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  1. Patterns and characteristics of contemporary armed conflicts
  2. Violent conflict has always made victims of non-combatants. The patterns and characteristics of contemporary armed conflicts, however, have increased the risks for children. Vestiges of colonialism and persistent economic, social and political crises have greatly contributed to the disintegration of public order. Undermined by internal dissent, countries caught up in conflict today are also under severe stress from a global world economy that pushes them ever further towards the margins. Rigorous programmes of structural adjustment promise long-term market-based economic growth, but demands for immediate cuts in budget deficits and public expenditure only weaken already fragile States, leaving them dependent on forces and relations over which they have little control. While many developing countries have made considerable economic progress in recent decades, the benefits have often been spread unevenly, leaving millions of people struggling for survival. The collapse of functional Governments in many countries torn by internal fighting and the erosion of essential service structures have fomented inequalities, grievances and strife. The personalization of power and leadership and the manipulation of ethnicity and religion to serve personal or narrow group interests have had similarly debilitating effects on countries in conflict.
  3. All of these elements have contributed to conflicts, between Governments and rebels, between different opposition groups vying for supremacy and among populations at large, in struggles that take the form of widespread civil unrest. Many drag on for long periods with no clear beginning or end, subjecting successive generations to endless struggles for survival.
  4. Distinctions between combatants and civilians disappear in battles fought from village to village or from street to street. In recent decades, the proportion of war victims who are civilians has leaped dramatically from 5 per cent to over 90 per cent. The struggles that claim more civilians than soldiers have been marked by horrific levels of violence and brutality. Any and all tactics are employed, from systematic rape, to scorched-earth tactics that destroy crops and poison wells, to ethnic cleansing and genocide. With all standards abandoned, human rights violations against children and women occur in unprecedented numbers. Increasingly, children have become the targets and even the perpetrators of violence and atrocities.
  5. Children seek protection in networks of social support, but these have been undermined by new political and economic realities. Conflict and violent social change have affected social welfare networks between families and communities. Rapid urbanization and the spread of market-based values have also helped erode systems of support that were once based on the extended family.
  6. Unbridled attacks on civilians and rural communities have provoked mass exoduses and the displacement of entire populations who flee conflict in search of elusive sanctuaries within and outside their national borders. Among these uprooted millions, it is estimated that 80 per cent are children and women.
  1. Involving children as soldiers has been made easier by the proliferation of inexpensive light weapons. Previously, the more dangerous weapons were either heavy or complex, but these guns are so light that children can use them and so simple that they can be stripped and reassembled by a child of 10.

The international arms trade has made assault rifles cheap and widely available so the poorest communities now have access to deadly weapons capable of transforming any local conflict into a bloody slaughter. In Uganda, an AK-47 automatic machine gun can be purchased for the cost of a chicken and, in northern Kenya, it can be bought for the price of a goat.

