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Note: This document is from the archive of the Africa Policy E-Journal, published by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC) from 1995 to 2001 and by Africa Action from 2001 to 2003. APIC was merged into Africa Action in 2001. Please note that many outdated links in this archived document may not work.

Africa: WOA Alert, Child Soldiers

Africa: WOA Alert, Child Soldiers
Date distributed (ymd): 990528
Document reposted by APIC

+++++++++++++++++++++Document Profile+++++++++++++++++++++

Region: Continent-Wide
Issue Areas: +security/peace+ +US policy focus+
Summary Contents:
This posting contains an action alert from the Washington Office on Africa, outlining the case for U.S. support of the International Campaign to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. The alert also contains links to on-line resources for additional information on the issue.

+++++++++++++++++end profile++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

USA Support Needed for International Campaign
to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers

Washington Office on Africa
212 East Capitol Street
Washington, D.C. 20003, U.S.A.
Phone: 202/547-7503; Fax: 202/547-7505
E-Mail:; Web:

"We cannot accept children waging war for us," declared South Africa's First Lady Graca Machel as she formally opened the Africa Conference on the Use of Children as Soldiers held in Maputo, Mozambique in April. More than 300,000 children under 18 are currently participating in conflicts around the world, more than 120,000 of them in Africa. In light of this grim reality, the conference called on countries around the world to bar military recruitment of children under 18 and to bring pressure against any governments or rebel groups violating this standard.

The United States has provided funding for rehabilitation of child soldiers in the aftermath of African conflicts. At the same time, the U.S. government is one of the few governments to oppose universal adoption of the minimum age of 18 for military recruitment or participation in armed conflict. Such a standard is currently being proposed as an amendment to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child. The United States is also one of only two countries that have failed to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child (the other is Somalia, which has no government).

The United States should join the movement to establish this worldwide standard to protect children from the cruel and corrupting influence of war. A first step is for the Administration to support the international effort to set 18 as the minimum legal age for military recruitment or participation in armed conflict. On that basis, Washington can then give higher priority to pressuring warring parties to abide by the standard. Beyond that, the U.S. government should continue and increase its financial support for rehabilitation of child soldiers, particularly in African countries, and eliminate any U.S. military aid that facilitates use of child soldiers by governments or rebel groups.

Children in Combat

Children have always been among the most vulnerable civilian casualties of warfare, and older teenagers have often been among those recruited to fight. The new campaign to stop the use of those under 18 as soldiers can be seen as part of the ongoing codification of international humanitarian law, to limit if not entirely stop age-old abuses against human life and dignity.

There is another new reason for the prominence of the issue, vividly seen in recent African conflicts. The availability of light automatic weapons that can be carried even by young children has dramatically increased the usefulness of children in combat. So has the fact that many contemporary conflicts target unarmed civilians rather than pit conventional armies against each other. Armed with an AK-47, even an eight-year-old can go into battle under adult leadership and carry out horrendous slaughter.

Teenagers in the borderline years of 16 to 18, and even 15, are often drafted by government forces as a matter of course. In draft raids, the appearance of being old enough to fight is often enough to justify being dragged along to the recruiting center, sometimes at gunpoint.

Such abuses are most frequent in countries involved in internal conflict. A new report on child soldiers in Africa released at the April conference in Maputo listed the countries most affected as Algeria, Angola, Burundi, Congo-Brazzaville, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Sudan, and Uganda. While some youth volunteer to join the armed forces, driven by economic need, personal choice or the search for adventure, many more are forced into service.

The most alarming escalation, however, involves even younger children, some as young as seven. The first documented systematic use of this tactic was by the South African-backed Mozambican National Resistance (Renamo) in the war in Mozambique in the 1980s. Particularly in southern Mozambique, where there were few adult men in the countryside to supply Renamo's forced recruitment at gunpoint, children came to make up a large proportion of the rebel force. Renamo commanders acknowledged that children were "easier to control" and less likely to succeed in deserting.

A 1991 study of displaced children in Mozambique found that 28 percent of children abducted by Renamo were trained for combat (Neil Boothby, "Children of Mozambique," published by Save the Children Federation). In the south, the average age of those trained was 11.5 years old. While children were often used for noncombat missions, they also took part in combat and in carrying out atrocities.

In more recent years, very young children have been used for combat and for atrocities against civilians by the Lord's Resistance Army rebels in Uganda and by rebels in Sierra Leone. The Liberian civil war featured extensive use of children by several of the contending forces. So does the current conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Brutalization of child soldiers is sometimes an explicit part of their training. When a 12- or 13-year-old recruit has been forced to kill--sometimes even a family member or neighbor-the traumatic experience may serve as a kind of initiation. Believing they will be ostracized for their deed, children who have killed may be bound psychologically to the military group that has forcibly recruited them.

After a conflict has ended, reintegration of child soldiers adds to the already staggering costs of recovery. Those who have worked to rehabilitate child soldiers say they often exhibit profound psychological trauma and inability to adjust to normal life, at levels exceeding that of adult soldiers. Furthermore, children who have spent their key growing years in combat in the bush lack the skills they would normally have acquired in school or from older relatives. They most often face unemployment, with criminal activity among the few possibilities for survival as an adult.

