Get AfricaFocus Bulletin by e-mail!
Print this page
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 Please note that many outdated links in this archived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
Issue Areas: +security/peace+ +US policy focus+
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.
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: email@example.com; Web: http://www.woaafrica.org
"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
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
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
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
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.]
- Contact President Clinton. Ask him to:
- Support the international effort to establish 18 as the
minimum age for military recruitment or participation in
- Continue and increase U.S. financial support for
rehabilitation of child soldiers, particularly in African
- 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.
Washington, DC 20510
Capitol switchboard: (202) 224-3121
Send copies of your letters to your House member:
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
Jo Becker, Human Rights Watch,
350 Fifth Avenue, 34th floor,
New York, NY 10118.
Fax: (212) 736-1300.
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