African, Asian and South American nations where child fighters have been used in war endorsed a new international agreement Tuesday that commits them to stopping the practice and punishing those who recruit youngsters as combatants.
Some nations hailed the text, which carries moral but no legal weight, as a breakthrough. But others said it may be no more than empty promises and that more than words are needed to rehabilitate children mentally and physically scarred by war.
“We’ve lost a whole generation of children,” said Liberia’s deputy minister of education, Hawa Goll-Kotchi. “It’s scary.”
Sierra Leone, Liberia, Congo, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Sudan and Somalia — just some of the nations where children have been recruited as fighters — were among nearly 60 countries that approved the so-called Paris Commitments, although it was not formally signed. All 27 nations of the European Union also endorsed the text.
The U.S. government did not participate in the conference. The State Department said the administration objected to some of the wording of the documents, but added that the U.S. remained committed to its treaty obligations to prevent the use of children in combat.
At least 250,000 boys and girls are believed to still be fighting in about a dozen conflicts worldwide, according to the United Nations. They are used as soldiers, messengers, spies and porters and sometimes forced to provide sexual services.
A call to ‘spare no effort’
The document requires its backers to “spare no effort” to end the use of soldiers younger than 18 and stipulates that countries must demobilize underage fighters, even during wartime. It also says that anyone who recruits children may not receive amnesty under peace agreements.
Ivory Coast’s foreign minister, Youssouf Bakayoko, called the pledge a “breakthrough.”
“Countries will now have to do their all to make sure this text is respected,” he told The Associated Press.
Ivory Coast was one of seven countries monitored under a 2005 U.N. Security Council resolution aimed at preventing child recruitment. The West African nation has been split between the government-controlled south and rebel-held north since a failed coup in 2002 sparked a civil war.
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy insisted the document is more than just “good words” and “will have a great political value.”
Others were less optimistic.
Former child soldier Ishamel Beah, who made an emotional appeal Monday for strong action to keep children from returning to battle, told AP he fears the text will prove just more “empty promises.”
Some have doubts
“It’s more concrete than past documents and that’s good, but I’m worried it won’t be properly applied,” said Beah, who at 13 joined an armed faction after his mother, father and two brothers were killed in Sierra Leone’s civil war in the 1990s.
On Monday, the now 26-year-old Beah told delegates from 58 countries and about 100 international agencies and non-governmental groups that once he started fighting, “taking a gun and shooting someone was as easy as drinking a glass of water.”
He pleaded for rehabilitation programs to help former child soldiers recover from the trauma of the battlefield. Beah himself went through such a program in Sierra Leone’s capital. He now lives in New York and has written a book about his experiences.
Participants at the conference also drafted another text — a guideline that gives governments, aid groups and educators concrete recommendations on how best to prevent the recruitment of children and reintegrate former child soldiers into society.
The 31-page document urges caregivers to try to rekindle former fighters’ family bonds and offer a wide range of educational and vocational training, from literacy classes to apprenticeships.
Goll-Kotchi, the Liberian deputy minister, said the guidelines are a good step but she is skeptical about the recommendations and holds little hope for rehabilitating many former fighters.
She said Liberia, which is recovering from a 1989-2003 civil war, is grappling with how to return former child soldiers to civilian life. Reinsertion programs like those recommended in the guidelines often create more problems than they solve, she said.
“In communities where the former child soldiers are going through rehabilitation there’s a lot of resentment, because people think it’s unfair these kids are being rewarded for killing and destroying property while their children get nothing,” Goll-Kotchi said.
An estimated 95,000 former child soldiers have taken part in recent demobilization programs in countries from Asia to Latin America, including Afghanistan, Haiti, Somalia, Sri Lanka and Congo.
The recommendations also focus on strategies to help girls, who account for nearly 40 percent of recruits in certain armed groups and are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse, conference organizers said.
Such girls are frequently rejected by their families and have an especially hard time returning to society. They also have regularly been overlooked in prior rehabilitation programs the world over, organizers said.
As a way of combating such treatment, the guidelines recommend hiring female staffers throughout the rehabilitation process and making reproductive health care facilities available at rehab sites.
Last week, the International Criminal Court took up the issue of child soldiers by ordering Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga be tried on charges of recruiting children and sending them to kill and be killed in a bloody tribal conflict. The court, set up in 2002, has expanded its definition of war crimes to include the drafting of children under age 15 into armed conflict.