‘Lest we forget’: Child soldiers and Armistice Day

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Every year on November 11, many people commemorate those who died in the First World War and conflicts since. ‘Lest we forget,’ the phrase that sums up the spirit behind such commemorations, urges us not only to remember the war dead – 9 million in the First World War alone – but also to work for a world free of such slaughter.

Almost 100 years after the First World War, however, the fact that it was once dubbed The War to End All Wars seems like no more than wishful thinking. Wars continue to rage. Now it is the most vulnerable civilians in the poorest countries who suffer the harshest consequences. As many as 5 million people are estimated to have died as a result of the ongoing war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Such conflict takes a terrible toll on children – and on their access to a decent education, which for many is their principal hope of a better future. The 2011 Education for All Global Monitoring Report will explore the impact of conflict on children and education, as well as ways to protect students, teachers and schools and provide education during conflict, and reconstruct education systems when wars end – both to rebuild lives and to foster peace.

Conflict leaves one group of children, in particular, with a terrible legacy. In many countries, government forces, militias and guerrilla groups continue to recruit, forcibly enlist and abduct children for use as soldiers. The injuries, psychological trauma and stigma suffered by many child soldiers compound the challenges they face trying to catch up on lost years of education.

Child soldiers are directly involved in conflict in at least 17 countries, including Afghanistan, Chad, Somalia and Sudan, despite a range of international legal standards intended to protect children from such abuse. (See The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers for more details.) On Armistice Day, which is largely commemorated in the Commonwealth, Europe and the United States, it is worth reflecting on the fact that even in developed countries the rights of people under 18 to special protection from recruitment are not always met.

The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, ratified by 139 states, doesn’t prohibit the voluntary recruitment of those aged 15, 16 or 17, but tightly restricts recruitment processes, entreats states ‘to take all feasible measures to ensure that members of their armed forces who have not attained the age of 18 years do not take a direct part in hostilities,’ and asks states to raise their recruitment age to 18. While the direct involvement in armed conflict of those under 18 is rare for developed countries, many have yet to raise their voluntary recruitment age.

The 2008 Child Soldiers Global Report noted 15 OECD countries among the 63 states where the minimum age for voluntary recruitment was under 18, including for training purposes or as cadets, and 10 OECD countries among the 26 in which government forces were known to have had children in their ranks.

In some countries, the military finds significant space in schools, often through cadet programmes, as part of campaigns to promote joining up. Recent evidence suggests that, in contravention of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, potential recruits are not always provided with a balanced view of the risks and opportunities of doing so. Young people living in low-income and disadvantaged communities, with low educational attainment who feel they have few alternatives, are disproportionately targeted.

November 11 marks the anniversary of the armistice that ended fighting on the Western Front in 1918. As we remember the First World War – in which many thousands of soldiers under 18 died – let’s work to protect the thousands of children around the world who continue to be recruited or forced to fight.



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