Where: New York, USA
September 23, 2000: “Everyone was dying. You saw the legs or hands of your friends lying in front of you. It was so horrifying, you couldn’t make sense of it. It was hell… Boys lay on the ground for three or four days without being buried. We were fighting around their corpses.” This is how Rashid, an Ethiopian high school student, described his experience of fighting on the Badme front in 1999.
More than 300,000 child soldiers in the world
There are more than 300,000 child soldiers – both boys and girls – fighting adult wars around the globe, like Rashid. All are under 18; some are as young as seven or eight years old.
Most of them fight in the frontline where they are the first to face attacks from the opposition’s armed forces, while others are used as spies, messengers, sentries, porters, servants and, often, to lay and clear landmines.
Simply put, they are the first to be in the line of fire.
To remember the thousands of children who have been killed, wounded, detained in camps or gone missing in recent years, a special “Children’s War Memorial” was unveiled during the United Nations (UN) Millennium Assembly at New York last week.
A new treaty banning the use of child soldiers
Before the ceremony, 68 governments signed a new international treaty prohibiting the participation of children in armed conflict. The credit for this treaty goes to the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, a group of different organisations working in 30 countries.
The Coalition had demanded that a universal standard be adopted that will raise the minimum age to 18 for all forms of military recruitment.
The ceremony itself started with a reminder to the audience from a former Khmer Rouge child soldier from Cambodia, Loung Ung, “For every child soldier, remember there is a child. On behalf of all those children unable to make their voices heard, please take this chance to stop any more of our names being added to this terrible list.”
Terrible list of those killed, hurt, missing, detained
The monument is inscribed with the name, age and country of scores of child soldiers killed, wounded, missing or detained in armed conflicts around the world.
It also names child soldiers used in government armies and paramilitaries, including two British soldiers aged 17, killed in the Falklands and Gulf wars and another 17-year-old soldier who is celebrated as a war hero in Peru, according to information provided by the Coalition.
Among those children featured on the memorial are names of children abducted from schools in Northern Uganda by the Lord’s Resistance Army, teenagers used as suicide bombers by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka, and youngsters drafted by armed groups in Colombia.
Jo Becker, chairperson of the Coalition committee said, “this monument is a reminder that real children are fighting and dying in conflicts that are not their own.”
Do not recruit child soldiers in the first place
Rory Mungoven, co-ordinator of the Coalition, too, laid out the facts clearly. “The only way to ensure that children are not used as soldiers is not to recruit them in the first place.”
During the ceremony, Carol Bellamy, Executive Director United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF), welcomed the adoption of the new treaty, called the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The new International Criminal Court, which looks into complaints of war crimes against UN member countries, has promised that it will treat the use of child soldiers as a war crime.
Will the countries really keep their word?
However, it is not very certain whether the 68 countries will agree by the treaty or forget it before the ink has dried on the signature. For instance, Canada was among the first countries to sign this agreement. It also hosted a major conference on war-affected children earlier in September, but it continues to recruit children into the military as young as 16!
The Coalition has a very simple suggestion to make to all these countries. If they want to get serious about stopping the use of child soldiers then they must make it an important condition before signing any agreement with another country regarding co-operation between their armed forces or even the sales of weapons between each other.
This simple suggestion is bound to irritate all the nations, for they prefer to think the issue of child soldiers is not linked to the other issues. The governments of various countries have time till the UN special session in 2001, when the treaty comes up for ratification or the final approval.
The Coalition hopes that by that time more governments will ratify not only the treaty banning child soldiers but also abide with the minimum age of 18 for recruitment.