(NEW YORK) – On Monday, Feb. 12, International Day against the Use of Child Soldiers, Amnesty International highlights the need to adopt a global Arms Trade Treaty to prevent government forces or armed groups – like those currently in Mali – from using weapons to recruit child soldiers.
“Amnesty International’s recent research on the ground in Mali has revealed once more the horrors faced by child soldiers who are being recruited in numerous conflicts around the world to support troops and armed groups, sometimes in frontline roles,” said Brian Wood, Amnesty International’s head of arms control and human rights.
Halting the use of child soldiers in conflicts is just one more compelling reason why countries must adopt a strong Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) with effective rules to protect human rights. Member states will gather at the United Nations for final talks on the treaty in March.
Wood said the current draft rules are not strong enough to make a real difference.
The current draft ATT text proposes weak rules to help prevent arms transfers to states or groups using child soldiers. The draft rules to respect existing international human rights law and international humanitarian law could be circumvented – the rule on violence against children merely requires state to “consider taking feasible measures” and rules to prevent the diversion of arms are weak; for example ammunition is not covered.
Amnesty International is pressing for these loopholes to be closed so that the rule in the ATT would require States’ Parties to prevent arms transfers that pose a danger of contributing to violence against children, including the recruitment and use of child soldiers.
Poorly regulated international arms transfers continue to contribute to the recruitment and use of boys and girls under the age of 18 in hostilities by armed groups and, in some cases, government forces. In recent years, Amnesty International has documented the use or alleged use of child soldiers in numerous other countries, including Central African Republic, Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Sri Lanka, and Yemen.
Since January 2011, child soldiers have reportedly been used in at least 19 countries, according to the global NGO coalition Child Soldiers International, of which Amnesty International is a member.
An overwhelming majority of the world’s states oppose the recruitment and use of anyone under the age of 18 by armed forces or armed groups, since taking part in conflicts robs them of their childhood and exposes them to terrible dangers as well as psychological and physical suffering.
Apart from the tragedy of becoming perpetrators of human rights abuses themselves, many child soldiers are killed, maimed, or are victims of rape and other sexual violence.
Current use of child soldiers
In Mali, Amnesty International researchers recently interviewed eyewitnesses as well as children who were recruited by the Islamist armed groups currently fighting against Malian and French forces in the north of the country.
In the city of Diabaly – some 248 miles northeast of the capital Bamako – several people, including the deputy mayor, reported seeing children between the ages of 10 and 17 with the Islamist armed groups that had taken control of the area.
“These children were carrying rifles. One of them was so small that his rifle was sometimes dragging on the ground,” one eyewitness said.
In Ségou, Amnesty International met two captured child soldiers – one of whom showed signs of mental illness. His 16-year-old companion said they were arrested and handed over to the Malian authorities after the French and Malian armies re-conquered Diabaly in late January.
He told Amnesty International about his forcible recruitment and training by the Islamist armed group:
“I used to study with 23 other pupils with a Koranic Master. Two months ago, the grandson of my master sold us to the Islamists. We joined a group of 14 other young people carrying firearms. At the beginning, I was asked to work in the kitchen. We used to cook in a Christian church occupied by the Islamists. The rebels would beat us [with a rubber belt] during Koran lessons because …they wanted us to pronounce Arabic like them.”
“They trained us to shoot, aiming at the heart or feet. Before the fighting, we had to eat rice mixed with a white powder and a sauce with a red powder. We also had injections. I had three. After these injections and eating the rice mixed with powder, I would turn like a motor vehicle—I could do anything for my masters. I perceived our enemies like they were dogs and all that was in my mind was to shoot them.”
The boy told Amnesty International that four child soldiers were killed during the fighting to regain control of Diabaly from the Islamist armed groups and the Malian and French military forces that took over the city around January 20-21.
The organization has evidence that militia groups supported by the Malian government have also recruited child soldiers previously, but so far there is no documented case of these groups using child soldiers on the frontlines.
Amnesty International is a Nobel Peace Prize-winning grassroots activist organization with more than 3 million supporters, activists and volunteers in more than 150 countries campaigning for human rights worldwide. The organization investigates and exposes abuses, educates and mobilizes the public, and works to protect people wherever justice, freedom, truth, and dignity are denied.