12 February 2015 – On this International Day against the Use of Child Soldiers, also known as Red Hand Day, UNICEF and the UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict Leila Zerrougui call for urgent action to end grave violations against children including their recruitment by armed groups. Children are increasingly vulnerable as conflicts around the world become more brutal, intense and widespread. It is estimated that 300,000 children are today fighting as child soldiers in over 20 countries worldwide. Up to 40 per cent of them are girls.
“Out of 59 parties to conflict identified by the Secretary-General for grave violations against children, 57 are named because they are recruiting and usingchild soldiers”, noted Leila Zerrougui, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict.
On 25 May 2000, the General Assembly adopted the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict (OPAC) in order to protect children from recruitment and use in hostilities. It entered into force on 12 February 2002, the anniversary of which has ever since been marked as the International Day against the Use of Child Soldiers.
Additionally, the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict along with United Nations partners launched on 25 May 2010 the ‘Zero Under 18’ campaign to achieve universal ratification of the OPAC.
At present, 158 countries have ratified the protocol. Twenty-two countries have neither signed nor ratified it.
Investing in the future
But despite the progress made, children continue to be recruited by parties to conflicts in countries such as Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, and the Central African Republic. Sometimes aged only 8, the children are used as soldiers, cooks, messengers or even sex slaves. In the most extreme cases, they have been used as suicide bombers.
Recent conflicts in Iraq in Syria, including the advances by ISIL, have made children even more vulnerable to recruitment.
“The release of all children from armed groups must take place without delay. We cannot wait for peace to help children caught in the midst of war,” said UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Yoka Brandt.
“Investing in ways to keep children away from the frontlines, including through education and economic support, is absolutely critical to their future and the future of their societies.”