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U.S. weakens agreement prohibiting child soldiers


In Congo they’re known as kadogo or “the little ones.” In Colombia they’re called “little bees” because they sting before the enemy realizes it’s under attack. Paramilitaries call them “little bells” since they are usually deployed in outposts to warn adults of early attacks. These are just some of the names given to child soldiers currently participating in armed conflicts.

An estimated 300,000 children serve as soldiers around the world, sustaining far higher casualty rates than their adult counterparts and suffering serious psychological damage. In Columbia alone tens of thousands of children are being used as soldiers by all sides of the bloody conflict. U.S.-made lightweight weaponry has made it possible for them to participate in patrols, deactivate land mines and even take part in ambush attacks.

For years the United Nations has been trying to ban this pernicious phenomenon. In June a broad prohibition on the use of child soldiers was to be incorporated into a new international agreement on child labor, but in the concluding negotiations the restrictions were “diluted” by the United States.

According to Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, the U.S. government decided to sacrifice strong international protection for children in order to protect its own military recruitment policies. Clinton opposed the U.N. initiative so as to secure the position of 7,000 minors employed by the U.S. military.

Yet, as Becker persuasively points out, “recruits under the age of 18 are a negligible part of the U.S. armed forces, and there’s no reason that thousands of children around the world should be at risk just so the Pentagon won’t be inconvenienced.”

One only has to consider a few of the appalling testimonies found in Human Rights Watch’s reports on child soldiers to realize that the president’s decision to oppose the ban was criminal.

For example, “Scars of Death,” a 1997 report on Uganda opens with a testimony of 16-year-old Susan:

One boy tried to escape, but he was caught. They made him eat a mouthful of red pepper, and five people were beating him. His hands were tied, and then they made us, the other new captives, kill him with a stick. I felt sick. I knew this boy from before. We were from the same village. I refused to kill him, and they told me they would shoot me. They pointed a gun at me, so I had to do it. The boy was asking me, “Why are you doing this?” I said I had no choice. After we killed him, they made us smear his blood on our arms. I felt dizzy. There was another dead body nearby, and I could smell the body. I felt so sick. They said we had to do this so we would not fear death and so we would not try to escape.

The rebel army in Uganda abducted Susan. Like thousands of other children, she became a victim of the vicious cycle of violence between the brutal rebel group and the army of the Ugandan government.

The Human Rights Watch report suggests that after each raid, “the rebels take young children, often dragging them away from the dead bodies of their parents and siblings. The rebels prefer children of 14 to 16, but at times they abduct children as young as 8 or 9, boys and girls alike. They tie the children to one another and force them to carry heavy loads of looted goods as they march them off into the bush. Children who protest or resist are killed. Children who cannot keep up or become tired or ill are killed. Children who attempt to escape are killed.”

All of the children are trained as soldiers, taught to use guns and to march. Smaller children may be made to run errands, fetch water or cultivate the land; girls as young as 12 are given to rebel commanders as “wives.”

In Congo and Sierra Leone matters are not much better. Thousands of children are employed as soldiers. Kabila’s young “volunteers” have been seen in tattered clothes and in a precarious nutritional state. During the rebels’ January offensive in Sierra Leone almost 3,000 children were reported missing or abducted. Recent testimonies collected by Human Rights Watch indicate that some of these children are undergoing military training.

These facts did not deter the United States from pressuring the United Nations to accept an extremely narrow provision, which, according to Human Rights Watch’s Jo Becker, “fails to protect thousands of child soldiers who are lured or coerced into warfare.”

In his 1992 campaign Clinton emphatically stated that it’s time to put people first. Could he have forgotten that the Latino children and the black children living in what has become the forgotten continent of Africa are people, too?

Neve Gordon writes from Jerusalem and can be reached at ngordon@bgumail.bgu.ac.il

National Catholic Reporter, September 17, 1999