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Stop the use of child soldiers: let children live!

Meeting in Harare, Zimbabwe in 1998, the Eighth Assembly of the World Council of Churches adopted a statement on child soldiers, stating: “The involvement of children in armed conflicts violates fundamental humanitarian principles, exposes them to the risk of death and injury, threatens their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being, and draws them into a culture of violence.”

The use of children as soldiers destroys lives, families and the social fabric of communities. Conditions of violence and poverty are perpetuated when children are forced to abandon school and their families to enter conflicts. The practice violates international law, which has established the minimum age of 18 for recruitment into all forms of military service. Action must be taken to ensure that this standard is universally upheld, violators are brought to justice and hope is restored for children trapped in this cycle of violence.

Child soldier, Liberia (1997)

“Children are our future. To accept the use of child soldiers in conflict is to accept the destruction of our future, one child at a time.”
Kofi Annan, UN Special Session on Children, May 2002

The problem

The term ‘child soldiers’ applies to male and female children under the age of 18 – but as young as 7 – who act as frontline combatants, porters, spies, messengers, guards, servants and sexual slaves for government armed forces or armed rebel groups. There are currently an estimated 300,000 children engaged as soldiers in 30 countries worldwide. Some 120,000 children are fighting in Africa alone, with similar numbers in Asia and South America.

Armed groups and some governments perceive children to be ‘cheap’ and ‘expendable’ recruits who can be indoctrinated to commit atrocities, or even suicidal actions. A shortage of adults in protracted conflicts makes children vulnerable to recruitment. The proliferation of small arms, which can easily be handled by children, contributes to the problem. Children are frequently abducted from schools or refugee camps by armed groups, or coerced with promises of food or money. Some join to escape relentless poverty and social discrimination.

Child soldiers encounter the extreme violence of modern war and the risk of injury, death, malnourishment, and manipulation with drugs or alcohol. Girls are particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation, including infection with HIV/AIDS. Exposure to horrific violence, compounded by separation from family and social structures, has long-term consequences including addiction, psychological trauma and physical disability.

Those child soldiers fortunate to survive a conflict or escape face a long road of re-integration into normal community life. Many are desensitized to violence and have difficulty adapting to life without a weapon. They often face resentment from family and friends because of acts they have been forced to commit. Rehabilitating former child soldiers and assisting them to live as productive citizens is a difficult process.

“Children are not expendable - they belong in schools and in their families. This is their right. It is our responsibility to ensure that they are protected from the horrors of warfare.”
Carol Bellamy, UNICEF Executive Director, February 2002

The international response

The international community has responded to pressure and undertaken to ban the use of child soldiers. In 1996 the United Nations released a report, “The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children”, which provided a plan of action to protect children in situations of armed conflict. In response, the UN Secretary General appointed Olara Otunnu of Uganda as his Special Representative for Children in Armed Conflict.

Since 1998 the use of child soldiers has been banned in international humanitarian, criminal and labour law. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention of the International Labour Organization both address the issue of child soldiers. On 25 May 2000, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. With its entry into force on 12 February 2002, states parties committed to uphold a minimum age of 18 for all forms of military recruitment. Non-governmental organizations, including member churches of the WCC, formed the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers to lobby for the Optional Protocol.

The response of the WCC

The Eighth Assembly of the World Council of Churches condemned any use of children in warfare, calling member churches to work to prevent the recruitment and deployment of children as soldiers, and to assist the rehabilitation and re-integration of former child combatants. This is one expression of the churches’ fundamental responsibility to act as guardians and advocates for children.

He took a little child and had him stand among them. Taking him in his arms he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me…
Mark 9:36-37

In communities plagued by conflict, churches play a unique role in ministering to the physical, emotional and spiritual needs of the people. They provide sanctuary for former child soldiers, and aid in their rehabilitation with physical and spiritual support. Globally, churches can help raise awareness about the plight of child soldiers.

Speaking as the moral voice of society, churches must continue to challenge the culture of violence that permits the ongoing recruitment of children into armed forces. All governments must be called to sign, ratify and implement the Option Protocol – to date only 110 countries have signed and 27 have ratified. Of these states, Canada, New Zealand and the UK have declared their intent to permit voluntary enlistment at the age of 17. Non-state actors are not party to the treaty, but must be held accountable to this standard. In the context of the Decade to Overcome Violence: Churches Seeking Reconciliation and Peace (2001-2010), churches should join together in calling governments to end the morally repugnant practice of child recruitment.

A Challenge to the Churches

Practical Ways to Get Involved:

  • Call on all states to sign and/or ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict.
  • Ensure that states parties fulfill their obligation to maintain the age of 18 as the minimum age of recruitment into all military forces.
  • Work to prevent all recruitment of children under the age of 18 – into regular or irregular forces – and stigmatize the use of children in armed conflict.
  • Call for the demobilization of all child soldiers worldwide.
  • Support efforts to assist the rehabilitation of former child soldiers and their re-integration into communities.
  • Lobby governments to implement effective measures to control the production, sale, transfer, stockpiling, and proliferation of small arms.
  • Inform the WCC about your work in preventing the use of child soldiers and join the Peace to the City Network to highlight your work internationally.
  • Forcing children to fight adult wars is an act of cruelty that should be regarded as unacceptable to all civilized societies.”
    Olara Otunnu, Special Representative of the Secretary General on Children and Armed Conflict, November 2001

    “Campaiging for the abolition of child soldiers” is one aspect of the Peace to the City Seven-Point Peace Plan

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