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Kids in Conflict

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Calls For an End to Child Soldiers

By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, FEB. 21, 2008 (Zenit) -It's time to penalize those who use children in conflicts, the U.N. Security Council was told in a recent debate. On Feb. 12 the council held a daylong session on the question of child soldiers.

In his address to the meeting the U.N. secretary-general's special representative for children and armed conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy, complained about the lack of action against those who use children as combatants during wars, reported a U.N. press release Feb. 12.

He recommended the council consider such measures as travel restrictions on leaders, arms embargoes and limitations on military assistance for offenders. During the course of the debate, speakers representing dozens of nations spoke out on the plight of children obliged to take up arms in conflicts.

The Security Council debate followed a report on the matter by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. Children continued to be used in armed conflicts in more than a dozen countries, according to the report issued Dec. 21.

The report named Afghanistan, Burundi, Chad, the Central African Republic, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Myanmar, Nepal, the Philippines, Somalia, Sudan, Sri Lanka and Uganda, as the main offenders. The report titled "Children and Armed Conflict" covers the period from October 2006 to August 2007.

The document explained that often the recruitment of children is linked to the problem of refugees forced to flee conflicts. On the one hand, sometimes families are forced to flee their homes to avoid their children being taken by armed groups. On the other hand, refugee camps are often targeted by armed groups as they contain large numbers of vulnerable children.

Sexual abuse

The children, girls as well as boys, also frequently suffer rape and sexual abuse during their forced participation in conflicts. Given the extent of this problem the secretary-general welcomed the recent decision of the International Criminal Court to open an investigation in the Central African Republic on allegations of rape and other sexual crimes committed during the conflict between the government and rebel forces.

It's not only rebel groups that are guilty of abuses. The report noted that in some countries children have been used as guides and informers for government military operations, usually under coercion.

The secretary-general also dealt with a number of conflict-related troubles in relation to children. Often schools and their teachers are targeted by rebel groups, meaning that children are left without education. Children also suffer from being caught up in the midst of fighting, and are more vulnerable than adults. As well, the use of cluster-bomb munitions and mines in some countries continues to create casualties after fighting has ceased.

The Security Council also issued a report titled "Children and Armed Conflict" on Feb. 4. Describing as "horrific" the impact on children of armed conflicts, the report put at more than 2 million the total number of kids killed in war zones during the last two decades.

Another 6 million have been maimed or permanently disabled, the report affirmed. Regarding the issue of child soldiers the Security Council said that "more than a quarter of a million youths have been exploited as child soldiers in at least 30 countries."

Solutions needed

Interest in the issue by the Security Council has increased since a 2005 resolution, which established a monitoring and reporting mechanism, along with a working group, on the theme of children and armed conflicts.

This interest, however, has had only limited practical effects, the report admitted. While more information is now available the report noted that there has been a lack of response to the problems identified.

The Security Council publication did list some positive results. A 2007 agreement in Central African Republic provided for the release of some 400 children from armed groups. In May last year Chad's government signed an agreement for the demobilization of child soldiers. Meanwhile, in Cote d'Ivoire about 1,200 children were released following a November 2005 agreement.

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Such successes have been limited, leading the report to conclude that: "Stronger action, including targeted sanctions, may be needed against persistent violators as well as more systematic procedures to follow up reports and ensure their implementation."

Doubts remain, though, as to whether this will really happen. The report confessed that many of the Security Council members are reluctant to use strong action in dealing with offenders.

Similar doubts are shared by a number of human rights organizations involved in the campaign against the use of child soldiers. One of these, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, published a report on the subject prior to the Security Council meeting. The London-based group was formed in 1998 by a number of human rights and humanitarian organizations.

In its document titled "The Security Council and Children and Armed Conflict: Next Steps Toward Ending Violations Against Children," the coalition recognized the progress made by the United Nations on the problem.

The report, however, criticized the Security Council for being "inconsistent and generally weak," in its action against persistent violators who recruit and use child soldiers. This means that perpetrators, the coalition continued, may well conclude that they will not face any significant penalties.

Plight of girls

Another report published in the lead-up to the U.N.'s debate was, "Forgotten Casualties of War: Girls in Armed Conflict," by the International Save the Children Alliance. Also based in London, the organization is active in humanitarian help for children.

Putting at approximately 300,000 the number of children who have been involved in conflicts around the world, the report calculated that up to 40% are girls. As well as active fighting, the girls are involved in cleaning and providing medical help, and are also used as sexual possessions by the leaders of armed groups.

The report argued that often the girls are invisible victims, whose needs are not taken into account. A case in point are the programs for former child soldiers once a conflict is over. Often, the alliance argued, children's and particularly girls' needs, are overlooked.

As well, after returning home, girls are often marginalized and excluded from their communities, the report observed, as they are considered either violent or promiscuous. This is even more the case with those who are pregnant or return with babies.

The alliance called upon the international community to support and fund the release of children from armed groups, and also to provide funds for programs to help reintegrate them in the community. They also called for special attention and funds for girls to help them return to a normal life.