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Children soldiers: The most serious violation of children's rights

by Spiros Tzelepis

Some 300,000 under age 18 are said to be in armies around the world

child soldier 1

This year the world celebrates the tenth anniversary of the Rights of Children, and many lectures and conferences will be held because of this. People will gather to confirm these rights, and they are happy for this achievement. However, a large number of children do not have the chance to enjoy these written rights; I am referring to the children who are forced to join the army at an early age. I remember what Mr. Jeff Zucker from UNICEF said to me some months ago while I was interviewing him: "The most serious violation of the rights of children is the case of children soldiers".

Credit: UNICEF/hq 98-0545/Giacomo Pirozzi
Teenage soldier in Sierra Leone

This is an issue we rarely think of because we do not have such experiences in our countries, but whenever media highlights it we are all shocked. Today a very large number of children are forced to take part in various wars around the world:

The phenomenon of child soldiers is not new. Children have actively participated in wars since the ancient years(for example they were very active in Ancient Sparta, Greece). During the Second World War, 15-year-olds defended Berlin. Nowadays more and more take part in civil wars, and sometimes they are the first to take up guns. They are mainly from impoverished and marginalised backgrounds.

The reasons are many:

(See for some of these reasons in the Notes on the Final Report on the Impact of Armed Conflict on the children by Graca Machel, expert of the UN Secretary General)

There are three categories of children soldiers:

  1. Children are recruited legally in the national army of their countries where they are trained.
  2. They are recruited and fight in order to protect their village and family (Algeria, Mozambique)
  3. They are kidnapped from their communities by various teams which start as political fighters, then later turn to promote crime.

For the first category there is hope, but not for the other two.

The life of the children soldiers is a nightmare:

children soldier 2

Credit: Unicef/hq 98-0545/Giacomo Pirozzi
A 12 year-old child soldier in Sierra Leone

Many are shot or punished, strictly because they have made mistakes; they are injured as they are obliged to carry heavy loads; they suffer damage to their eyes and ears and are victims of sexually spread diseases; they are addicted to drugs; most of them have experienced and committed horror acts(guerrillas use them to attack their own families).

The most important consequence is that, since the only thing they know is to use arms, they cannot adapt to peace when it comes to their countries. In cases where the conflicts last for many years(Sierra Leone, Afghanistan) many of the guerrillas' leaders are ex-child soldiers. Some of the guerrillas who kidnap children in Sierra Leone were kidnapped themselves when the war started in 1991. Taliban leaders learned to fight as teenagers in the refugee camps in Pakistan.

(See A Peace and Security Agenda for children, February 1999, NY, UNICEF)

Conflicts in which children are involved are very difficult to stop.

In all the above cases children learn that crime is a kind of war and continue it.

The issue of child soldiers is recognized as a special chapter in negotiations for peace in many places around the world. Not only demobilization, but education, sanitary care and democratic breeding are topics for discussion as well.

Information taken from UN, UNICEF, AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL. I would like to thank Mrs Makri from the Greek department of UNICEF who provided the photos to me.

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Reconstruction: July-August-September 2002

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