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Fighting the Use of Child Soldiers With a List


Abdoulaye Hissene, a rebel leader in the Central African Republic, signs an "action plan" to release child soldiers and to clear his name. UN OFFICE OF CHILDREN AND ARMED CONFLICT

The “naming and shaming” tool has been the most successful mechanism so far in the United Nations’ arsenal on ending the practice of child soldiers in the last 10 years, said Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN secretary-general’s special envoy for children and armed conflict since 2006. Yet pockets of child soldier use still elude efforts by the UN and human rights groups since the General Assembly passed a resolution in 1998 banning the practice.

A UN Studies Program panel discussion held at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs on Jan. 31 focused on child soldiers in a two-hour program titled “The Security Council and Its Human Rights Agenda: Children and Armed Conflict: New Tools to Fight Impunity.”

Led by Elisabeth Lindenmayer, director of the UN program and a former adviser to Kofi Annan at the UN, the panel featured Coomaraswamy, a former Sri Lankan human rights lawyer; Grace Akallo, a former child soldier and founder of United Africans for Women and Children Rights; Jo Becker, advocacy director, Children’s Rights Division, Human Rights Watch; and Ralf Schröer, a political officer at the German mission to the UN. The program began with “Ana’s Playground,” a film showing children playing in a desolate park, witnessing shootings and the target of a sniper themselves.

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Akallo spoke first, detailing her life as a child soldier. She was in high school when she was recruited in northern Uganda by the Lord’s Resistance Army, known as the LRA and headed by Joseph Kony, who is under indictment by the International Criminal Court and being hunted by Ugandan troops with the help of US advisers. The LRA trained children as young as 6 years old, Akallo said, beating them as an initiation rite, threatening them with witchcraft and forcing them to kill civilians and other rebels, using AK47’s.

Life as a child soldier, Akallo said, was “worse than death itself.”

Girl child soldiers, Akallo said, suffered more than boys. “Being a woman, when you’re in a war, you want to be a man,” because girls are sexually abused, though boys are violated, too. But girl soldiers are forced to become mothers with unwanted pregnancies from rape and are possibly infected with AIDS, leaving reintegration in society especially hard.

Not a human rights issue

Coomaraswamy laid out the tools that the UN Security Council has developed in the last decade to fight the practice of child soldiers, as she reminded the audience that this battle was the first human rights problem the council ever took up, even though it labels it a peace and security matter to appease the Russians and Chinese, who are “allergic” to human rights problems at the council, Coomaraswamy said. Yet the council was “horrified” enough by the existence of child soldiers to act, she added.

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The special envoy office was created to carry out the General Assembly resolution, which aims to protect children by not only monitoring the recruitment and use of children in armed conflicts, but also by tracking any sexual violence, killing, maiming or abducting of children as well as attacks against schools and hospitals and denial of humanitarian aid to youths.

Former child soldiers meditating. A UN tool of "naming and shaming" people or groups who use child soldiers helped enable the release of 11,000 children so far.

The processes put in place to end child soldiers grew gradually, starting with an annual report on children and armed conflict and eventually encompassing monitoring, identifying names of perpetrators, creating a task force and a working group, conducting country visits, passing other resolutions and protocols and imposing sanctions, though that has been rare.

“The normative framework has been such an incredible story in the Security Council,” Lindenmayer said of the steps. “The question is, really, has it worked? Has it made any difference for the children who are caught in conflict?”

Getting off the list

Naming and shaming, it turns out, has been so effective that former warlords and militia members strive to have their names removed from the UN list, in case they want to become political leaders in good standing someday, Coomaraswamy said. To do so, they must sign an action plan with the UN and release the children.

“It is important to get off the list,” Commaraswamy said. Unicef, which partners with Coomaraswamy’s office on children and armed conflict, counted 11,000 children released through the program in 2010. The list also includes 61 violators, 15 who have signed action plans and 6 negotiating to have their names de-listed.

Yet the LRA in central Africa, the Al Shabab in Somalia and the Taliban (to some extent) in Afghanistan all refuse to negotiate.

Coomaraswamy, who has a law degree from Harvard, conceded in the question-and-answer period later that she had “no clue” as to how to induce these holdouts to negotiate. “I’ll take any advice,” she said, referring specifically to Al Shabab, who are immune to the naming-shaming device.

Schröer also reiterated the usefulness of the tools while emphasizing that the council is looking at the violation of children’s rights and its consequences on peace and security rather than approach it as a human rights problem. That is because some UN members, he said, may be reluctant to see themselves before the council in the future over possible human rights abuses of their own. Moreover, the conflicts involving children are “asymmetrical,” with armed groups fighting government troops in national borders, making such situations sensitive for the council to address.

But Akallo was not impressed by the tools, except for naming and shaming. From a former child soldier’s viewpoint, the council’s work has been “too late.” She noted, for example, that the LRA is still operating in the bush of the Congo after it has reigned throughout many central African countries since 1987. Facing Schröer, Akallo said, how do you justify that child soldiers are not a human rights issue, that it is not a war between countries and that children are involved?

“It’s an indictment, to a certain extent, to the UN,” Lindenmayer concurred.

Lindenmayer changed direction by asking Becker of Human Rights Watch if she has seen any difference on the ground in the use of child soldiers.

“Nobody defends the use of child soldiers anymore,” Becker said, compared with 10 years ago, when there was no shame in such practices by militias. “It’s now also recognized as a war crime” when children under the age of 15 are recruited.

Commanders go to jail or are subpoenaed by the International Criminal Court or local UN-supported tribunals, Becker added, agreeing that the LRA, Al Shabab and FARC (the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) are “pariahs.”

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Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.

Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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