On the occasion of the final session of the United Nations Working Group on the Draft Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child – being held in Geneva from 10-21 January — Olara A. Otunnu, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, has issued the following statement:

The widespread participation of children in armed conflict is one of the most horrendous and cynical trends of recent wars. There are currently an estimated 300,000 young persons under the age of 18 — some as young as seven or eight, girls as well as boys — taking part in hostilities around the world. Often abducted from schools, refugee camps or their homes, these children are routinely exposed to injury and death. Girls and also boys are subjected to sexual abuse and rape, often on a systematic basis. Those who survive suffer deep psychological scars that blight their own futures, as well as those of the societies in which they live.

Various conditions give rise to children’s participation in armed conflict: manpower shortages typical of protracted conflicts, the fact that children are impressionable and therefore can be easily fashioned into ruthless and unquestioning tools of war, and the desire of armed groups to exercise total control over civilian populations — all have led to forced recruitment of children. Others may join armed forces or groups because of a socio-economic breakdown that eliminates viable alternatives. Still others are lured by the appeal of political, religious or ethnic ideology.

The international community now has the opportunity to take a decisive step towards eliminating the use of children as soldiers and prohibiting their participation in hostilities. The United Nations Working Group on the Draft Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict today begins what is scheduled to be its final session in Geneva, Switzerland, with the aim of finalizing a draft text raising the minimum age for recruitment and participation of children in armed conflict.

I appeal to all States to cooperate actively in current efforts to bring the work on the draft optional protocol to a successful conclusion. I urge the establishment of 18 as the minimum age for both recruitment — voluntary or compulsory — and participation in armed conflict. This age limit must apply both to governments and non-State entities and for both international and internal armed conflicts.

– 2 – Press Release HR/4454 10 January 1999

Such a decision would be consistent with many recent developments in the campaign to secure the protection, rights and welfare of children in the context of armed conflict. In 1998, the United Nations established a minimum age for United Nations peacekeepers of 18 years, with a recommendation that no one under 21 years of age should be deployed in United Nations peacekeeping operations. On 25 August 1999, the Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 1261, which supports the efforts of the working group and calls for the intensification of efforts to end the use of children as soldiers. In September last year, the Secretary-General’s report to the Security Council on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict recommended raising the minimum age for recruitment and participation in hostilities to 18, demanding further that rebel and other armed groups involved in conflict not use children below the age of 18 in hostilities. During my own visits to several countries blighted by war, I have successfully obtained commitments from governments and other parties to conflict not to recruit children under the age of 18.

The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child — which entered into force less than two months ago – is the first regional treaty establishing 18 as the minimum age for all recruitment and participation in hostilities. In addition, a number of countries are revising their domestic legislation to set 18 as the minimum age for recruitment and participation in hostilities. In terms of operational activity on the ground, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a number of non-governmental organizations and other partners are actively engaged in developing programmes for the demobilization, rehabilitation and social reintegration of former child soldiers in many countries.

Why is it so critical to conclude work on this project at the current Geneva session?It will set us free to concentrate on curbing child soldiering on the ground in three main areas. The first is the mobilization of a major movement of international pressure to lean on parties in conflict that are currently abusing children as combatants. Secondly, it is important to address the political, social and economic factors that create the environment that facilitates the exploitation of children in this way. Thirdly, it will enable us to mobilize necessary resources and capacity to pursue more effective programmes of demobilization, disarmament and social rehabilitation of children forced to participate in war.