NEW YORK, 12 February 2002 - The Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, Olara Otunnu and UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy, today hailed the entry into force of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict. The protocol prohibits the use of child soldiers.
"Children have no place in war and deserve the highest level of international protection to keep them from being used as child soldiers" said Mr. Otunnu. "This new treaty is a victory for children who have been neglected, abused and sexually exploited by warring factions for decades."
Over 300,000 boys and girls are serving in government or rebel forces in over 30 armed conflicts in the world - as soldiers, runners guards, sex slaves, cooks or spies. These children are frequently abducted from their homes, schools, or refugee camps and forced into combat. They are beaten or killed if they attempt to escape. Girls are especially vulnerable - because they are often sexually exploited and forced to be "wives".
"Too often, children are forced into combat. They are terrorized in their homes and schools and subjected to abductions, ill-treatment and sexual exploitation," Ms. Bellamy said. "The entry into force of the Optional Protocol is vital to the protection of children in today's conflicts."
The Optional Protocol that comes into effect today outlaws compulsory recruitment of children under the age of 18 by both government and non-government armed forces. It also raises the previous standard by obligating States to ensure that members of their armed forces under age 18 do not take direct part in combat.
Regarding voluntary enlistment by governments, the treaty raises the minimum age to at least 16 years of age and includes specific safeguards to ensure that the recruitment is not coercive. These include the provision of proof of age and the consent of both the volunteer and the parents.
Bellamy and Otunnu - together with child rights advocates and NGOs - advocate for a "straight 18" on all recruitment, compulsory or voluntary.
As for insurgency groups and rebel forces, the treaty outlaws the recruitment or participation of anyone under 18 "under any circumstances".
The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child was adopted by the General Assembly in May 2000, and has been signed by 96 countries to date. Fourteen countries have ratified. These include: Canada, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Andorra, Panama, Iceland, Viet Nam, Democratic Republic of the Congo, New Zealand, Monaco, Kenya, Czech Republic, Romania, as well as the Holy See.
States ratifying the Protocol are expected to reform national legislation in order to comply with its standards. A monitoring mechanism is also introduced that requires States parties to submit regular reports to the Committee on the Rights of the Child detailing implementation measures.
"With the coming into force of the Optional Protocol we have a universal standard which is also a rallying call to the international community to work more diligently to promote adherence and hold accountable those parties that fail to comply and which continue to use children as weapons of war," said Mr. Otunnu.
While many children are abducted and forcibly recruited, others are driven into armed forces by poverty, hardship and alienation. Often they are orphans whose parents have been killed or have disappeared, leaving them without opportunities for education or training. Both Bellamy and Otunnu urged States to address the political, social and economic factors that create the environment that facilitates the exploitation of children in war.
The protocol urges States to work for the rehabilitation and social reintegration of former child soldiers. Bellamy and Otunnu called for increased resources for the demobilization, disarmament and social rehabilitation of those children who were forced to participate in war.
"The universal ratification and implementation of the Protocol should remain a pressing priority for the international community," Bellamy said. "Children are not expendable - they belong in schools and in their families. This is their right. It is our responsibility to ensure that they are protected from the horrors of warfare. UNICEF urges States to demonstrate their commitment by ratifying the Protocol in time for the Special Session on Children in the spring of 2002."
For further information, please contact:
Jehane Sedky-Lavandero, UNICEF Media Section, New York (212) 326 - 7269
Mary Ellen Glynn, Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, (212) 963-9648