Global Awareness Leads to Initiatives to Stop Child Soldier Usage

by Erin
Written for September 23, 2008

Around the world today, thousands of children are affected by war, and they are not simply victims or bystanders. They are the participants: the soldiers, the spies, and the messengers. These children are coerced or brainwashed into joining military groups, and they are forced to risk their lives and to commit horrible acts of violence. Despite laws passed in the 1970s prohibiting the use of children as soldiers, many have since been recruited to fight in multiple wars worldwide. Now, unlike with previous conflicts, global awareness about the widespread use of children in war has incited a groundbreaking international effort to prevent the further use of child soldiers and to punish those responsible for their recruitment.

In 1977, fifteen years before the commencement of the Sierra Leonean civil war, in which thousands of children were involved, amendments were made to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949, an international set of war-related laws. These additional protocols explicitly state that anybody under the age of 15 should not be used or recruited in armed combat. The Additional Protocols include the age of 18 as a benchmark age for recruiters when choosing soldiers to be directly involved in hostilities, as explained in Article 77:

The Parties to the conflict shall take all feasible measures in order that children who have not attained the age of fifteen years do not take a direct part in the hostilities and, in particular, they shall refrain from recruiting them into their armed forces. In recruiting among those persons who have attained the age of fifteen years but who have not attained the age of eighteen years the Parties to the conflict shall endeavor to give priority to those who are oldest. (Child Soldiers Global Report)

Furthermore, in 1989, shortly before the commencement of the Sierra Leonean war, the Convention of the Rights of the Child met and regarded anyone under 18 years old as a child, and echoed the same laws given by Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions (Child Soldiers Global Report 2008).

Despite this more recent reminder of the international rules against the use of child soldiers, over 10,000 children were recruited into the armed forces to be soldiers, spies, and to perform other duties over the course of the Sierra Leone civil war (Odeh). At the age of 13, Ishmael Beah was one many children recruited into the government army during the war. As he describes in his memoir, A Long Way Gone, the recruiters used manipulative tactics to convince the children to become soldiers. The day of his recruitment, the lieutenant gathered everyone in the village, a group that included soldiers, displaced families, and several orphaned children. He displayed two dead bodies of people who had tried to escape and were killed by the rebel army. He then described the brutality of the rebels and said, “‘That is why we must kill every single one of them. Think of it as destroying a great evil. It is the highest service you can perform for you country'” (Beah 108). Using patriotism and revenge as a motivation to fight for the army, it was no wonder that so many children were persuaded to become soldiers. After losing their families and living in constant fear with nowhere to go, anywhere with shelter, food, and protection surely made the decision easy. The army recruiters clearly understood these feelings and problems faced by the children and exploited them to make them slaves for the government army.

The horrors faced by these children did not go unnoticed. After a few years as a soldier, UNICEF workers arrived at the camp at which Beah’s unit was stationed and chose fifteen children, including Ishmael Beah, to participate in a rehabilitation program for child soldiers (Beah 128). Five months later, groups representing the European Commission, United Nations, UNICEF, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) observed the center and viewed a talent show performed by the children, and because of Beah’s impressive performance, he became the spokesperson for the center. Soon after, he spoke at Freetown about child soldiers and their rehabilitation. Beah was later chosen to be one of two spokespeople for Sierra Leone at a UN conference in New York about the lives of children in war torn countries and what can be done to help (Beah 185).

The plight of the African children was finally recognized. In 1999, the first and only regional treaty worldwide, the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, called for a defined minimum age of adulthood set at 18, and declared that “States Parties to the present Charter shall take all necessary measures to ensure that no child take a direct part in the hostilities and refrain in particular, from recruiting any child.” Also that year, the International Labour Organization (ILO) Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention 182 included mandatory recruitment of children to be involved in armed conflicts as a form of child labour. The organization called for a commitment to “take immediate and effective measures to secure the prohibition and elimination” of such forms of child labor (Child Soldiers Global Report 2008).