  1. Moreover, the rapid spread of information today has changed the character of modern warfare in important ways. While the world surely benefits from ready access to information, it will pay a price if it fails to recognize that information is never entirely neutral. International media are frequently influenced by one or another of the parties to a conflict, by commercial realities and by the public’s degree of interest in humanitarian action. The result of these influences are depictions that can be selective or uneven, or both. Whether a story is reported or not may depend less on its intrinsic importance than on subjective perceptions of the public’s appetite for information and on the expense of informing them. For example, while coverage of the conflicts in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Somalia was extensive, very little has been reported about the conflicts in Afghanistan and Angola. The media is capable of effectively galvanizing international public support for humanitarian action, as it did for Indo-Chinese refugees in the late 1970s and for Somalia in 1992. The threat of adverse international publicity may also be positive, holding the potential for keeping some gross violations of human rights in check. Ultimately, however, while reports of starving children or overcrowded camps for displaced persons may be dramatic, they do little to support efforts for long-term reconstruction and reconciliation.
  3. Armed conflicts across and between communities result in massive levels of destruction; physical, human, moral and cultural. Not only are large numbers of children killed and injured, but countless others grow up deprived of their material and emotional needs, including the structures that give meaning to social and cultural life. The entire fabric of their societies – their homes, schools, health systems and religious institutions – are torn to pieces.
  4. War violates every right of a child – the right to life, the right to be with family and community, the right to health, the right to the development of the personality and the right to be nurtured and protected. Many of today’s conflicts last the length of a “childhood”, meaning that from birth to early adulthood, children will experience multiple and accumulative assaults. Disrupting the social networks and primary relationships that support children’s physical, emotional, moral, cognitive and social development in this way, and for this duration, can have profound physical and psychological implications.
  5. In countless cases, the impact of armed conflict on children’s lives remains invisible. The origin of the problems of many children who have been affected by conflicts is obscured. The children themselves may be removed from the public, living in institutions or, as is true of thousands of unaccompanied and orphaned children, exist as street children or become victims of prostitution. Children who have lost parents often experience humiliation, rejection and discrimination. For years, they may suffer in silence as their self-esteem crumbles away. Their insecurity and fear cannot be measured.
  6. This section of the report documents some of the most grave impacts of armed conflict on children. The presentation is not intended to be exhaustive, but to signal major concerns and to suggest practical steps for improvement. It attempts to demonstrate that the impact of armed conflict on children cannot be fully understood without looking at the related effects on women, families and communities. It strives to illustrate how children’s well-being is best ensured through family and community-based solutions to armed conflict and its aftermath, and that those solutions work best when they are based on local cultures and drawn from an understanding of child development. This section also emphasizes the importance of considerations of age – in particular, that adolescents have special needs and special strengths. Young people should be seen in that light; as survivors and active participants in creating solutions, not just as victims or problems.
  7. The discussion that follows necessarily includes specific examples. It is not an effort to single out specific groups, Governments, or non-state entities. Countries are named representatively and on the basis of what is widely known. In reality, the impact of armed conflict on children is an area in which everyone shares responsibility and a degree of blame.
  8. Child soldiers
  9. One of the most alarming trends in armed conflict is the participation of children as soldiers. Children serve armies in supporting roles, as cooks, porters, messengers and spies. Increasingly, however, adults are deliberately conscripting children as soldiers. Some commanders have even noted the desirability of child soldiers because they are “more obedient, do not question orders and are easier to manipulate than adult soldiers”. 3/
  10. A series of 24 case studies on the use of children as soldiers prepared for the present report, covering conflicts over the past 30 years, indicate that government or rebel armies around the world have recruited tens of thousands of children. Most are adolescents, though many child soldiers are 10 years of age or younger. While the majority are boys, girls also are recruited. The children most likely to become soldiers are those from impoverished and marginalized backgrounds and those who have become separated from their families.
  11. Recruitment
  12. Child soldiers are recruited in many different ways. Some are conscripted, others are press-ganged or kidnapped and still others are forced to join armed groups to defend their families. Governments in a few countries legally conscript children under 18, but even where the legal minimum age is 18, the law is not necessarily a safeguard. In many countries, birth registration is inadequate or non-existent and children do not know how old they are. Recruiters can only guess at ages based on physical development and may enter the age of recruits as 18 to give the appearance of compliance with national laws.
  13. Countries with weak administrative systems do not conscript systematically from a register. In many instances, recruits are arbitrarily seized from the streets or even from schools and orphanages. This form of press ganging, known in Ethiopia as “afesa”, was prevalent there in the 1980’s, when armed militia, police or army cadres would roam the streets picking up anyone they encountered. 4/ Children from poorer sectors of society are particularly vulnerable. Adolescent boys who work in the informal sector, selling cigarettes or gum or lottery tickets, are a particular target.

In Myanmar, whole groups of children from 15 to 17 years old have been surrounded in their schools and forcibly conscripted. 4/ Those who can subsequently prove they are under-age may be released, but not necessarily.

In all conflicts, children from wealthier and more educated families are at less risk. Often they are left undisturbed or are released if their parents can buy them out. Some children whose parents have the means are even sent out of the country to avoid the possibility of forced conscription.

