Nine years ago UNICEF set out a 10-point Anti-War Agenda
, launched in The State of the World’s Children 1996. Appalled by the plight of children in conflict situations that contradicted “not just every normal human concern for their welfare but also the professed beliefs and legal obligations of those responsible”, the organization laid down a series of challenges that insisted on the rights of children.
Today, there is a growing consensus against the use of children as soldiers. In 2000, the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child raised the minimum age for direct participation in hostilities from 15 to 18 years, forbidding the forced recruitment of any child under 18 years, and urging governments to raise the minimum age for voluntary recruitment.
One of the most significant developments in recent years has been the increasing use of Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in post-conflict situations such as in Sierra Leone, enabling children to testify about their experiences and to participate in national healing processes. Psychosocial care for children who have endured trauma is also an important part of UNICEF’s integrated response to emergencies.
The adoption of international legal standards, however, is not sufficient to ensure the end of recruitment – while a number of concrete commitments have been obtained from parties to armed conflicts to prevent the recruitment of children, challenges remain in the application of international standards, such as the Optional Protocol, on the ground.
New challenges have also emerged: the abductions of boys and girls by parties to conflict has significantly increased in recent years, and will require further attention if effective prevention methods are to be developed. In addition, a protective environment needs to be developed for demobilized child soldiers that prevents their re-recruitment and ensures successful reintegration into their families and communities.
The sensitive reintegration into civil society of children who participated in armed conflict is as vital at the grass-roots level, as is campaigning against the exploitation of children as combatants on the global stage. Former child combatants are likely to have been denied a formal education and may face difficulties in returning home, especially if they have been forced to take part in violent acts against their families, friends and neighbours. In addition, communities and families need to be briefed and prepared for their return, and psychosocial care and health care provided. The provision of education, including literacy, life skills and income-generating skills are vital in enabling returnees to secure a livelihood after being demobilized. Yet these essential reintegration components have received less financial support than disarmament and demobilization efforts, an imbalance that can lead to frustration and further violence.