The United States and Britain are
weakening a global pact against child soldiers by insisting on
being able to recruit youths under 18 into their armed forces,
a leading activist said Monday.
A treaty effectively banning anyone under 18 from being
drafted into an army or rebel force, or taking part in
fighting, comes into force Tuesday following its ratification
by the required number of signatory states.
But the treaty, signed by 94 countries, including Britain
and the United States, lets states recruit youths below that
age providing they offer their services voluntarily.
"The hypocrisy of the United States and Britain is one of
the most disappointing aspects of this question," said Rory
Mungoven, coordinator of the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child
Mungoven, who was in Geneva to attend a ceremony Tuesday to
mark the treaty's taking effect, said London and Washington had
played a key role in ensuring the 18-year rule did not apply
across the board when the pact was approved after long
negotiation in 2000.
He said that in some parts of the world, the distinction
between voluntary and forced recruitment was difficult to draw
and this would make it harder to monitor the treaty.
"It weakens the force of the...protocol. The line between
voluntary and forced can be blurred," he told reporters.
The new pact is a protocol because it takes the form of new
commitments attached to the 1989 Convention on the Rights of
the Child under which the minimum fighting age was 15.
Britain, Belgium, Canada, India and Australia are among
states allowing young people to join their armed forces at 16,
even if they are bound by their treaty obligations to do their
utmost to keep them away from any fighting.
The United States is one of a number of states that will
take volunteers at 17.
"They say that it is alright for us to recruit because we
will do it responsibly. But there has to be one standard for
all," Mungoven said.
He added that around 100 members of Britain's armed forces
under the age of 18 had been killed in the past decade. Most of
the deaths were in training, but some had come in fighting.
The Coalition, an umbrella alliance of human rights groups,
including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and
regional non-governmental organizations (NGOs), estimates that
half a million children -- those below 18 -- currently form
part of armed forces.
Of this total, some 300,000 are involved in fighting, much
of it in Africa, according to figures released last June.
The protocol, which has been ratified by 14 countries,
comes into force three months after being ratified by the 10th
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