  1. In addition to being forcibly recruited, youth also present themselves for service. It is misleading, however, to consider this voluntary. While young people may appear to choose military service, the choice is not exercised freely. They may be driven by any of several forces, including cultural, social, economic or political pressures.
  2. One of the most basic reasons that children join armed groups is economic. Hunger and poverty may drive parents to offer their children for service. In some cases, armies pay a minor soldier’s wages directly to the family. 5/ Child participation may be difficult to distinguish as in some cases whole families move with armed groups. Children themselves may volunteer if they believe that this is the only way to guarantee regular meals, clothing or medical attention. Some case studies tell of parents who encourage their daughters to become soldiers if their marriage prospects are poor. 6/
  3. As conflicts persist, economic and social conditions suffer and educational opportunities become more limited or even non-existent. Under these circumstances, recruits tend to get younger and younger. Armies begin to exhaust the supplies of adult manpower and children may have little option but to join. In Afghanistan, where approximately 90 per cent of children now have no access to schooling, the proportion of soldiers who are children is thought to have risen in recent years from roughly 30 to at least 45 per cent. 7/
  1. Some children feel obliged to become soldiers for their own protection. Faced with violence and chaos all around, they decide they are safer with guns in their hands. Often such children join armed opposition groups after experiencing harassment from government forces. Many young people have joined the Kurdish rebel groups, for example, as a reaction to scorched earth policies and extensive human rights violations. In El Salvador, children whose parents had been killed by government soldiers joined opposition groups for protection. In other cases, armed forces will pick up unaccompanied children for humanitarian reasons, although this is no guarantee that the children will not end up fighting. This is particularly true of children who stay with a group for long periods of time and come to identify it as their protector or “new family”.
  2. In some societies, military life may be the most attractive option.

Young people often take up arms to gain power and power can act as a very strong motivator in situations where people feel powerless and are otherwise unable to acquire basic resources. In many situations, war activities are glorified. In Sierra Leone, the expert met with child soldiers who proudly defended the number of “enemies” they had killed.

  1. The lure of ideology is particularly strong in early adolescence, when young people are developing personal identities and searching for a sense of social meaning. As the case of Rwanda shows, however, the ideological indoctrination of youth can have disastrous consequences. Children are very impressionable and may even be lured into cults of martyrdom. In Lebanon and Sri Lanka, for example, some adults have used young people’s immaturity to their own advantage, recruiting and training adolescents for suicide bombings. 8/ However, it is important to note that children may also identify with and fight for social causes, religious expression, self-determination or national liberation. As happened in South Africa or in occupied territories, they may join the struggle in pursuit of political freedom.
  2. How child soldiers are used
  3. Once recruited as soldiers, children generally receive much the same treatment as adults – including the often brutal induction ceremonies. Many start out in support functions which entail great risk and hardship. One of the common tasks assigned to children is to serve as porters, often carrying very heavy loads of up to 60 kilograms including ammunition or injured soldiers. Children who are too weak to carry their loads are liable to be savagely beaten or even shot. Children are also used for household and other routine duties. In Uganda, child soldiers have often done guard duty, worked in the gardens, hunted for wild fruits and vegetables and looted food from gardens and granaries. Children have also been used extensively in many countries as lookouts and messengers. While this last role may seem less life-threatening than others, in fact it puts all children under suspicion.

In Latin America, reports tell of government forces that have deliberately killed even the youngest children in peasant communities on the grounds that they, too, were dangerous. 9/

  1. Although the majority of child soldiers are boys, armed groups also recruit girls, many of whom perform the same functions as boys. In Guatemala, rebel groups use girls to prepare food, attend to the wounded and wash clothes. Girls may also be forced to provide sexual services. In Uganda, girls who are abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army are “married off” to rebel leaders. 10/ If the man dies, the girl is put aside for ritual cleansing and then married off to another rebel.
  2. A case study from Honduras illustrates one child’s experience of joining an armed group:

“At the age of 13, I joined the student movement. I had a dream to contribute to make things change, so that children would not be hungry … later I joined the armed struggle. I had all the inexperience and the fears of a little girl. I found out that girls were obliged to have sexual relations ‘to alleviate the sadness of the combatants’. And who alleviated our sadness after going with someone we hardly knew? At my young age I experienced abortion. It was not my decision. There is a great pain in my being when I recall all these things … In spite of my commitment, they abused me, they trampled my human dignity. And above all, they did not understand that I was a child and that I had rights.” 11/

  1. While children of both sexes might start out in indirect support functions, it does not take long before they are placed in the heat of battle.

Here, their inexperience and lack of training leave them particularly exposed.

