The number of conflicts in which children are used as soldiers has dropped sharply in the past four years, to 17 from 27, a research report released this week by the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers said.
The report in some ways reflects the now nearly universal consensus that children should not be used in combat. The concept has seeped into the consciousness of even the most hardened militias as international justice has singled out notorious figures who have abused children, like Charles Taylor of Liberia and Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda.
But it also reflects the reality that when conflict breaks out, particularly in fragile states, children are quickly swept up.
As countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone, in which thousands of children were forced to fight, have ended their brutal wars in the last five years, newer conflicts in the Darfur region of Sudan and the Central African Republic have ensnared yet more children.
STILL AT RISK
In Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, children continue to be used as combatants, the report said.
“This downward trend is more the result of conflicts ending than the impact of initiatives to end child soldier recruitment and use,” the report concludes. “Indeed, where armed conflict does exist, child soldiers will almost certainly be involved.”
The report also found that a handful of stubborn governments continued to use children in their armed forces and paramilitaries — countries including Myanmar, Chad, Congo and Somalia.
The report estimates that in Chad alone, 7,000 to 10,000 children were press-ganged into fighting in 2006 and last year, with much of the recruitment taking place on the volatile eastern border with Sudan. Chad has been fighting rebels based in Darfur, a region whose five-year-old conflict has metastasized into Chad and the Central African Republic.
As one Chadian army commander put it in an interview with Human Rights Watch, “child soldiers are ideal because they don’t complain, they don’t expect to be paid, and if you tell them to kill, they kill.”
The report also found major shortcomings in programs to reintegrate child combatants after conflicts end. Donors have spent millions to ease fighters back into civilian life, but children are often left out.
In the Central African Republic, some 7,500 fighters were demobilized and given cash and training to start new lives. Only 26 children participated despite the fact that children were believed to make up a large portion of the fighters.
In Congo, where a regional war killed more people than any other conflict since World War II, some 30,000 children are believed to have fought, but 11,000 of them received no help as money for the demobilization program ran dry, the report said.