Jenny Kuper: We have finally begun to care about child soldiers

In the First World War, scores of children under 18 were shot at dawn for falling asleep on duty
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The Independent Online

Throughout human history, children have been the unrecorded, and often unlamented, victims of warfare. They have been traumatised and abused, both as conscripted soldiers and as civilians caught up in the devastation wreaked by war. But now, finally, attention is being paid to their unmerited suffering.

Throughout human history, children have been the unrecorded, and often unlamented, victims of warfare. They have been traumatised and abused, both as conscripted soldiers and as civilians caught up in the devastation wreaked by war. But now, finally, attention is being paid to their unmerited suffering.

Last week, for example, revealed a number of instances, both here and abroad, of this welcome new concern. The Deepcut inquiry, for example, by the Adult Learning Inspectorate, released a scathing report on UK armed forces' training establishments. That report followed hard on the heels of a highly critical report by the Commons Defence Select Committee which also described an army culture that was secretive and paid insufficient attention to the welfare of young recruits. The committee called for the establishment of an independent military complaints commission that could investigate bullying.

Abroad, an internal United Nation report was published which described a pattern of rape and sexual abuse perpetrated by UN peacekeepers in countries where, ironically, they were sent to restore order, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, East Timor, Cambodia, Bosnia, Sierra Leone and Haiti. Many of the victims of this abuse are children, sometimes orphans, who are exchanging sex for small amounts of food, money, or jobs.

And, on Friday, a conference in the Hague brought together the chief prosecutor for the new International Criminal Court (ICC); the deputy prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, and the prosecutor for the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL). The topic of this conference was - astonishingly - International Criminal Accountability and the Rights of Children.

One factor that has helped tip the balance towards recognising the abuse of children in war, both as soldiers and non-combatants, has been changing social values. For example, while it was once acceptable to treat young British recruits and soldiers extremely harshly - and indeed in the First World War scores of soldiers under 18 were shot at dawn for falling asleep on duty or running away - this is no longer the case. At least the Ministry of Defence has has made some progress.

Another factor, that is both a cause and a result of the shift in society's attitudes towards children, was the adoption, in 1989, of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). This quite comprehensive set of international rules relating to children outlines their various economic, social, cultural, civil and political entitlements - both in times of peace and in armed conflict.

The CRC has been almost universally ratified, the only non-ratifying countries at this point being Somalia (which has not had a functioning government for most of the lifetime of the CRC), and the US (which is a very long story). Interestingly, the CRC defines a child, broadly, as anyone aged under 18 - and a substantial proportion of the world's population (and indeed the majority population in some countries) falls into this category.

Largely as a result of initiatives taken under the umbrella of the 1989 CRC, the UN has begun to take notice of children in armed conflict. The Security Council now has an annual day of discussion on this issue - and it has recently taken the hitherto unimaginable step of naming countries that use child soldiers and proposing measures both to sanction those countries and to put in place a monitoring system to track the situation of children involved in various armed conflicts, whether as civilians or combatants.

The international criminal tribunals also are no longer lagging behind. The ICC has selected, as the subject of its first investigations, two armed conflicts that are characterised by massive violations committed against children: those in Northern Uganda and in the DRC. At the recent conference in The Hague, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, the chief prosecutor, emphasised that in his current cases child soldiers are a big issue. He also talked about the measures the ICC is taking to encourage the participation of child witnesses and to protect them before, during and after giving evidence.

David Crane, the SCSL prosecutor, was even more unequivocal. He asserted that one of the guiding principles of his work has been: "If you go after women and children, you will pay the price." And, indeed, he has put this principle into practice in Sierra Leone and been responsible for some ground-breaking cases against those who seemed, not very long ago, to be completely beyond the reach of international - or indeed national - law.

It is encouraging to find that the endless meetings in international organisations such as the UN do sometimes bear fruit. And that their justified concerns are finding their way to some of the most remote regions of the world and to some of the most forgotten victims of violence.

The writer's book 'Military Training and Children in Armed Conflict: Law, Policy and Practice' is published this month by Martinus Nijhoff

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