With the eyes of the world once more riveted on the fate of countless civilians in Sierra Leone and with the horrible images of Cry Freetown fresh in the minds of those who watch the international media`s reportage of African atrocities, the lives and well-being of many child soldiers hang in the balance. But, after years of lobbying and pressure, the United Nations has taken heed of the atrocities that are often perpetrated against children in wars and conflicts. In January, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict announced that agreement was reached to raise the minimum age for participation in conflict from 15 to 18 years in the optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Olara A Otunu called the decision "a victory for children exposed to cynical exploitation in situations of armed conflict ... a most important step towards eliminating the use of children as soldiers and their participation in hostilities.
"Not only does the agreement raise the age for recruitment, but it prohibits the recruitment and participation of children in the activities of insurgent groups and rebels. The age for voluntary enlistment is only raised to 16 years, but specific safeguards are included in the agreement, such as the provision of reliable proof of age and the informed consent of both the parents and the volunteer.
It is widely accepted that the early adoption and swift ratification of this protocol will assist in curbing the use of children in conflict on the ground. It will enable the mobilisation of international pressure on parties that make themselves guilty of using children in a variety of roles in conflict. It will also make a contribution towards attempts to address political, social and economic factors that lead to an environment within which children can be exploited. It will assist the international community in obtaining the necessary resources and capacity to implement effective programmes of demobilisation, disarmament and social rehabilitation for those children who were forced to participate in war and conflict.
Children are often taken against their wishes to assist rebels in waging an illegal war for reasons that have little to do with them or their futures. Field research has shown the devastating effects of the use of children for violent means. Their own words speak the loudest. A 19-year old male, who was abducted from his home in Uganda, said: "I did learn some things when I was with the rebels. I learned how to shoot, how to lay anti-personnel mines and how to live on the run. I especially knew how to use an AK47 twelve-inch, which I could dismantle in less than one minute. When I turned 12, they gave me an RPG, because I had proven myself in battle." Or, as a 17-year old lamented: "On many occasions we were made to beat up people from our villages if they broke the ‘rules`. I was once forced to flog this young boy who often cried at night. A few weeks later he died from another flogging.
"It is hoped that the agreement on this protocol will provide the necessary impetus to make a real impact on the conditions of children who have already been involved in wars, but will also create an environment where children may grow up without fear of becoming involved in wars. As Graà§a Machel so eloquently said: "I come from a culture where, traditionally, children are seen as both our present and our future, so I have always believed it is our responsibility as adults to give children a future worth having."