NEW YORK, 21 January (Office of the Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict) — At the conclusion today of the final session of the United Nations Working Group on the Draft Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, on involvement of children in armed conflicts, Olara A. Otunnu, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, issued the following statement:

After several years of negotiations, today in Geneva, agreement has been reached by consensus on raising the minimum age for recruitment and participation in conflict. I am delighted that the age limit for participation in hostilities has been raised from 15 to 18. This outcome is a victory for children exposed to cynical exploitation in situations of armed conflict. While the new consensus does not go as far as I would have liked, it is a most important step towards eliminating the use of children as soldiers and their participation in hostilities.

In terms of participation in conflict, article 1 of the draft Optional Protocol states: State Parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure that members of their armed forces who have not attained the age of 18 years do not take a direct part in hostilities.

In terms of compulsory recruitment, article 2 is very firm: State Parties shall ensure that persons who have not attained the age of 18 years are not compulsorily recruited into their armed forces.

As regards insurgent groups and rebels, it is very good news for children that the agreement categorically prohibits recruitment or participation under 18 years. Article 4 is explicit: Armed groups, distinct from the armed forces of a State, should not, under any circumstances, recruit or use in hostilities persons under the age of 18 years.

The one area in which the agreement falls short of the straight 18 position that I have advocated is in the area of voluntary enlistment into national armed forces. Nevertheless, I am encouraged by the raising of the minimum age to at least 16 and by the inclusion of specific safeguards, including the provision of reliable proof of age and the informed consent of both volunteer and parents.

– 2 -Press Release HR/4455 26 January 2000

In this connection, article 3 states: State Parties shall raise the minimum age in years for the voluntary recruitment of persons into their national armed forces from that set out in Article 38(3) of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, taking account of the principles contained in that article and recognize that under the Convention persons under 18 are entitled to special protection.

Each State Party shall deposit a binding declaration upon ratification of this Protocol which sets forth the minimum age at which it will permit voluntary recruitment into its national armed forces and a description of the safeguards that it has adopted to ensure that such recruitment is not forced or coerced

I believe that the above elements in the agreement will, when rigorously enforced, enable us to take a decisive step towards eliminating the use of children as soldiers and prohibiting their participation in hostilities. I urge all States to prepare for the early adoption and swift ratification of the Optional Protocol. This will build on several recent developments in the movement to secure the protection, rights and welfare of children in the context of armed conflict, including United Nations Security Council resolution 1261 of 25 August 1999, which calls for the intensification of efforts to end the use of children as soldiers.

I wish to again stress the reasons why the successful conclusion of the negotiations in Geneva is so critical:the conclusion of the Draft Optional Protocol will now allow us to concentrate on curbing child soldiering on the ground, where it really matters. In this context, three measures are especially important. 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.

I congratulate the Working Group on achieving a high common ground for the protection of children. I extend my warm appreciation to the Chairperson of the Working Group, Ambassador Catherine von Heidenstam for her remarkable patience and leadership. I wish on this occasion to pay a very special tribute to the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers; we owe today s outcome in large measure to the patient work, determination and all-out mobilization by the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers.