United Nations: Decommission Child Soldiers, but Not Our Freedoms, by Grant Threlfall

It is an abomination to force a child to be a soldier. Although the United Nations has sought to develop a policy to stop this dis-gusting practice, it has failed miserably. Its efforts only increase the world body’s power and reduce the sovereignty of member nations.

Children are used as spies, couriers, cooks and – in some grotesque cases – concubines in conflicts around the world. For example, a 14-year-old girl in Sierra Leone was abducted by Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front to act as a “wife” to one of the leaders. She told Human Rights Watch a tale of torture, mutil-ation and the systematic rape and murder of civilians that she was forced to watch while in captivity.1 In the Middle East, the Palestinian Authority commandeers children returning home from school – against the will of their parents – to protest and fight Israeli troops. This provides cover for terrorist snipers.2 Lately, there has been a dramatic increase in the use of children as front line soldiers.3 According to Human Rights Watch, there are children serving or recruited into armed forces in 30 countries, with 300,000 children actively engaged in conflict.4

In order to stop this horrendous practice, the U.N. created “The Convention of the Rights of the Child.” But the treaty, like the U.N. as a whole, has not been effective at eliminating the child soldier problem. Despite hundreds of meetings and countless statements against the use of child soldiers, the problem remains. The U.N. decries the practice and proclaims children are “zones of peace,”5 but it continues to fail to get the job done.

The current U.N. strategy for ending the recruitment of children as soldiers is laid out on its website: “It is up to the international community to mobilize a movement of political pressure: naming, shaming and refusing support for armed groups that continue to abuse children.”6 The fact that this statement comes from the U.N. site’s “Frequently Asked Questions” section entitled “How come all these international treaties aren’t working?”7 shows that the U.N. itself believes its efforts are failing. Issuing “statements of outrage” against groups like Peru’s Shining Path for using eleven-year-old girls to kill people and then forcing them to drink their victim’s blood8 is apparently all the power the international body can muster to stop this vile practice.

Most armies in Latin America and Africa that use child soldiers are rebel groups fighting guerrilla wars against government forces. What the U.N. hasn’t quite managed to realize is that speeches, treaties and economic sanctions that member nations routinely violate anyway don’t affect these rebel groups. If the U.N. really wanted to strike a blow against child soldiers, it would seek to capture the recruiters of child soldiers and put them before a war crimes tribunal.

Ineffective though the treaty is at solving the problem it was meant to address, the wording of the U.N.’s treaty could be used to erode national sovereignty by imposing on legitimate paramilitary programs. In the United States, junior ROTC programs that teach 14-year-olds values and skills could be at risk. In Britain, military recruitment of 16-year-old graduates who have parental permission could be open to attack by the U.N.

U.N. officials believe they can make a difference with regard to child soldiers by stopping the proliferation of small arms and light weapons. Citing the 35-70 million Soviet-era AK-47 assault rifles still in circulation throughout the world,9 U.N. officials are pushing European-style bans on private ownership of firearms on the rest of the world. The logic is that by depriving insurgencies of these weapons they will not need to recruit children to fire them.

When the United States stood up for the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protecting the right of Americans to keep and bear arms during the most recent treaty negotiations on small arms and light weapons, it infuriated most participants. But the U.N.’s inability to solve the problem of child soldiers through other means doesn’t rationalize stripping away our precious American freedoms.

Child soldiers are a serious problem, but removing one of our most cherished rights here in the United States is no solution. Instead of imposing sweeping policies that erode freedom, the U.N. should instead deal with the individual situations where children are being exploited. If it can’t do that successfully, without eroding the sovereign rights of member states, perhaps the U.N. is no longer useful and our support of it should be reassessed.


Grant Threlfall is a research associate of The National Center for Public Policy Research, a Washington, D.C. think tank.


1 “Stop the Use of Child Soldiers!” Human Rights Watch, New York, NY, downloaded from http://www.hrw.org/campaigns/crp/index.htm on August 8, 2001.
2 Matthew Kalman, “Let Our Kids Alone, Arafat Told,” USA Today, December 8, 2000, p. 16A.
3 “Child Soldiers: Invisible Combatants,” “America’s Defense Monitor” (episode 1042), Center for Defense Information, Washington, DC, June 29, 1997, transcript downloaded from http://www.cdi.org/adm/Transcripts/1042 on August 8, 2001.
4 “Stop the Use of Child Soldiers!”
5 “Children as Zones of Peace,” The State of the World’s Children, UNICEF 1996, downloaded from http://www.unicef.org/sowc96/14zones.htm on August 10, 2001.
6 “Frequently Asked Questions,” Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children in Armed Conflict, United Nations, New York, NY, downloaded from http://www.un.org/special-rep/children-armed-conflict/ffaq.htm on August 8, 2001.
7 Ibid.
8 “The Voice of Child Soldiers,” Human Rights Watch, New York, NY, downloaded from http://www.hrw.org/campaigns/crp/voices.htm on August 8, 2001.
9 “The Tools of Genocide: Conflict and the Proliferation of Small Arms,” World Vision, Mississauga, Ontario, Canada, downloaded from http://www.worldvision.ca/welcomewvc/GlobalIssueswvc.nsf/fcfb1ff325677dcc8525690a001cae78/22a974fc7cc7640185256a080071938f?OpenDocument on August 8, 2001.

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