In a major policy shift, the United States agreed for the first time to end the deployment of minors into combat. During previous negotiations, the US had vigorously opposed the eighteen year age minimum.
"This treaty could really make a difference to hundreds of thousands of children around the world," said Jo Becker, Children's Rights Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch. "For the first time, governments have agreed that the use of children in war is simply unacceptable."
The organization also noted that the accord marks the first time the United States has ever agreed to change its practices in order to support a human rights standard. In other cases, notably the Landmine Ban Treaty, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and other human rights treaties, the US has either refused to ratify, or has entered reservations to exempt the US from any requirements that exceed US law.
The US armed forces currently accept seventeen-year-old volunteers with parental permission. In recent years, it has deployed 17-year-old troops to conflicts in Somalia, Bosnia and the Gulf war. However, there are fewer than 3,000 seventeen-year-olds serving among the 1.2 million US active duty force.
By establishing eighteen as the minimum age for participation in armed conflict, the new treaty corrects an anomaly in international law regarding children's rights. Although the Convention on the Rights of the Child firmly establishes eighteen as the dividing line between childhood and adulthood, existing standards have allowed children to be legally recruited and sent into combat at age fifteen.
Human Rights Watch also noted that the eighteen-year minimum offers greater protection to younger children currently recruited by armed groups, particularly in areas where birth or age documentation is not readily available, and younger children are frequently deemed eligible for military service based on appearance alone.
The accord takes the form of an optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The Convention has been ratified by every country except the United States and the collapsed state of Somalia. However, a special agreement was reached to insert language allowing any country to ratify the protocol, regardless of whether it has ratified the Convention itself.
"Many concessions were made to accommodate the United States," said Becker. "The US should now move quickly to ratify and implement the agreement." The organization also urged ratification of the underlying Convention on the Rights of the Child.
In addition to banning children under the age of eighteen from direct participation in armed conflict, the protocol sets eighteen as the minimum age for compulsory recruitment and prohibits rebel and other non-governmental armed groups from recruiting children under the age of eighteen or using them in hostilities. It also requires states to cooperate in the demobilization of child soldiers, and to assist in their rehabilitation and reintegration.
Human Rights Watch stated that the primary weakness of the protocol was its failure to establish eighteen as the minimum age for voluntary recruitment. Although recognizing that children under age eighteen are entitled to special protections, the text allows states to recruit volunteers as young as sixteen. Based on research in conflict areas, the organization has concluded that the most effective way of preventing the use of children in armed conflicts is to ensure that they are not recruited.
An estimated 300,000 children under the age of eighteen are currently participating in armed conflicts around the world. Human Rights Watch has investigated the use of children as soldiers in countries such as Uganda, Sudan, Sierra Leone, Colombia, Angola, Liberia and Lebanon. It has documented the use of children on the front lines of combat, as well as their use as porters, spies, guides, and in the case of many girls, as sexual slaves to military commanders.
Human Rights Watch chairs the international Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, which was formed in 1998 specifically to campaign for a ban on the use of child soldiers.
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