UNITED NATIONS - "Child soldiers are ideal because they don't complain, they don't expect to be paid, and if you tell them to kill, they kill," a senior official in the National Army of Chad reportedly told a Human Rights Watch researcher.
On Tuesday, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers launched its third global report on this persistent problem. It paints a grim picture, and concludes that despite growing awareness of the situation, there has been little real improvement on the ground.
"The international consensus that the armed forces is not a place for children has strengthened, and yet the situation for children caught up in hostilities around the world has changed very little," said Dr. Victoria Forbes Adam, director of the coalition.
There are an estimated 250,000 child soldiers worldwide, although the exact number is hard to verify.
Experts say that one major positive development in recent years has been the end of conflicts in countries like Sierra Leone, Liberia and Southern Sudan, where the use of child fighters was widespread. Overall, the number of conflicts in which children are directly involved fell from 27 in 2004 to 17 by the end of 2007, the report says.
And a "universal consensus" appears to be growing against the use of children in hostilities, with over three-quarters of U.N. member states having now signed, ratified or acceded to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict.
However, the report stresses that the military recruitment of children under age 18 and their use in hostilities is a much larger phenomenon, which still takes place in one form or another in at least 86 countries and territories worldwide.
Where armed conflict does exist, the report warns, "child soldiers will almost certainly be involved. The majority of these children are in non-state armed groups, but the record of some governments is also little improved."
According to media reports this week, the Pakistani army claims to have swarmed an al Qaeda training camp in South Waziristan, where militants had transformed a government-run school into a site where boys aged 9 to 12 were taught how to conduct suicide attacks.
"Armed groups pose the greatest challenge," said Adam. "International laws have had limited impact in deterring child soldier use by armed groups. Many groups attach little value to international standards and the need to build fighting strength overrides other considerations. This reality must be confronted and new strategies developed."
The armed groups that use children as suicide bombers are "largely ignorant of or impervious to the norms of international laws and standards," she added. "They are resistant to pressure and persuasion and outside the reach of initiatives to end the involvement of children in armed conflict."
A U.N. report on "Children and Armed Conflict" said that the "name and shame" technique that has been proven effective in reforming governments has not worked when dealing with many armed groups.
How can these groups then be persuaded that it is wrong to use child soldiers? Jo Becker, advocacy director for the Children's Rights Division at Human Rights Watch and a founder of the coalition, told IPS very often children are lured into these groups because they romanticise the mission. The best way to fight this phenomenon is by keeping children in school or with their families and giving them alternatives.
Tens of thousands of children remain in the ranks of non-state armies in at least 24 different countries or territories. Constructive dialogue with these groups is almost impossible, as Adam noted.
As Radhika Coomaraswamy, special representative of the U.N.secretary-general on children and armed conflict, told IPS in a previous interview, the U.N. can only have a dialogue with a group like the Taliban with the permission of the state. Currently, the government of President Hamid Karzai in Kabul discourages the U.N. or any other international organisation from any contacts with the Taliban.
The focus of international efforts must be on improving the overall social and economic conditions of children. Governments are part of the action and it is their responsibility to provide education. One other important strategy, is criminalizing recruitment so that there is an institutionalized, legal framework to protect the children.
As long as the climate of impunity prevails, there is little hope for improvement. Programmes on disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR) should focus on the release of children from the armed forces as well as reintegration of these children in society, experts say. Instead, this serious issue is being overlooked and sustained funding for the long-term support of former child soldiers is inadequate.
"Tens of thousands of children -- particularly girls -- are effectively rendered invisible during the demobilisation and reintegration process," said Adam. "It is not that their needs and vulnerabilities are unrecognised, it is simply a failure to apply lessons learned that is failing these children and their futures."
The Global Report covers the period from April 2004 to October 2007. It contains detailed information on military recruitment and use of child soldiers, release and reintegration initiatives and justice initiatives in 197 countries.
The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers was formed almost exactly 10 years ago this month. It includes leading humanitarian and human rights organisations from around the world like Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Save the Children Alliance, Defence for Children International, International Federation Terre des Hommes and the Quaker U.N. Office.
© 2008 Inter Press Service