|United Nations Association of Greater Oklahoma City
|By now, the problem is well-known. Thanks to
the good work of many UN agencies and civil
society organizations, awareness of the problem of
child soldiers is widespread. We know about the
kidnappings, the coercion, etc. The alarm has been
raised by international NGO's like Human Rights
Watch, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, Invisible Children, Resolve, and others. The public at large is
beginning to recognize that the forced conscription of children is a part of the larger tragedy of human trafficking.
Unfortunately -- despite this growing recognition -- not enough is being done to rescue and reintegrate child soldiers
into civil society and to prevent their recruitment in the first place. There is much more to be accomplished, and you
and I have an important role to play.
First, it may be good to review the progress that has been made in the last 20 years.
It is satisfying to know that the problem of children in armed conflict has gained
widespread attention, and there is a growing international consensus that child
soldiers deserve special protection.
Actually, we can go back more than 20 years -- to November, 1989 -- when the
Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was adopted by a vote of the United
Nations General Assembly. The CRC is the world's best effort to address the
human rights of children and to set minimum standards for their protection.
There are specific prohibitions on the exploitation of children, and special
protections are offered for children in vulnerable situations. It has been approved
by more governments than any other human rights instrument in history -- but, to
our shame and disappointment, it has not yet been ratified by the United States.
(Read more about the Convention on the Rights of the Child at our "Children's Day" page).
In May, 2000, in response to a recommendation from the International Red Cross and other credible observers, the
General Assembly expanded the CRC by adopting the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed
Conflict. The Optional Protocol came into effect on February 12, 2002 -- a date which is remembered each year as
"Red Hand Day."
The protocol requires ratifying governments to ensure that children under the age of 18 cannot be
conscripted into their armed forces. Further, they agree to "...take all feasible measures to ensure
that members of their armed forces who have not attained the age of 18 years do not take a direct
part in hostilities." Non-state actors and guerrilla forces are forbidden from recruiting anyone
under the age of 18 for any purpose.
Currently, 159 nations are party to this protocol. The United States signed the agreement in July,
2000, and it was ratified by the U.S. Senate in December, 2002.
Regrettably, though, there are some hold-out nations. As a result, the UN's Office of the Special Representative of the
Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict has launched a campaign for universal ratification of the Optional
The Secretary-General believes that, "Universal ratification will establish a moral consensus that no child should take
part in hostilities, be involuntarily recruited and that former child soldiers should be assisted by their governments
after a life of violence and distress."
More information about the universal
ratification campaign can be found at
While the UN General Assembly has done
its part to adopt these international instru-
ments and place them before the world
community, the CRC and the Optional
Protocol do not guarantee compliance by
individual nations. Some nations have
skirted around the Protocol. In some cases, policy leaders at the national level have lacked a proper understanding of
the international requirements. Sometimes, they have lacked the technical capacity to ensure compliance. (Even in
the United States, some policy leaders have failed to give whole-hearted support to the protection of child soldiers --
please keep reading).
To bolster the Optional Protocol, UNICEF convened an international conference in 2007 to tackle the problem of child
soldiers and to harness the political will to confront it. Fifty-eight nations attended the conference, which convened in
“What this conference has shown is that there is a great deal of political commitment to ending
the unlawful recruitment of children,” said Rima Salah, UNICEF Deputy Executive Director.
“What needs to be done now is to harness this commitment and turn it into concrete action on the
ground that protects children from recruitment and supports those already recruited to overcome
their experiences and reenter their communities.” (Source: www.sangam.org)
The conference produced a set of detailed guidelines -- called the Paris Principles -- for protecting
children from recruitment and for providing effective assistance to those already involved with
“What we have learned in our years of experience, and what was discussed here in Paris, is that while it is critical to
address global legal responses to the issue of child soldiers, these actions must be accompanied by social support for
affected children,” Salah said. “Because you will never end recruitment if you do not address the social factors that
lead to their recruitment in the first place.”
Governments at the conference also committed themselves to make every effort to uphold and apply the Paris
Principles wherever possible in their political, diplomatic, humanitarian and funding roles.
Ninety-five nations have signed the Paris Principles. The number is growing over time. But, so far, the signature of
a representative from the United States has been missing.
American reluctance to sign the Principles may be because of the case of Omar Khadr -- a child soldier who was
recruited by a terrorist group in Afghanistan. Khadr was captured by U.S. forces in 2002,
following a firefight in which he was badly wounded.
You can read Khadr's story online. Wikipedia has a good synopsis.
In a nutshell, Khadr was placed into the military detention camp at Guantanamo Bay. He was
tried by a military tribunal, and in October, 2010, he was found guilty of the battlefield death
of a U.S. soldier. He was sentenced to 8 additional years of imprisonment.
The Khadr case is an embarrassing episode for many Americans because it demonstrates that
our government -- although it gives words of support for the rights of child soldiers -- is
nevertheless capable of ignoring those same rights.
Anthony Lake, the Executive Director of UNICEF and a former U.S. national security adviser, was opposed to the
trial of Omar Khadr from the outset. He said: "Anyone prosecuted for offences they allegedly committed as a child
should be treated in accordance with international juvenile justice standards providing special protections. Omar Khadr
should not be prosecuted by a tribunal that is neither equipped nor required to provide these protections and meet these
Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN secretary-general's special
representative for children and armed conflict, commented
that the Khadr case represented the "...classic child soldier
narrative: recruited by unscrupulous groups to undertake
actions at the bidding of adults to fight battles they barely
She called for Khadr to be released into rehabilitation.
