Children continue to pay a high price in today’s global conflicts. The recruitment and use of children remains a hallmark of war and the UN Secretary-General’s 2018 annual report, released in June, listed 56 non-state armed groups and seven state armed forces for recruiting and using child soldiers in 2017.
An increase in the number of verified cases of recruitment in conflict-affected countries like Central African Republic, South Sudan, Nigeria, and Syria, alongside hundreds of child abductions in Somalia and continued exploitation of girls, point to the scale of the challenge to protect children in conflict.
The report reveals 21,000 verified grave violations against children – from child recruitment to attacks on schools and hospitals, sexual abuse and forced detention – yet these still likely only represent the tip of the iceberg.
The listing of additional armed groups in DR Congo, Mali and Yemen for child recruitment were needed inclusions. Including the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen for the second consecutive year was welcomed. It is listed as one of 14 parties said to be making progress – but the report shows it was responsible for killing and maiming 670 children and responsible for 19 attacks on schools yet it was removed completely from the list for ‘attacks on schools and hospitals’.
Violence continues to plague DR Congo with unrest in central Kasai and its eastern provinces having a devastating impact on civilians and leading to the recruitment of thousands of boys and girls by armed groups. This year has also seen Boko Haram persist with shocking levels of violence and children routinely targeted for use as ‘suicide bombers’ – 43 cases in Nigeria were recorded in the first six months of 2018.
A November UN report on Syria showed verified recruitment cases have increased every year between November 2013 and June 2018. Elsewhere, children in countries including Myanmar, Yemen, Mali and Afghanistan continued to be exploited by parties to conflict as combatants, spies, domestic and sexual slaves in 2018.
A UNICEF release in December further highlighted the plight of children during the year. 5,000 children were killed or maimed in Afghanistan and more than 1,800 children were recruited in Somalia in the first nine months of 2018; 400,000 children in Yemen are suffering from acute malnutrition, while renewed violence in the border region between Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger left 1,478 schools closed.
The unlawful detention of children for perceived association with armed forces or armed groups remains a major problem with Amnesty International calling on the International Criminal Court in December to investigate Boko Haram for alleged illegal detentions.
The continued detention of Aung Ko Htwe, a former child recruit in Myanmar’s military, is also of grave concern. Arrested in August 2017 after giving a radio interview about his experiences in the Tatmadaw as a 13-year-old, Htwe was charged under a broad and vaguely-worded law relating to criticisms of the State. In March 2018, Htwe, 26, was sentenced to two years in prison. Today, he remains in Yangon’s Insein jail.
This prosecution is an alarming new low for free speech. The Tatmadaw has taken some positive steps forward since signing a 2012 UN Action Plan to end child recruitment (75 under-18s recruits were released in 2018) but much more needs to be done to stop ongoing recruitment and release more child soldiers. And Htwe’s imprisonment must be overturned.
A UN Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty, is currently underway to reveal and address the unlawful and inhumane detention of tens of thousands of children worldwide., It is due to be published this year.
The year has not been devoid of positive news. The UN facilitated the release of more than 900 child soldiers in South Sudan (more are expected in early 2019), Nigeria’s Civilian Joint Task Force released 833 children in October, while December saw a rare ray of light in the Syrian conflict as 56 boys were released from the Syrian Democratic Forces.
Some political progress has also been achieved. Colombian non-state armed group FARC and Sudan’s armed forces were delisted from the UN Secretary General’s report for child recruitment and use and South Sudan became the 168th country to ratify OPAC – the international treaty outlawing child soldiers. Meanwhile, Central African Republic opened its Special Criminal Court in October; composed of local and international judges, the Bangui court will investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity in the country.
This year’s Child Soldiers Prevention Act List from the US State Department also saw progress as Myanmar and Iraq were restored to the list of countries who are not eligible for certain forms of US military assistance, unless they receive a Presidential waiver.. Even more, Iran and Niger were added for the first time.
The UN Security Council passed a new resolution in July to ‘strengthen mechanisms to prevent violations against children’, and the launch of a Global Coalition for Reintegration in September, co-chaired by the UN Office for Children and Armed Conflict and UNICEF, which aims to improve funding support for returning children, could potentially have a positive impact in years ahead.
Child Soldiers International, a member of the Global Coalition’s expert advisory group, continued to build on its projects supporting children returning from conflict and affected communities in DR Congo and CAR and we also began new research in South Sudan during 2018.
But amid the success stories and steps forward, it is abundantly clear that more needs to be done in the year ahead to reverse the shocking realities for millions of children in today’s global conflicts.