforced service often produce intense psychological scarring that makes it hard to return to their communities. In some cases, they are shunned by their villages. Hear one girl’s compelling story in this YouTube video.

The Child Labor Coalition has tracked dozens of stories regarding the use of child soldiers over the last year and engages with its members to perform advocacy to reduce the use of child soldiers. Most recently, the warfare in Mali led to the recruitment of child soldiers, including children as young as 12. In early January, the United Nations decried the use of child soldiers in the Central African Republic, and in India, reports emerged that the militant group, the Garo National Liberation Army was using children in a variety of roles to support combat, including possibly the use of armed children. In early December, 2012, the U.S. government imposed sanctions on two “March 23 (M23)” leaders in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) for allegedly using child soldiers.

Not all the news has been bad. In June 2012, Burma made significant strides in reducing its use of child soldiers when it released an action plan to tackle the problem. In 2012, Yemeni authorities said they were committed to stopping the use of children in the military.

The challenges governments face to end the use of child soldiers are often formidable, however. A February 6th Huffington Post blog by Jake Scobey-Thal noted that despite some progress, child soldiers are still being used in Burma and cited the International Labour Organization that their numbers may be as high as 5,000.

Two members of the Child Labor Coalition, World Vision and Human Rights Watch (HRW), have been leaders in the effort to pressure the US government into abiding by a congressional law, the Child Soldiers Prevention Act, which prohibits military aid to countries that use child soldiers. They’ve also provided a valuable service with early warnings when civil strife reaches the point that children begin to be dragged into military conflicts as they have been recently in Mali, Syria and the DRC.

Is the U.S. doing enough to protect children from becoming child soldiers or from being harmed by military conflict? On February 5th, HRW cited recent recommendations by the United Nations (UN) committee of experts and urged the United States to do more to protect children harmed by conflict. The UN committee had expressed alarm about reports that hundreds of children have died during US airstrikes in Afghanistan over the last four years and noted that children have been arrested and detained in Afghanistan. US laws, said the committee of experts, have also excluded former child soldiers from securing asylum here.

“The US can and should do more to protect children affected by armed conflict,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at HRW, who urged the U.S. to “take decisive action” on the children rights committee’s recommendations to address these problems.

In November 2012, Jesse Eaves, a senior policy advisor for child protection for World Vision told IRIN Humanitarian News and Analysis that the use of presidential waivers which is becoming a frequent occurrence is weakening the authority of the Child Soldiers Prevention Act. “When the United States government gives a waiver to a country identified in the State Department’s [Trafficking in Persons] report as country using children in their national military, this weakens the authority of the law by not holding the country accountable for removing children from their armed forces,” said Eaves.

In a press release about International Day to End the Use of Child Soldiers, Amnesty International called on governments to adopt a global Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) to prevent armed forces, like those in Mali, from using weapons to recruit children as soldiers. Final talks on an ATT treaty are scheduled to occur in March, and according to Amnesty, “the current draft ATT text proposes weak rules to help prevent arms transfers to states or groups using child soldiers.”

Clearly much work remains to be done to get the U.S. and other governments to do the right thing when it comes to child soldiers, but working together, the members of the CLC and its allies hope that in the near future the use of child soldiers will be banished. Readers interested in this issue should visit the White House comment page and let their concerns about the use of child soldiers and presidential waivers of the provisions of the Child Soldiers Prevention Act be known.