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June 9, 2000 VOL. 29 NO. 22 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

Surayuth Singhanak -- Bureau Bangkok
Rory Mungoven is the co-ordinator of the international Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, based in London

Ban The Child Soldier
Moving for a global law against kids in armed conflict

Battle lines are being drawn literally on one human rights issue in the region -- the use of children as soldiers. Today there are an estimated 300,000 children under 18 fighting in conflicts in more than 30 countries. While the problem has received much attention in Africa, Asia ranks close behind. The problem captured headlines when the child-led fighters of "God's Army" captured Ratchaburi hospital in Thailand earlier this year. The Abu Sayyaf group in the southern Philippines is also known to recruit young boys.

In Sri Lanka, boys and girls in their early teens are routinely and often forcibly drafted by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. In Pakistan, religious schools still churn out young men for the jihad in Afghanistan and Kashmir. Armed groups have armed children in the many land and ethnic struggles across Asia. Between the state army and ethnic groups opposing it, Myanmar is one of the single largest users of child soldiers. In Afghanistan and Cambodia, where a generation of children has grown up in arms, their demobilization, rehabilitation and reintegration will be a major challenge for the long-term stability and development of society.

The factors behind the problem are complex. While some children are recruited at gunpoint, others are driven into the armed forces by poverty and social alienation, root causes common to other forms of child labor and exploitation. Governments don't like to hear it, but one of the most common reasons for children joining armed groups is their experience of abuse at the hands of the state.

Momentum is building for a global ban on children in armed conflict and their recruitment, forced and voluntary, into government and rebel armed forces alike. Recently, governments and NGOs from across the region met in Kathmandu to look squarely at the problem for the first time and develop a concerted and practical response.

Among those leading the push are the governments of Sri Lanka, Nepal, Thailand and the Philippines, which are more accustomed to being in the dock for human rights abuses. Malaysia and Indonesia, usually prickly on human rights issues, draw the line at 18 in their militaries. Even China with its massive army has taken the high moral ground. While many Western governments support the call, the U.S., Britain, Australia and New Zealand have resisted, insisting on the need to entice school-leavers into military careers in the face of declining recruitment.

The battlefield in recent years has been a series of negotiations aimed at strengthening international legal protection for children in conflict. At stake has been the accountability of the military to civilian international legal standards -- many defense establishments have fought any tightening of rules every step of the way.

The new International Criminal Court has defined forced recruitment of children as a war crime and the International Labor Organization calls it one of the worst forms of child labor. The U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child is the most comprehensive and universally accepted bill of rights for those under 18. But where children are most at risk -- armed conflict -- has remained the exception. Governments recently agreed on an Optional Protocol to the convention that will close this gap. It is expected to win support as the legal basis for an under-18 ban.

Those governments resisting change have argued that there is a major distinction between peacetime armies and those in conflict, between voluntary and forced recruitment, between responsible governments and ragbag rebel groups. Of course there are important differences, but an effective global ban must be built on a universal standard, not one that allows governments to pick and choose.

The use of children as weapons of war should be put on the same moral and legal footing as the use of landmines or biological weapons -- simply beyond the pale. Governments intent on recruiting under-18s promote the career and personal development opportunities of military service. But the logic of recruiting children is the same for state armies and rebels alike -- studies in military psychology show it is easier to condition youngsters to be fearless and obedient killers. This logic is being challenged as military technology and functions change. In most societies, under-18s cannot be police -- why then should they be peacekeepers? In recognition of this, U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan has set an 18 minimum for U.N. peacekeepers -- at least one under-18 was deployed to East Timor with Australian forces last year.

The real challenge will be to influence the behavior of armed groups. Some have at least acknowledged the principle. The Taliban recently banned the recruitment of "boys without beards." The Tamil Tigers have made promises to the U.N. and Red Cross, sadly honored more in the breach. The time has come to heed the voices of those who know the problem firsthand -- not only the countries calling for a ban, but the children themselves, fighting and dying for causes they are too young to understand. Asian governments should lead the way by adopting the new Optional Protocol, ensuring protection for children at risk and addressing this issue squarely in regional security forums.

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