Bangkok, 30 October - Noting that up to one quarter of the world's estimated 300,000 child soldiers are currently serving in the East Asia and Pacific region, the head of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) Wednesday called for new and concerted efforts to demobilize them and assist their reintegration into society.
In launching the results of a new study on child soldiers, UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy said that the use of children as soldiers by government and non-state armies should be recognized "as an illegal and morally reprehensible practice that has no place in civilized societies".
The UNICEF study, Adult Wars, Child Soldiers: Voices of Children Involved in Armed Conflict in the East Asia and Pacific Region, says that in addition to the large number of children still serving in armed groups in the region, there are many more former child soldiers in countries no longer facing conflict.
Bellamy said Adult Wars, Child Soldiers and other research carried out in recent years in East Asia "has clearly shown that thousands of children are still being recruited - often by force - into state- and non-state armies in the region. It is time for all parties to recognize this and to work together with UNICEF and other organizations that stand ready to help bring an end to this profound abuse of children's rights."
Based on interviews with 69 current and former child combatants from six countries (Cambodia, East Timor, Indonesia, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea and the Philippines), Adult Wars, Child Soldiers provides often moving first-hand accounts of their experiences.
" The voices of these children constitute a cry for help on behalf of all child soldiers, a cry that we cannot afford to ignore." Bellamy said. "They provide compelling evidence on why children must not be allowed to become combatants and why every effort needs to be made to ensure that those still serving are demobilized and reintegrated into society."
The study calls for the systematic demobilization of all child soldiers; provision of support for their reintegration, with an emphasis on access to education and vocational training; and strengthening the capacity for provision of appropriate psycho-social care and support for former combatants.
The children and young people interviewed for the study reported numerous abuses, including brutal training regimens, hard labour and severe punishments while serving in armed groups. Some said they had been forced to witness or commit atrocities, including rape and murder, while others spoke of seeing friends and family killed.
Nearly all of the 69 children interviewed were given weapons and served in an armed group as combatants. Thirty of those interviewed provided details about the type of fighting they had been involved in, while 14 said they had fought in so many battles they could "not remember" the exact number.
The average recruitment age of those interviewed was 13 years, while the youngest soldier interviewed was forcibly recruited at the age of 7. The1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) set the legal minimum age for recruitment at 15, while an Optional Protocol to the CRC on armed conflict outlaws the involvement of children under age 18 in any hostilities and sets strict standards for the recruitment for those under 18.
But in order to be legally bound by the Optional Protocol, which entered into forcer in February 2002, countries need first to ratify it. In East Asia and Pacific, only the Philippines and Viet Nam have done so to date (Cambodia and Mongolia are in the process of ratifying).
Bellamy said ratifying the Optional Protocol "is a crucial first step to ending the recruitment of children for armed combat and their use as soldiers. UNICEF appeals to every country in this region and in the world to make ratification and implementation of this protocol a national priority."
The study said many children reported psycho-social disturbances, such as bad dreams and nightmares, both during their involvement with armed groups and after their return to civilian life. In some cases, the nightmares have recurred for years.
"I have seen several people killed in battles with Khmer Rouge soldiers," said Visna, who was recruited when he was 12. "I remember the terror that grabbed me from out of the jungle when I could not see the enemy but could hear their voices. That fear sometimes visits me when I sleep at night."
The study noted that little is currently being done in the East Asia and Pacific region to address the psycho-social needs of such children, even in post-conflict situations.
"Successful disarmament and demobilization programmes serve to take the guns out of their hands, but we still be failing these children if do not find ways to reunite them with their families and communities and provide for their psycho-social care and recovery," Bellamy said.
The study also recommends:
For further information, please contact:
Mark Thomas, UNICEF EAPRO,
Office: (66 2) 356 9407
Home: (66 2) 661 5335
Mobile: (66 1) 866 1563