Governments and armed groups that recruit children into their military ranks should no longer be allowed to “slip through the net,” French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy told a 5–6 February conference in Paris. He warned that such “lost children” represent a time bomb that could threaten stability and growth in Africa and beyond.
Mr. Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier from Sierra Leone, elaborated. If young ex-combatants are not rehabilitated, he said, they are at risk of becoming mercenaries. “They know how to use a gun. [If] there is a conflict next door offering $100 a day and all you can loot, they will go back to that.” While rehabilitating child soldiers is not easy, he cited his own experience: “I’m living proof that it is possible.” (See box.)
Called the Free Children from War conference, the event was organized by the French government and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Fifty-eight governments and dozens of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) signed a set of principles known as the Paris Commitments, in which they vowed to “spare no effort to end the unlawful recruitment or use of children by armed forces or groups in all regions of the world.”
The UN estimates that about 300,000 children (defined as those under 18 years of age) are currently engaged in military conflicts in a score of countries, nearly half of them in Africa. While the Paris Commitments are not legally binding, they do carry significant moral and political weight, conference participants noted. Foreign Minister Youssouf Bakayoko of Côte d’Ivoire called the agreement a “breakthrough.”
Ever since 1996, when Ms. Graça Machel, Mozambique’s former minister of education, submitted a major UN-commissioned report on the impact of conflict on children to the General Assembly, much of the campaign against recruiting child soldiers has been waged by the UN and NGOs.
But in Paris, for the first time, numerous governments signed on to that effort, including a number from countries where significant numbers of children still serve in military forces. The African signers, for example, included Burundi, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda.
“States bear the primary responsibility” for protecting children and reintegrating them into civilian life, argues the Paris Commitments document. Concretely, doing that includes identifying and securing the release of all children recruited by armed groups, “unconditionally at all times, including during armed conflict.” In other words, the act of freeing children from military service should not be dependent on a cease-fire or peace agreement, nor should armed groups be allowed to use the presence of children in their ranks to gain leverage in peace negotiations.
In addition, states the document, peace agreements must not grant amnesty to commanders or others who have recruited or committed other crimes against children. Governments and courts must seek to prosecute those guilty of such acts. Encouraging such efforts, the International Criminal Court announced just a week before the Paris conference that it was opening its first trial, that of a militia leader from the eastern DRC accused of recruiting child soldiers.
Meanwhile, the conference participants agreed, child soldiers who have committed crimes should not be regarded only as perpetrators, but “primarily as victims of violations against international law.” In line with international standards for juvenile justice, authorities should seek alternatives to judicial proceedings.
Attention to girls
The conference singled out the plight of girls, many of whom have been abducted by fighting forces to serve as domestic slaves, and who suffer rape and other sexual abuse and sometimes are compelled to fight. In some groups, girls make up 40 per cent of the children recruited, according to UN estimates.
“Girls in particular are forced to perform sexual services,” noted UNICEF Executive Director Ann Veneman. As a result, she added, they are deprived of “their rights and their childhood.” The Paris Commitments call on governments and other actors to “meet the specific needs of girls and their children for protection and assistance.”
For both girls and boys who have been freed from military service, long-term support is essential for their rehabilitation and reintegration, conference participants emphasized. Poor African countries often lack the resources to carry out the task on their own. “We are calling on the international community to assist us in reintegrating the child soldiers into society,” appealed Ms. Qamar Aden, president of Somalia’s parliamentary human rights committee. She estimated that some 70,000 children have been recruited by all sides in Somalia’s most recent conflict.
While some children may “voluntarily” join an armed group — usually to obtain food or protection — “no one is born violent,” Mr. Beah noted in Paris. “No child in Africa, Latin America or Asia wants to be part of war.”
Ishmael Beah was 12 years old when he was made homeless in 1993 by Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war. He was just a year older when he was given drugs and a gun by government soldiers and first sent into battle. After three years of fighting — both killing and being shot at — he was rescued from military service by UNICEF personnel. Sent to a rehabilitation centre, he struggled to regain his humanity. Reentering civilian life was not easy, since many in Sierra Leone viewed him and other former combatants with fear and suspicion. With most of his family dead, Mr. Beah departed for the US. Sometime after, he gave this magazine a harrowing account of his ordeal (see “The road from soldier back to child,” Africa Recovery, October 2001). At the time, he preferred not be identified by his real name, but as “Djibril Karim.” He was then taking courses at Oberlin College in Ohio and worried how his teachers and classmates would treat him if they knew he had once been a soldier.
Mr. Beah subsequently graduated from Oberlin (in 2004) and has been speaking publicly in his own name before the United Nations and numerous other groups. He became a member of the advisory committee of the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch. In early 2007, shortly before the Free Children from War conference in Paris, he published his memoirs, A Long Way Gone.* It is a well written, unsentimental and harrowing account of one boy soldier’s descent into — and escape from — hell. A rare firsthand account of war from the perspective of a child, the book has quickly become a nonfiction best seller.
* A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, by Ishmael Beah (Sarah Chrichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2007; 229 pp; hb $22)