The youngest children rarely appreciate the perils they face. A number of case studies report that when the shelling starts the children get over­excited and forget to take cover. Some commanders deliberately exploit such fearlessness in children, even plying them with alcohol or drugs. A soldier in Myanmar recalls:   “There were a lot of boys rushing into the field,

screaming like banshees. It seemed like they were immortal, or impervious, or something, because we shot at them but they just kept coming.” 12/

  1. The progressive involvement of youth in acts of extreme violence desensitizes them to suffering. In a number of cases, young people have been deliberately exposed to horrific scenes. Such experience makes children more likely to commit violent acts themselves and may contribute to a break with society. In many countries, including Afghanistan, Mozambique, Colombia and Nicaragua, children have even been forced to commit atrocities against their own families or communities.
  2. Demobilization and re-integration into society
  3. Clearly one of the most urgent priorities is to remove everyone under 18 years of age from armed forces. No peace treaty to date has formally recognized the existence of child combatants. As a result, their special needs are unlikely to be taken into account in demobilization programmes. In Mozambique, for example, where recruitment of children was well known, child soldiers were not recognized in demobilization efforts by the ResisteAncia Nacional de Moc’ambique (RENAMO), the Government or the international community. Official acknowledgement of children’s part in a war is a vital step. Peace agreements and related documents should incorporate provisions for the demobilization of children; without this recognition, there can be no effective planning or programming on a national scale.
  4. The process of reintegration must help children to establish new foundations in life based on their individual capacities. Former child soldiers have grown up away from their families and have been deprived of many of the normal opportunities for physical, emotional and intellectual development. As article 39 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child emphasizes, recovery and reintegration should take place in an environment that fosters the health, self-respect and dignity of the child.
  5. Reintegration programmes must re-establish contact with the family and the community. Even children who are successfully reunited with their families, however, have little prospect of smoothly taking up life as it was before. A formerly cheerful 12-year-old may return home as a sullen 16-year-old who feels newly assertive and independent. Reunification may be particularly difficult for girl soldiers who have been raped or sexually abused, in part because cultural beliefs and attitudes can make it very difficult for them to stay with their families or to have any prospects of marriage. With so few alternatives, many children have eventually become victims of prostitution.
  6. In many cases, reunification is impossible. Families may have perished in the conflict or may be untraceable. For some children, a transitional period of collective care may be necessary. Institutional approaches have proven ineffective, but one way to provide such care is through peer-group living arrangements that are strongly integrated into communities.
  7. Effective social reintegration depends upon support from families and communities. But families are also worn down by conflict, both physically and emotionally, and face increased impoverishment. The field visits and research for the present report repeatedly stressed the importance of links between education, vocational opportunities for former child combatants and the economic security of their families. These are most often the determinants of successful social reintegration and, importantly, they are the factors that prevent re-recruitment.
  8. Education, and especially the completion of primary schooling, must be a high priority. For a former child soldier, education is more than a route to employment. It also helps to normalize life and to develop an identity separate from that of the soldier. The development of peer relationships and improved self-esteem may also be facilitated through recreational and cultural activities. A difficulty to be faced is the likelihood that former combatants may have fallen far behind in their schooling, and may be placed in classes with much younger children. Specific measures may be required, such as establishing special classes for former child soldiers who can then progressively be reintegrated into regular schools.
  9. Many teachers and parents may object to having ex-combatants enrol in schools, fearing that they will have a disruptive effect. Programmes must address these wider community concerns. In some African cultures, strong spiritual convictions hold that anyone who has killed is haunted by the evil spirits of the victims. Thus, to accept a former child soldier into one’s village is to accept evil spirits. In such a context, programmes for re-entry into the community have effectively involved traditional healers in “cleansing” and other processes.
  10. For older children especially, effective education will require strong components of training in life-skills and vocational opportunity. Preparing older children to find employment will not only help them survive, but may also facilitate their acceptance at home and provide them with a sense of meaning and identity.
  11. Child soldiers may find it difficult to disengage from the idea that violence is a legitimate means of achieving one’s aims. Even where the experience of participating in “the cause” has been positive, as was often the case for youth who identified with and drew meaning from their part in the struggle against apartheid, the transition to a non-violent lifestyle will be difficult. This is particularly true where the frustrations of poverty and injustice remain. The challenge for Governments and civil society is to channel the energy, ideas and experience of youth into contributing in positive ways to the creation of their new, post-conflict society.
  12. Preventing future recruitment
  13. The research conducted for this study uncovered many practical steps to be taken to prevent future recruitment. First, Governments should work for the finalization and rapid adoption of the draft optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on involvement of children in armed conflicts. Next, Governments must pay much closer attention to their methods of recruitment, and in particular, they must renounce the practice of forced recruitment. They should ensure that all children are registered at birth and receive documentation of age. To be certain that these measures succeed, Governments must establish effective monitoring systems and back them up with legal remedies and institutions that are sufficiently strong to tackle abuses.

