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March 2000
child soldiers
Photo courtesy of UNICEF.

Protecting Children From War:
What the New International Agreement Really Means

by Shannon McManimon
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In January 2000, after six years of negotiations, dozens of government representatives unanimously approved a new United Nations (UN) agreement regarding the use of children as soldiers. Most news coverage of this agreement lauds the United States and other working group members for their great victory in protecting children. Indeed, the agreement adds further protections for the world's children. What is too often glossed over, however, is how it falls short and how the United States helped block a stronger agreement.

Prior Provisions and Background

Today, an estimated 300,000 children under age 18 are participating in armed conflicts worldwide. Many more face recruitment or are members of armed forces not presently at war. Rädda Barnen, the Swedish children's rights organization, reports that during 1997-98, children under age 18 participated in the armed conflicts of 36 countries; 27 of these involved children under 15.

Overlooked in the rush to applause are weaknesses in the agreement itself and problems growing out of the US government's role in the negotiations.

For the past ten years, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), UN representatives, and others – increasingly recognizing the devastating impact of war on children – have pushed to raise the minimum age for all forms of soldiering to 18. The current recognized standard, age 15, is specified in the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), a comprehensive children's rights agreement. The age 15 minimum is out of step with the other provisions of the CRC, all of which define a child as anyone under 18. In most countries, 18 is regarded as the age of maturity, as marked by voting and other privileges. Many human rights advocates have argued that raising the age for soldiering by 3 years would further protect the youngest and most vulnerable. While it might be relatively easy to pass off a 12 year-old as 15, it would not be so easy to claim he or she was 18 and nearly impossible to claim that a 9 year-old was 18.

Earlier UN efforts to raise age limits were unsuccessful due largely to sustained opposition from the US government. Despite these setbacks, some positive steps were taken in the late 1990s. In 1998, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan declared that UN military peacekeepers must be at least 18 years old, and preferably older than 21. Some governments changed (or considered changing) their policies to include a higher minimum age for soldiering. Instruments such as the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child reflect this perspective. In the United States, several police forces raised the minimum age for their police officers beyond 18. Such policies reflect the viewpoint that occupations in which a person uses or is exposed to deadly force require a great deal of maturity and are not suitable for children.

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