WINTER 2001/2002
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child soldiers


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too young to drink alcohol legally but old enough to go to war


It is commonplace for British peace activists to demonstrate from time to time at foreign embassies in protest against some act of aggression or repression and in solidarity with the people suffering from the effects of that policy. We are less used to British embassies being a focus of protest, but that is what happened in Katmandu, the capital of Nepal, when members of the local Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers drew attention to the 'naming and shaming' of the United Kingdom in a new Global Report on Child Soldiers. Published by the International Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, the Report pointed out in the introductory overview:'Alone among European states the UK routinely sends 17-year-olds into combat - even though they are not allowed under domestic legislation to drink, vote in elections, or even join the police force. British child soldiers were killed in the Gulf War as well as the Falklands conflict, and some 50 under-18s served among the British contingent in the KFOR peacekeeping force in Kosovo.'

Yet when the Ministry of Defence was challenged about such policies by the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill earlier this year, its Brigadier spokesperson had stated, 'Certainly [under-18s] would not be deployed for peace-support operations of any kind. Therefore I think I can say confidently there are not [any under-18s serving in Kosovo or Bosnia]'. We have long known that truth is the first casualty of war; it is clearly also the first casualty of military recruiting propaganda.

Although more and more states around the world are ratifying the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and, where they have not done so previously, are ensuring that under-18s are excluded from both military recruitment and deployment, the British government is still avidly insisting on beginning formal recruitment processes at 15, before young people have even left school, and tying them into army contracts until they are at least 22. Very quietly early last year, after long years of campaigning by numerous pressure groups including the PPU, the navy and air force at last abandoned the practice whereby under-18s were committed to a longer minimum period than their adult counterparts, but the army is pursuing the policy with ever greater vigour.

All three armed forces, however, are clinging to the policy of deploying 17-year-olds on active service, and the government is still equivocating about the requirement of the Optional Protocol to abandon the practice. There has been some Press attention to 17-year-old soldiers sent to Macedonia, and 17-year-old sailors sent on the exercise in Oman which happened to coincide with the beginning of the war on Afghanistan. Few journalists seem to appreciate how routine this all is.

Where Britain leads, sadly others will follow. One of the more depressing aspects of the Northern Ireland situation is the development of a youth wing of the paramilitary Ulster Defence Association - the Ulster Young Militants, which was recently reported as recruiting large numbers of boys, some as young as 14. A UDA commander has been quoted as saying, 'Lots of kids want to get involved, even though there are ceasefires. So they're growing up in a void and we've got to keep control and give them a sense of identity. The UYM never took them in the past until they were 17 or 18, but now its 14 and 15 because they want that. We've taken on hundreds in Belfast alone.' The sad truth of this is borne out by the fact that the 16-year-old recently killed in north Belfast by his own pipe bomb was a UYM member.

If anything, the present international crisis creates a greater urgency than ever for Britain to join the increasing global consensus that a limit must not only be set but implemented as to the age of responsibility for the literally life and death issues of war

Bill Hetherington





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