A recent United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the recruitment of children as soldiers and the killing and abuse of children in conflict is a necessary first step toward the solution of a most pressing social problem.
The U.N. body recommends governmental prosecution of those who recruit children soldiers; special protection against rape and other abuses; incorporation of the children's welfare into peace negotiations, and the training of peacekeeping forces in child protection. UNICEF called this resolution a significant achievement toward efforts to protect the rights of millions of children. However, a sustained effort is still needed to make effective the council's recommendations.
According to UNICEF statistics, 300,000 children under 18 are serving as regular soldiers, guerrilla fighters, porters, spies, sexual slaves, and even suicide commandos, in conflicts under way in over 50 nations. Over the past decade, conflicts have claimed the lives of more than 2 million children; left millions maimed or permanently disabled, 10 million with serious psychological trauma, and resulted in over 12 million children refugees. In addition, worldwide conflicts have created 1 million orphans. The health and education of even larger numbers have been affected because conflicts have destroyed crops, schools and clinics.
Poverty and lack of education draw many children into armed groups. In Afghanistan, the proportion of child soldiers has reportedly risen from 30 to 45 percent. During the conflicts ravaging Sudan in the 1980s and early 1990s, thousands of young boys were lured from their homes with promises of work and education, only to be thrust into battle.
Other children are forcibly recruited, abducted by armed groups. UNICEF estimates that since 1995, rebels from the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda have abducted more than 8,000 children. Research carried out in El Salvador, Ethiopia and Uganda show that almost a third of the child soldiers were girls.
Olara Otunnu, special representative of the U.N. Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict, has been campaigning to raise the age of military recruitment to 18 - the minimum age is presently set at 15. The U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was signed in 1989 (it celebrated its 10th anniversary this past November) and ratified by all members except the United States and Somalia (which does not have a working government), establishes the age of 18 as the end of childhood.
Otunnu has also been instrumental in helping persuade advocates of the planned international criminal court to expand the list of recognized war crimes to include several affecting children, an important step to enforce the child-rights convention.
Children at war tend to live under trying circumstances. Aside from the obvious danger of death, drug addiction, malnutrition, sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies are common among child soldiers. Also, because many contemporary wars are waged between different ethnic groups in the same country, children can become special targets of violence.
In spite of the persistence of this problem in many countries throughout the world, there have been some positive steps related to the use of children as soldiers. Last June, the International Labor Organization approved unanimously the ban on employment of those younger than 18 in hazardous work, including prostitution, drug-smuggling and soldiering.
In addition, there are presently several projects helping to rehabilitate child soldiers in Mozambique, Angola and Somalia. To allow children to be immunized, "days of tranquility" were established during El Salvador's civil war, a concept that was also used during the civil war in Lebanon.
Although these measures are important, additional actions need to be taken. International lending agencies and governments should make it clear that no rebellious group that intends to govern a country will receive aid or international recognition if the group enlisted child soldiers in its struggle for power. The United States should ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which establishes basic guidelines for children's welfare.
And, as UNICEF has stressed, an optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child should be approved to raise the minimum age of recruitment into the military to 18 years.
These are just some necessary actions that may eventually lead to the elimination of this tragic problem. Children should become the foundation for peace, which is every child's right.
Dr. Cesar Chelala is an international medical consultant based in New York. He is a co-winner of the Overseas Press Club of America award for an article on human rights, and writes extensively on foreign affairs and human-rights issues.