For example, in Guatemala in May and June of 1995, the human rights ombudsman’s office intervened in 596 cases of forced recruitment of youth. As a result, 148 children under the age of 18 were released.

  1. The recruitment of children can be minimized if local communities are aware of national and international laws governing the age of recruitment and if they are sufficiently organized and determined. In El Salvador, Guatemala and Paraguay, ethnic groups and the mothers of child soldiers have formed organizations to pressure authorities for the release of under-age soldiers. NGOs, religious groups and civil society in general have important roles in establishing ethical frameworks that characterize children’s participation in armed conflicts as unacceptable. In Peru, it has been reported that forced recruitment drives have declined in areas where parish churches have denounced the activity. Another important preventive measure is the active and early documentation and tracing of unaccompanied children.
  2. The United Nations and other international organizations also have important roles in reporting child conscription, raising the issue with those in authority and supporting local groups in their work for the release of children. In Myanmar, protests from aid agencies led to the return of men and boys who had been forcibly recruited from a refugee camp.
  3. Armed opposition groups are less amenable to external or formal pressure than government-sponsored armies. Even with such groups, however, Governments and international organizations can exert influence. When Governments ratify the international humanitarian conventions that apply to internal conflicts, then international law holds all armed groups within those countries accountable. In Sudan, humanitarian organizations have negotiated agreements with rebel groups to prevent the recruitment of children. The human rights component within the United Nations Observer Mission in El Salvador (ONUSAL) supported local groups investigating complaints of forced recruitment of minors and raised the issue with authorities. In many cases, United Nations intervention secured the release of the minors involved.
  4. Specific recommendations on child soldiers
  5. The expert submits the following recommendations on the question of child soldiers:
  • Building on the existing efforts of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, Ra”dda Barnen, the Friends World Committee for Consultation (Quakers), UNICEF, UNHCR and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and their National Societies, a global campaign should be launched, led by those same organizations, aimed at eradicating the use of children under the age of 18 years in the armed forces. The media, too, should be encouraged to expose the use of child soldiers and the need for demobilization;
  • United Nations bodies, specialized agencies and international civil society actors should begin to pursue quiet diplomacy with Government and non-state forces and their international supporters to encourage the immediate demobilization of child soldiers and adherence to the Convention on the Rights of the Child;
  • All peace agreements should include specific measures to demobilize and reintegrate child soldiers into society. There is an urgent need for the international community to support programmes, including advocacy and social services programmes, for the demobilization and re-integration into the community of child soldiers. Such measures must address the family’s economic security and include educational, life-skills and vocational opportunities;
  • States should ensure the early and successful conclusion of the drafting of the optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on involvement of children in armed conflicts, raising the age of recruitment and participation in the armed forces to 18 years.
  1. Refugees and internally displaced children
  2. Armed conflict has always caused population movements. During full- scale conflicts, whether or not they cross national boundaries, people flee in large numbers. Their destinations determine whether those who flee will become internally displaced people 13/ in their own countries or refugees 14/ who have crossed national borders. Africa and Asia have been most affected by massive population upheavals but no region has escaped either the phenomenon itself or its ramifications. Wherever it occurs, displacement has a profound physical, emotional and developmental impact on children and increases their vulnerability. Except where otherwise distinguished in the present report, refugees and internally displaced persons, as well as persons in refugee-like situations, are referred to collectively as displaced persons.
  1. At the beginning of the 1980s, there were 5.7 million refugees worldwide. By the end of the decade, the number had increased to 14.8 million, and today there are more than 27.4 million refugees and “persons of concern” to UNHCR, that is, some returnees and people living in “safe havens”. 15/
  2. According to the report of the Representative of the Secretary-General on Internally Displaced Persons (E/CN.4/1996/52/Add.2), the number of internally displaced people has also escalated in recent years, now reaching an estimated 30 million – more than the number of refugees. The protection and assistance needs of the internally displaced are similar to those of refugees in nearly all respects, and yet their situation can be worse. While refugees have often moved outside the war zone, internally displaced persons usually remain within or close to the scene of conflict and they are often likely to be displaced repeatedly.
  3. At least half of all refugees and displaced people are children. At a crucial and vulnerable time in their lives, they have been brutally uprooted and exposed to danger and insecurity. In the course of displacement, millions of children have been separated from their families, physically abused, exploited and abducted into military groups, or they have perished from hunger and disease.