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Kid Soldiers a War's Most Tragic Victims

By Jimmy Carter

USA Today

For six years, I was deeply involved in efforts to bring a peaceful solution to Liberia's devastating civil war. On several visits, I saw its horrific effects, which left 200,000 people dead and more than a million displaced. Among the most tragic victims of this war were children used as soldiers. More than 15,000 of them, some as young as 6 years old, were recruited by warring factions.

These children suffered cruelly during the conflict; many were killed, wounded or witnessed terrible atrocities. Many also were forced to take part in the killing, maiming or raping of civilians.

The story of "Robert" is not atypical. Interviewed by members of Human Rights Watch, his name was changed for his protection. At age 11, he was detained at a checkpoint by an armed group. After rejecting a request to join the rebels, he was instructed to kill a captured soldier from a rival faction. He refused. The rebels then told him that he would be killed if he did not carry out their order. At knife point, he regretfully complied.

Forced into training and then into combat, Robert often was given amphetamines to keep him "strong and brave." Nonetheless, he continually begged the rebels to let him go, so he would not have to kill again. Captured and placed in a trauma center at age 13, Robert faced a bleak future filled with guilt and shame over the atrocities he was forced to commit.

While negotiations led to elections and broad demobilization in Liberia last year, in many other countries, the use of child soldiers is on the rise.

For example, increasing numbers of children are being recruited in Burundi, including some at age 10. In Colombia, as much as 30% of some guerrilla units is made up of children. In total, at least 300,000 children younger than 18 are taking part in more than 30 armed conflicts worldwide.

Immature and lacking experience, child soldiers suffer far higher casualty rates than their adult counterparts. Some are used for suicide missions or particularly hazardous duty, such as leading through minefields. Girls may be raped or given to commanders as "wives." Those who survive their ordeal may be permanently disabled or bear psychological scars from being forced to commit, suffer and witness horrific atrocities.

Several factors have led to a steady increase in the use of children as soldiers.

Technological developments in weaponry, especially small arms, have made semiautomatic rifles light enough to be used, and simple enough to be stripped and reassembled, by a 10-year-old child.

As internal conflicts blur the lines between civilians and combatants, children increasingly find themselves in war zones and pulled directly into violent conflict.

Under current international law, children as young as 15 can be recruited and deployed in war. Although this age is almost universally recognized as too low, efforts in the United Nations to raise the minimum age to 18 so far have failed.

Unfortunately, one of the biggest obstacles to a stronger ban on the use of child soldiers is the U.S. government. While most countries have indicated they would agree to limit participation in armed conflict to those at least 18 years old, the United States vigorously opposes this proposal. The Pentagon seeks to preserve its practice of recruiting 17-year-olds, even though minors make up less than one-half of 1% of the active U.S. military.

This week, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and other leading international organizations are launching a new campaign for a ban on the recruitment and use in war of children younger than 18.

The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers hopes to build the political will lacking to establish a strong and effective ban.

Using children as combatants is reprehensible.

It's time for all governments, including our own, to take the necessary steps to ensure that the most vulnerable members of society are protected from the horrors of war.

Liberia at a glance

Liberia, founded by freed American slaves, became an independent nation in 1847. A chronology of more recent history:

1980: Indigenous-African Liberians overthrow government, install army Sgt. Samuel Doe as president.

1985: Doe declared victor in highly suspicious presidential election. During presidency, Doe imprisons and kills many opponents.

1990: Two rebel groups National Patriotic Front of Liberia (NPFL) and the Independent National Patriotic Front of Liberia (INPFL) fight each other, as well as nation's armed forces. INPFL captures, kills Doe. Three sides continue fight for control of government.

1994: First, then second transitional government form-ed; tensions continue.

1996: Renewed fighting in capital, Monrovia.

1997: Charles Taylor of the rebel NPFL wins presidential elections. Fighting continues.

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