In some ways, U.S. policy on the subject of child combatants has been ambivalent -- reflecting a lack of deep
commitment to the rights of child soldiers. A couple of examples illustrate this inconsistency.
First, there is the example of the Child Soldier Prevention Act. This Act -- part of the comprehensive Trafficking
Victims Protection Reauthorization Act -- was unanimously approved by the United States Senate and House of
Representatives in December, 2008.
The law requires the State Department to identify foreign governments that recruit or use children in violation of
existing international standards. It provides that all forms of U.S. military assistance to those countries will be
ended if there is not positive action to release the children within their ranks.
The Child Soldier Prevention Act is a good, sensible measure. But, it carries a loophole. It allows the president to
make an exception under certain circumstances. Using that loophole, in October of 2010, President Obama granted
a waiver of the law with respect to child soldiers in Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and
The president's controversial announcement surprised many human rights groups, and it drew immediate criticism
from them. You can read a good account of the uproar on the Foreign Policy website ... here.
So, although there is widespread public support for a prohibition on the use of child soldiers, there does not seem to
be a corresponding level of enthusiasm among our national leaders. Whereas support for the protection of child
soldiers should be whole-hearted and unconditional, the White House has demonstrated only a mild commitment.
A second example of ambivalence among American policy leaders is the reluctance of our own Senator Tom Coburn.
You may recall that in March, 2010, he was at the center of a nationwide campaign to gain passage of the LRA
Disarmament & Northern Uganda Recovery
Act. The Act -- which provided funds for
the rehabilitation of victims of the notorious
Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), an infamous
exploiter of children -- was held up by
Senator Coburn. His office in downtown
Oklahoma City became the center of a
peaceful vigil stretching over ten days.
Laren Poole, co-founder of Invisible
Children, wrote an account of the protest
demonstration which was published on the
Huffington Post website.
Ultimately, Senator Coburn lifted his hold.
The funding was approved. Yet, Senator
Coburn's willingness to obstruct aid for
exploited children sends us a signal. It
demonstrates, again, that our elected officials sometimes fail to support the rights of children as a top priority.
But, there is another, more important lesson to be learned from this episode, as well. That is, elected officials can be
responsive to the sentiments of the public. At times, our public officials need to feel pressure from the voters. They
may even welcome it. Public policy decisions are never made in a vacuum. The more the public speaks up for the
rights of exploited children, the more likely those rights are to be honored.
|United Nations Association of the USA
Greater Oklahoma City Chapter
P.O. Box 60856
Oklahoma City, OK 73146-0856
The Problem of Child Soldiers
Children in Armed Conflict Need Protection --
The United Nations is helping to
build an international consensus,
but are governments doing enough?
How You Can Help
Hands linked, former child
soldiers make their way onto an
airplane in which they are being
evacuated by UNICEF, from a
combat zone in southern Sudan.
(Photo by UNICEF)
Omar Khadr, age 14
|"The recruitment and use of
children in hostilities is a war
crime, and those who are
responsible – the adult
recruiters – should be
prosecuted. The children
involved are victims, acting
--Anthony Lake, UNICEF
A 262-hour demonstration in front of Senator Tom Coburn's office in
Oklahoma City ended when "Dr. No" agreed to release his hold on the
LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act.
(Photo: Invisible Children)
Here are 5 suggestions --
(1) Organize a Red Hand Day activity
at your school, church, place of work,
etc. See the Red Hand Day website for
ideas ... www.redhandday.org
(2) Support U.S. ratification of the
Convention on the Rights of the Child
(CRC). Find more information here ...
(3) Support Universal Ratification of
the Optional Protocol on the Involve-
ment of Children in Armed Conflict.
See this "America.gov" blog entry ...
Armed Conflicts Are No Place for
(4) Become active in your local chapter
of the UN Association. We need
volunteers who are willing to become
champions for children's rights. Contact
our president, Bill Bryant, if you're
interested in pursuing this opportunity:
phone ... (405) 760-5322;
email ... firstname.lastname@example.org.
(5) Check out UNICEF's webpage on
the Protection for Children in Conflict
UNICEF: Renewed commitment to ending recruitment
of child soldiers
In this video, UNICEF Advocate for
Children Affected by War, Ishmael
Beah discusses why it's important
to provide practical options for
children at risk of being recruited
into armed conflict.
About 90 seconds
UNICEF: The Paris Principles: agreement to end the
use of children in war.
An advocacy video on child recruitment into armed conflict,
release and reintegration developed by UNICEF and
partners of the Paris Principles Steering Group.
About 4 minutes
UNICEF: Red Hand Day urges end to child
Children from 101 countries have appealed to
international leaders to take stronger action to
end the use of child soldiers.
About 2 minutes
Red Hand Campaign
Former child soldiers and other youth from around the
world have gathered more than 250,000 red hands as
part of a campaign to demand stronger action by
international leaders to end the use of child soldiers.
Jo Becker, Childrens Rights Advocacy Director for Human
Rights Watch, reports.
About 3 minutes
What can you do to
help protect children
in violent conflicts?
The Metropolitan Library System has a
video on the subject of child soldiers.
It is part of our DVD video series,
“What’s Going On?” Find out more ... ...