Thursday, February 17, 2005

Children at war

The use of child soldiers has exploded in the last 15 years, making it probably the most sickening new phenomenon to emerge in "modern" conflicts.

Child soldiers are not a new development, but in the past, they were the exception. In many conflicts, such as Northern Uganda, Sri Lanka and the former (hopefully) civil wars in Liberia and Sierra Leone, they were in fact the rule. Indicted war criminal Charles Taylor's Liberian rebel army infamously had entities called SBUs: small boys' units. And we're not talking boys of 16 or 17 here, but boys of 10 and 12 specifically recruited for the purpose.

And in conflicts that employ child soldiers, 'recruited' is often a euphemism for 'compelled' or 'kidnapped.' Some new conscripts are even forced to kill their families; this has the dual purpose of both proving their loyalty to the rebels as well as diminishing the likelihood of desertion.

A new book, Children at War, examines this troubling development. It points out the oft-noted reality that children tend to make the deadliest soldiers. Malicious commanders exploit kids' natural fearlessness. Many give the kids hallucogenic drugs to increase their sense of invulnerability. When you read of atrocious crimes from these war zones, like whimsical amputation of hands and arms, remember that these are most likely done not by rational but sadistic men with a method to their madness, but by drugged up teens or pre-teens.

How widespread is the child soldier scourge?

Sixty percent of the nonstate armed forces today use child soldiers; 23 percent use child soldiers 15 and younger; as many as 300,000 children "are currently fighting in wars or have recently been demobilized", notes this review of Children at War in The Christian Science Monitor.

Solutions? One possibility is restrictions on the international trade in small arms, which makes young children physically viable as soldiers. But since powerful governments won't let that happen, author P.W. Singer advocates putting teeth in the international treaties outlawing the use of soldiers under the age of 18. When the world's nonstate military leaders - who give little heed to international treaties and UN resolutions - realize they could be punished (and perhaps have assets seized) by the International Criminal Court, they may rethink their dependence on young, fearless, and impressionable warriors.

"The use of children as a weapon of war would be made like the use of chemical or biological weapons - simply unacceptable to the entire world, under any circumstances," he proposes.


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OTHER RESOURCES
-Amazon.com listing of Children at War.

-War Child, a network of independent organisations working across the world to help children affected by war. It aims

*To alleviate the suffering of children by bringing material aid into war zones

*To support those children who have been evacuated into refugee camps.

* To initiate rehabilitation programmes once children return safely to their homes.

*To be instrumental in healing the psychological damage caused to children by their experiences of war.

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