Regional Advocacy Efforts

If African children are among those most victimized by use of child soldiers, prominent Africans have also taken the lead in calling for international action on the issue. Graca Machel, former minister of education in Mozambique and now South Africa's First Lady, headed a groundbreaking United Nations study on the impact of armed conflict on children and has continued to campaign on the issue.

The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child currently has 13 ratifications, and commitments from ten other governments for speedy ratification. It will shortly become the first regional treaty to establish 18 as the minimum age of recruitment and participation in armed conflict.

The April conference in Maputo, which was the first regional gathering of the international Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, called on African and other governments not only to adopt the legal standard but also to bring pressure on any government or opposition group violating it. The gathering also called on all governments to provide adequate assistance to achieve this aim, in particular by providing "resources for alternatives to children induced by circumstances to volunteer to join armed forces or armed groups, and for facilitating the demobilization, rehabilitation and reintegration of child soldiers."

Foot-dragging in Washington

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1995, but it has not been presented for ratification to the Senate because of opposition from Senators who see it as a threat to the authority of parents and to U.S. sovereignty. The United States is thus technically ineligible to join the proposed agreement to amend the convention by setting the minimum age of 18 for military recruitment or participation in armed conflict. Nonetheless, the United States has opposed the amendment because of the conflict with U.S. law which permits the recruitment of 17-year-olds with parental permission.

During President Clinton's trip to Africa in 1998, First Lady Hillary Clinton spoke out against the use of child soldiers, saying "Nothing so offends any definition of human rights than the use of children as pawns of war." In the face of the real advantages to military forces of using children, however, it will take concerted and consistent effort to stop this practice.

Washington's failure to ratify the convention and to support the growing international consensus on the age-18 amendment undermines U.S. credibility when our government appeals to those involved in African conflicts to stop using child soldiers. Endorsing an international legal standard is a minimum first step. The existing threshold of 15 years actually facilitates the recruitment and participation of even younger children, because in many cases age is determined by appearance rather than record. A minimum age of 18 would give more effective protection to children in their early teens. It would make possible much more definitive identification of forces violating the norm, enabling coordination of international pressure against them.

The international Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, launched in June 1998, is spearheaded by six prominent nongovernmental organizations: Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, International Federation Terre des Hommes, International Save the Children Alliance, Jesuit Refugee Service, and the Quaker U.N. Office in Geneva. The U.S. campaign is headed by the American Friends Service Committee, Amnesty International USA, the Center for Defense Information, Human Rights Watch, and Youth Advocate Program International. It has 36 other members as of early 1999 and is seeking additional organizational members to show a broad public consensus on the issue.

Even with the legal standard established, armies and rebel groups will continue to use children as soldiers until the penalties for doing so outweigh the military advantages. This means that identification of violators must be followed not only by public condemnation, but also by international pressures that have a real effect. Refraining from providing any military support to violators is a first step. International arms embargoes and sanctions that target military capacity in particular are further measures that could make a difference, if they were applied seriously rather than imposed simply as symbolic gestures.

What You Can Do:

[Note to non-U.S. readers: This posting, with action information appropriate for the U.S., is provided both for your background information on the issue and for possible forwarding to those of your U.S. contacts you think would be interested.]

  1. Contact President Clinton. Ask him to:
    • Support the international effort to establish 18 as the minimum age for military recruitment or participation in armed conflict;
    • Continue and increase U.S. financial support for rehabilitation of child soldiers, particularly in African countries;
    • Eliminate any U.S. military aid that facilitates the use of child soldiers by governments or rebel groups.

President Bill Clinton
The White House
Washington, DC 20500
White House comment line: (202) 456-1111

2. Write your two Senators. Remind them that the Senate last year approved an amendment (to the Defense Appropriations Act) calling on the U.S. not to block the drafting of a protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child establishing a minimum age of 18 for participation in armed conflict. Also express your concern that the United States is one of only two countries in the world that have not yet ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Urge your Senators to work for speedy ratification of the treaty.

Honorable ________
U.S. Senate
Washington, DC 20510

Capitol switchboard: (202) 224-3121

Send copies of your letters to your House member:

Honorable ________
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515

3. Encourage your congregation or other organization to join the U.S. Campaign to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. For information, contact:
Jo Becker, Human Rights Watch,
350 Fifth Avenue, 34th floor,
New York, NY 10118.
Fax: (212) 736-1300.
E-mail: <>.


 Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers:

 U.S. Campaign to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers:

 The report by Graca Machel on the impact of armed conflict on children (1996) is available at:

 Radda Barnen (Save the Children - Sweden) Documentation Centre on Child Soldiers:

This material is being reposted for wider distribution by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC). APIC's primary objective is to widen the policy debate in the United States around African issues and the U.S. role in Africa, by concentrating on providing accessible policy-relevant information and analysis usable by a wide range of groups and individuals.

URL for this file: