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Colombian Conflict Using 1000s of Child Soldiers

Armed Groups in Colombian Conflict Using Thousands of Child Soldiers

Tactics of U.S.-designated terrorist armies condemned

By Eric Green
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- More than 11,000 children are reported to be fighting for armed groups in Colombia that the U.S. State Department has designated as terrorist organizations.

A new report released September 18 by the New York-based non-governmental, independent organization, Human Rights Watch, says left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary organizations have recruited increasing numbers of children in recent years to fight in Colombia's 40-year civil war. The child soldiers used by the terrorist groups are committing atrocities and are even forced to execute other children who try to escape from their units, said the report.

The report documents that only Burma (Myanmar) and the Democratic Republic of Congo are believed to have significantly larger numbers of child combatants than Colombia. Several thousand child soldiers in Colombia are under 15, the minimum age permitted for recruitment under the Geneva Convention protocols of 1977 and the 1989 Geneva Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Eighty percent of the children under arms in Colombia belong to one of the two left-wing guerrilla groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) or the National Liberation Army (ELN), while the others are being recruited by the right-wing United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). The State Department has put all three groups on its list of foreign terrorist organizations.

"By relying on children to fight, guerrillas and paramilitaries are doing incalculable damage to Colombian society," said José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch. "These children will bear the scars of their experience for decades to come."

Vivanco added that "sending any child under 18 to fight and be killed is reprehensible, and the use of child combatants under 15 is a war crime."

The report said both guerrillas and paramilitaries exploit the desperation of poor children in rural combat zones. Many join the armies for food or physical protection, to escape domestic violence, or because of promises of money. Some are coerced to join at gunpoint, or join out of fear. Others are street children with nowhere to go.

For its part, the U.S. Department of Labor announced May 7 a $13-million global effort to help educate, rehabilitate, and reintegrate into society former child soldiers.

The effort included $7 million to develop comprehensive strategies with the U.N. International Labor Organization (ILO) to help former child soldiers in Colombia, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, the Philippines, and Sri Lanka.

"We can't give child soldiers their childhood back, but we can help them to rebuild their lives," Labor Secretary Elaine Chao said in announcing the initiative.

In 1999, the United States became one of the first countries to ratify an ILO convention declaring that the forced recruitment of children as combatants is one of the worst forms of child labor.

Chao said an estimated 300,000 child soldiers are caught up in more than 30 armed conflicts around the globe.


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