March of the child soldiers

From Colombia to Congo, children as young as eight are being brutalised in combat, reports Katherine Butler
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AS MANY AS 300,000 children, some as young as eight, are in active combat around the world in government forces or armed rebel groups, and the numbers are rising at an alarming rate, according to human rights groups. They want Britain and other European governments to set an example by raising their own military recruitment ages to 18, saying the recruitment of anyone younger is a form of child abuse.

Thousands of young children are being killed, maimed, and psychologically scarred in conflicts in Congo (formerly Zaire) Colombia, Sudan, Liberia, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, according to research put before the European Parliament last week by a coalition campaigning for a universal "straight- 18" rule for armed forces. The UN is investigating claims that children as young as 13 may have been used by both sides as spies or reconnaissance agents in Kosovo this autumn.

Lawfully recruited, kidnapped or coerced into service, many children start out as porters or spies, but end up on the front line. As well as the obvious risks of death or injury, some suffer deformed backs and shoulders from carrying heavy weapons, although the proliferation of lightweight automatic weapons is making it easier to force very young children into combat. Girls are frequently recruited to "serve" soldiers at bases, making sexually-transmitted diseases an everyday hazard.

Shocking accounts of how minors are brutalised to prepare them for combat have emerged. In Liberia, where child soldiers have been the most tragic victims of the civil war, Human Rights Watch researchers reported initiation ceremonies in which boys were forced to kill people or rape women in public, both to demonstrate their bravery and to break down the traditional respect for elders. Some were forced to take part in gang rapes, witness the execution of members of their family or applaud while witnessing torture.

The use of drugs to control the children was prevalent. One 13-year-old boy told researchers, "They gave me pills that made me crazy. When the craziness got in my head I beat people and hurt them until they bled." Attempts to rehabilitate former child soldiers have shown that some did not understand the consequences of what they had been involved in. One 14-year-old told a psychologist: "I killed, but I ain't killed that much."

A Human Rights Watch investigation in Colombia has found that 30 per cent of guerrilla units are made up of children, some as young as eight. Both they and the security forces routinely recruit children for combat - guerrillas call them "little bees", because they are able to sting before their targets realise they are under attack. To control their fear they drink milk mixed with gunpowder.

Another account came from Uganda, where thousands of children have been abducted to fight with the Sudanese-backed Lord's Resistance Army. "One boy tried to escape, but he was caught. Five people were beating him. Then they made us and the other new captives kill him with a stick. I felt sick. After we killed him they made us smear his blood on our arms." This was the experience of a girl of 16.

While the plight of child soldiers in lawless and chaotic Third World conflicts cannot be compared to that of 17-year-olds recruited by governments in the West, campaigners believe that by refusing to raise their own minimum recruitment ages, Western governments such as Britain and the US are part of the problem.

A Ministry of Defence spokesman said Britain wanted to keep the minimum age for deployment in hostilities at 17. "We think that to raise it above that would be damaging to our operational capability. We are very careful to ensure that soldiers are fully trained both physically and mentally, but we believe 17 for deployment is a fine age. This is when young men and women are at the peak of their physical and mental abilities."

But for Lotte Leicht of Human Rights Watch, any country which objects to the straight-18 proposal is part of the problem. "If the British army is recruiting at 16 because it needs to catch young men at the peak of their physical fitness, then they are relying on the same arguments we hear from Kabila," she said. (Laurent Kabila, the ruler of Congo, has a regular army believed to include up to 20,000 child soldiers.) "European governments cannot lecture to the rest of the world unless they first clean up their own act."

The European Parliament has agreed to debate a resolution later this month calling on all EU governments to set the threshold for recruitment at 18. Internationally one of the biggest obstacles to the campaign is the US which, keen to continue recruiting at 17, has blocked progress on a protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Yet minors make up fewer than half of 1 per cent of the active US military.


WHILE the UN definition of a minor is anyone under 18, existing international law sets 15 as the minimum age for recruitment into armed forces and participation in hostilities, writes Katherine Butler. Under the new international treaty establishing the International Criminal Court, the use of soldiers aged under 15 is a war crime.

Britain is one of many Western countries which recruits soldiers at 16 (the Ministry of Defence specifies that it is 16 and a quarter). The first year is spent in training, but shortly after they are 17, Britain allows them into combat, the only EU country to do so. British soldiers under 18 fought and died in the Falklands and the Gulf War, although for duties in Northern Ireland soldiers must be 18.

The army likes to recruit young people straight from school, says the MoD, because they are still in "learning mode" and therefore attuned to training.

Forty-nine countries, including 13 of the 15 EU member states, still recruit under-18s into the armed forces. The youngest official recruitment age is 13 in Uganda; in Laos soldiers are conscripted into the army at 15. Germany uses 16-year-old border guards.