In a first, 58 countries commit to ending use of child soldiers
PARIS – Fifty-eight countries agreed to take action to protect children from being recruited as soldiers in wars, joining for the first time an effort that had been largely confined to NGOs.
The 58 countries that signed up to the so-called Paris commitments at the end of a two-day conference included 10 of the 12 nations where an estimated 250,000 children bear arms.
“We commit ourselves to spare no effort to end the unlawful recruitment and use of children by armed forces or groups in all regions of the world,” French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said at the end of the gathering held in Paris.
The document put the onus squarely on governments to prosecute recruiters or commanders of child soldiers and to seek the unconditional release of all children enrolled in armies or armed groups. It also singled out the plight of girls abducted to work as domestic slaves for fighting forces and who are often victims of rape, stating that they deserved special assistance.
In some armed groups, girls make up 40 percent of the children recruited, according to the UN.
Among the signatories to the Paris commitments were Burundi, Chad, Colombia, Ivory Coast, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nepal, Somalia, Sudan, Sri Lanka and Uganda, which are all on a UN black list of countries that recruit child soldiers.
Two others on the UN list — Myanmar and the Philippines — did not take part in the conference, which was organised by the UN children’s agency UNICEF and the French foreign ministry.
Ten years after childrens’ rights campaigner Graca Machel unveiled the Cape Town principles that would guide non-governmental organisations, the Paris commitments were hailed as a key step that would inject new momentum to international efforts to end the use of children in combat.
“For the first time countries are solemnly committing to apply and respect these principles to combat the recruitment and use of children in armed conflicts,” a foreign ministry official said.
While the document is not legally-binding, French officials described it as a strong commitment, with such specific provisions as preventing crimes committed against children to be amnestied under any peace agreement.
UNICEF and French officials stressed that the list of countries adhering to the Paris commitments was not final, hoping to build on the effort launched during the conference. The conference opened on Monday with an appeal from a former child soldier from Sierra Leone for concrete action to end the nightmare of tens of thousands of children who have been forced into combat worldwide. Ishmael Beah was 12 years old when he was recruited as a soldier and his ordeal ended four years later. “At that time, taking a gun and shooting somebody had become as easy as drinking a glass of water,” said Beah, now 26. “There are no excuses. If you don’t do it with these children now, you are going to have bigger problems later on,” he warned. There are an estimated 250,000 child soldiers fighting in 12 countries worldwide, mainly in Africa and Asia, with some of the countries making use of the children “on a massive scale”, according to the United Nations. Since 2001, almost 95,000 child soldiers have taken part in demobilisation programmes including in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Afghanistan.