Children have fought in wars throughout history, and deep into mythic pre-history. David was not an adult when he slew Goliath. The Children’s Crusade, in which a young boy supposedly persuaded 30,000 other children to follow him into the Holy Land to convert Muslims, may have been more legend than reality, but to the medieval mind it was not an inconceivable event. Napoleon’s forces were preceded on to the field at Waterloo by drummer boys, who were mown down by the English fire.
Yet even in remote antiquity there was seen to be something anomalous and wrong about thrusting children into harm’s way. David’s feat is unforgettable because it was so exceptional. In pre-modern times families often accompanied their menfolk to war, but stayed well behind the front line. Squires looked after their knights but were not intended to fight alongside them.
The ancient Romans seem to have required their soldiers to be at least 16 before sending them into battle. And although the chaos that followed the departure of colonial powers from Africa and elsewhere has seen large numbers of children all over the world swept up in warfare, the children’s charity Unicef is not isolated in its efforts to rescue them. Unicef - whose work rescuing child soldiers in the Central African Republic is the focus of The Independent’s Christmas Appeal — is supported by a solid and growing body of international law, by successive UN Security Council resolutions and other multilateral initiatives.
Is it utopian to imagine that those efforts could one day soon be crowned with success — that child soldiering could become just another ugly historical fact, like bubonic plague? “I’ve wrestled with that question,” says Unicef’s Pernille Ironside. The striking Canadian woman who heads the agency’s work on child soldiers, spent nearly four years in the Democratic Republic of the Congo coaxing warlords into releasing their youngest troops. Now based in New York, she has led negotiations to secure the freedom of thousands more since then.
“Our work in the UN is unashamedly utopian, and to pursue it we all have to be idealistic,” she goes on. “If we didn’t feel that way we couldn’t strive for a better world to protect the children who - as the world has collectively said - need to be protected from the horrors of violence and abuse and dislocation of war.”
This is the key reason for hope — the international community has spoken on this issue, not once but repeatedly. The involvement of children in the barbarous civil wars in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and the Rwandan genocide during the 1990s, shocked and appalled the world, with their images, as Ironside says, “of children with AK47s and teddy bears on their backs”. Then in 1996 the international Mozambican advocate Graça Machel, the wife of Nelson Mandela, wrote a report on the impact of armed conflict on children, which galvanised the international community into action.
The report led to a protocol on child soldiers which 150 UN member states have now ratified. “That’s hugely important in the global scheme,” says Ironside, “because each of those member states must implement the terms of the protocol which stipulates that children cannot be in armed hostilities if they are below the age of 18. They can join the military at an earlier age but they can’t be deployed.”
The report also led to what she calls “a cascade of measures” which have greatly increased the psychological pressure Unicef can bring to bear on recalcitrant commanders. One of the most important moments in the world’s war on child soldiering came in March 2012, with the conviction for war crimes at the International Criminal Court in The Hague of the Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga.
“News of his conviction spread very quickly,” Ironside recalls, “and had repercussions with the military commanders we are dealing with in Goma, in eastern Congo — they were concerned that the same thing might happen to them. Unfortunately some of them, rather than coming forward to us and asking ‘how can we work with you to hand over our children’, just abandoned them in the bush and we had to go out and try and find them.
” Despite the vile abuses to which many child soldiers are subjected, Ironside sympathises with the way that entire communities can be caught up in warfare. “There are so many factors that drive children into these circumstances,” she points out. Some child soldiers are abducted but others join to get revenge on those who killed their parents or just because they have no other means of getting food. “The necessities and urgencies related to survival in war naturally galvanise everyone and draw everyone in that community together. “Some conflicts get completely entwined with the whole community: in Mindanao in the Philippines the entire community is rallied against the Philippines government and there is no separation between adult and child.
But we have signed an agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. It’s very hard going but we are working on what we call red lines that cannot be crossed: children of course are part of the community and their fathers and brothers are involved in military activities, but you have to draw a line: a child who’s cooking for his father, in the community that he lives in, that’s OK unless it’s at the front line.” Yet even in places where children identify deeply with the cause for which they have been fighting, Unicef has scored notable successes. One of the most remarkable was Nepal, where thousands of children fought in the civil war on the side of the insurgent Maoists. After years of fruitless negotiation, the Maoists capitulated to Unicef’s demands in their entirety in December 2009 — and then required the agency to take responsibility for 2,973 liberated child soldiers in little over a month.
The process was complicated by the fact that, as Ironside reveals, “the vast majority of the children were so deeply committed to the Maoist ideology and the political cause that they were very unhappy to be separated from the military. Our message to them was, you can still be politically connected but you cannot be connected militarily - you need to go back to schooling, you have your whole lives in front of you, you can choose to re-join the army once you are 18. And in fact most of them did want to go back to school or into vocational programmes. So that was a highly successful programme.”
The Independent / The Interview People