UN treaty seeks to ban use of child soldiers

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The campaign to end the use of child soldiers took a big step forward yesterday when an international treaty signed by 94 countries came into force.

Mary Robinson, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, who attended a special ceremony in Geneva to mark the event, said the treaty crowned years of effort "to fight one of the major causes of human rights violations in the world". It seeks to ban the use in the front line of children aged under 18.

Human rights officials say that, whereas children were used to make up troop shortages in the past, in parts of the world they are being recruited for the advantages they offer. "They are cheap, obedient and can be easily brainwashed to commit acts of extreme violence," said Rory Mungoven, co-ordinator of the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers.

Despite the huge numbers of child soldiers, particularly in Africa, Mr Mungoven said the treaty marked a turning point in the battle to stamp out the practice. In Liberia, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the situation deteriorated every time fighting flared. But in other regions, notably Central America and the Middle East, there had been improvements.

Other human rights activists in Africa believe the treaty will be difficult to enforce. Silas Sinyigaya, executive secretary of the Federation of Human Rights Leagues and Associations in Rwanda, said: "In principle it is a very important step forward in this region as it sets an international standard for governments and armed groups. That is valuable in itself. But it's true that in reality it will be very difficult to monitor."

The new treaty was approved by the UN General Assembly in 2000 as an additional protocol to the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, which had set the minimum age for child soldiers at 15. But while it bars the drafting of under-18s and their use as fighting troops, it stops short of setting 18 as the minimum age for voluntary recruitment.