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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Real Pawns of War




Far fewer wars would plague the globe if the only people to be conscripted for military service were old men. They, after all, foment most of the world's armed conflicts.


Unfortunately, others f especially children f too often pay the high cost of war, a UN report issued this week pointed out.


"An estimated 2 million children have been killed in situations of armed conflict since 1987, while three times that number have been seriously injured or permanently disabled," said the report written by Olara Otunnu, a former Ugandan diplomat.


This carnage shows no sign of decreasing. "Up to 300,000 children under the age of 18 are serving as combatants in government armed forces or armed opposition groups in ongoing conflicts," Otunnu's report continued. "From Sierra Leone to Tajikistan, from Liberia to Cambodia, from Sudan to Kosovo, from Sri Lanka to Afghanistan, millions of children are being robbed of their childhood and left with mangled lives."


In two dozen conflicts around the world, children sometimes as young as 7 years old are the pawns, the cannon fodder for adults whose causes they cannot even begin to grasp. They simply cannot understand the complex, sometimes obscure ideologies for which they are conscripted to fight and die. Nor are many of them old enough to comprehend the finality of death, theirs or others.


"Renamo does not use many adults to fight because they are not good fighters," a former member of the Mozambican anti-government guerrilla movement explained. "Kids have more stamina, are better at surviving in the bush, do not complain, and follow directions."


To make them more ruthless killers, children are often deliberately brutalized, noted a 1995 UN report by Graca Machel, now the wife of South African President Nelson Mandela. A too common method used by their adult commanders is to force young soldiers to murder their own families before sending them off to kill others.


Child soldiers also are frequently drugged to make them less afraid of dying and more impervious to the consequences of killing.


Modern weaponry, which has made armed conflict both deadlier and easier to conduct, also increases the effectiveness of children as killing machines. Even small children can now easily use automatic weapons such as the M-16 and AK-47.


"Many more [children] are being used in indirect ways which are more difficult to measure, such as cooks, messengers, porters, etc.," Otunnu's report noted. "Children have also been used for mine clearance, spying and suicide bombing."


Most of the armed conflicts in which children are combatants are internal. "In today's internecine warfare, the village has become the battlefield and civilian populations the primary target," the report explained.


These civil wars create settings "in which international standards are ignored with impunity and where local value systems have lost their sway." Such conflicts also destroy the infrastructure f the families, schools, religious and other social institutions f needed to nurture children and allow them to grow up in peace.


Allowing this brutalization of children to continue shames the world. They are defenseless against the old men who thus inflict the most insidious form of child abuse on them and rob them of any hope for the future.


When peace finally comes, young combatants have far greater difficulty than adults do in adjusting to postwar conditions. Demobilizing and reintegrating child soldiers into civil society requires much more than just healing the physical wounds of those who survived the conflict. Their emotional and psychological trauma must be treated, and in many cases they must be deprogramed and re-educated to function normally in civil society. To be effective, this treatment has to be long-term, and that is often beyond the financial means of countries ravaged by civil war.


By then, far too many are already dead f too many of the child soldiers and too many of those whom they have killed.


"We must envision a society free of conflict where children can grow up as children, not weapons of war," urged Devaki Jain of India, an adviser to Machel.


Accomplishing this will require the rigorous enforcement of the UN standard prohibiting the conscription of soldiers younger than 18. A full range of international diplomatic and economic sanctions and penalties, including airtight arms and financial embargoes, should be applied to countries and movements that refuse to adhere to this minimum age for conscription.


Furthermore, international agencies, such as UNICEF and the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, as well as relevant nongovernmental agencies should be empowered to monitor compliance with the minimum-age standard in areas of armed conflict. And the proposed International Criminal Court should be fully authorized to punish countries and other forces that conscript children as soldiers.


"In today's interdependent world, no warring party f whether a government or an insurgency group f could ignore the prospect of such censure and isolation by the wider international community," Otunnu said.


But in the long run, this form of child abuse can be resolved only by improved international conflict management and resolution. Until this is done more effectively, civil wars will continue to occur too frequently, and old men with no shame or compassion will continue to conscript children to kill and be killed.


Joe Bean is an Austin, Texas-based commentator on national and international affairs. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.