Other efforts for progress have since been made as awareness spread globally. Attention has been called to this situation through various forms of media including books, movies, and more international conventions. The Hollywood movie Blood Diamond has on a grand scale opened the eyes of millions of viewers to the circumstances in Africa concerning the war and the diamond industry’s role. Furthering the awareness of this, and specifically the predicaments faced by the children, was Ishmael Beah’s memoir, A Long Way Gone, which chronicled his journey from his first contact with war through his rehabilitation and eventual escape from Sierra Leone. These stories portray the harsh reality of the recent and current happenings in Africa to the general public in a way that traditional news programs never displayed (Walker). As a result, international organizations have pushed for more judiciary action against those who violate international law by involving children in adult wars. By 2000, the United Nations developed the most comprehensive international law against child soldiers, which was put into practice in 2002. This, the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by 120 countries, again set 18 as the minimum age for direct participation in hostilities, recruitment into military groups, and mandatory conscription by the government. The UN continued to denounce those who use child soldiers by issuing a series of resolutions in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003, 2004, and 2005 (Child Soldiers Global Report).

The efforts of the United Nations have finally led to progress. In 2006, the United Nations Security Council took action against the individuals responsible for involving child soldiers in conflict in Côte d’Ivoire. One of the major military leaders was banned from traveling by the UN in response to his association with the recruitment and use of child soldiers (Child Soldiers Global Report). Other organizations have made progress as well. In 2005, the International Criminal Court (ICC) arrested members of two different armed groups in Uganda, the LRA and the DRC, for compulsory recruitment of children under the age of 15 for direct combat in hostilities. Three commanders of Sierra Leone’s Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) and one member of the Civilian Defence Forces (CDF) were convicted of child recruitment crimes by the Special Court for Sierra Leone in 2007, marking a first for any international court; none has ever issued a conviction related to child soldiers (Polgreen; Child Soldiers Global Report). A significant achievement had been attained.

The exponential increase in justice initiatives made by international organizations and courts as well as the global awareness and concern has put pressure on nations that use child soldiers. Several military groups, such as those in Côte d’Ivoire and Sri Lanka, have worked together with the United Nations in order to implement programs that would reduce the number of children currently involved in armed activity as well as thwart further recruitment. Many others are also already committed to stop the use of child soldiers (Child Soldiers Global Report). Although there are still many countries that have children in their armies, progress is unquestionably being made, and the elimination of child soldiers altogether is certainly on its way.

The use of child soldiers throughout time has put a tragic, dreadful stain on the world’s history. This crime is in itself an atrocity, and the methods by which the children’s lives are transformed are another horror. In previous decades, feeble attempts were made to protect the lives of children during wartime, yet the laws and resolutions made by international groups were never put into action. Now, after many conflicts and innumerable casualties, the media is making the effort to educate the public about the calamities that are happening throughout the world today through movies and books. International organizations have also spread the word about child soldiers through several conventions, and as a result, they have issued laws that specifically define the recruitment of children as a war crime and a crime against humanity. Unlike when past regulations went unenforced, international courts have recently launched judiciary action against the principal violators of these laws. Justice for the children is finally being achieved, and the improved awareness of these terrible circumstances is responsible for the milestones that are being reached at last.

Works Cited

Beah, Ishamael. A Long Way Gone. New York: Sarah Crichton Books, 2007.

Child Soldiers Global Report 2008. Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. 8 Sept 2008

Odeh, Michael and Colin Sullivan. “Recent Developments in International Rehabilitation of Child Soldiers.” Youth Advocate Program International. 14 Sept 2008.

Polgreen, Lydia. “Fewer conflicts involve child soldiers, report finds.” New York Times Late Edition East Coast (22 May 2008) : A18. ProQuest. SU Library Database, Syracuse NY. 1 Sept 2008.

Walker, Tom. “Ishmael Beah was 12 when the Sierra Leone army forced him to kill rebels. Now, he fights to keep kids off battlefields.” Denver Post (4 Mar 2007) : F14. ProQuest. SU Library Database, Syracuse, NY. 21 Sept 2008.

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