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UNITED NATIONS, Oct 23 (IPS) – The impact of global weapons trafficking on children and their recruitment as fighters should be on the agenda of talks for an international Arms Trade Treaty, say United Nations experts and non-governmental organisations.
Formal negotiations on the treaty have not gotten off the ground since the vast majority of U.N. member states approved a proposal to target illicit small arms trafficking three years ago. But a group of seven countries, led by Britain, is now pushing hard for concrete progress in a month-long session of the U.N. General Assembly’s disarmament committee, which is meeting through early November.
The United States, the world’s largest producer, supplier and importer of small arms, has also reversed its position since 2006 – when it was the only nation to vote against the treaty proposal – with the Barack Obama administration now expressing tentative support for formal negotiations.
The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) would set up a risk assessment system to determine the legality of an arms transfer on a case-by-case basis, based on the likelihood the weapons would be used to harm civilians or in some way other than national defence or law enforcement. It would also function as a legal agreement to enforce laws and treaties that already exist.
States are still debating the parametres and scope of the ATT, with major sticking points including the consequences for violators.
Judy Grayson, an expert on small arms and their impact on children at the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF, noted that the recruitment, abduction and abuse of children by armed groups is both facilitated and exacerbated by the irresponsible trade in small and illicit arms.
Speaking after a screening at U.N. headquarters this week of ”The Silent Army”, a film about child soldiers, she urged that children’s rights and security be included in the ATT talks.
Between 2002 and 2006, 1.5 billion children – two-thirds of the world’s underage population – lived in 42 countries affected by high-intensity conflicts. Millions of other children lived in countries not officially considered in a state of armed conflict but which face high levels of violence, such as Brazil, where small arms are the leading cause of death among children.
”It is not only about how many children get killed, but also how their lives have been profoundly altered,” said Grayson.
In Brazil, six percent of all children had a parent or caretaker shot, 15 percent had a friend shot, 17 percent had witnessed armed violence, and 36 percent underwent a ”role change” after their parent or caretaker was shot.
In 2007, 875 million small arms circulated around the world. Despite the global economic downturn, the arms trade has flourished, and even expanded.
Activists point to the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty as a successful example of the international community coming together to eliminate a weapon that indiscriminately wounds and kills civilians. While in widespread use in the 1980s, only a handful of states are reported to use them today, said Grayson.
”Children and their families have a right to expect much from the negotiations on the arms treaty, as they are the bulk of the casualties of war,” said Clare da Silva of the Control Arms Campaign, a coalition of hundreds of NGOs worldwide, including Oxfam and Amnesty International.
She said that arms should not be permitted to cross borders when there is a substantial risk that serious violations of human rights will be committed with those weapons.
The six most serious crimes as they affect children were listed in 2005 by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1612 as the killing or maiming of children, recruitment or use of children in conflict, attacks against schools or hospitals, denial of humanitarian access for children, abduction of children and rape and other sexual abuse of children.
One of the panelists, Kon Kelei from southern Sudan, a former child soldier himself and one of the actors in ”The Silent Army”, as well as the founder of an NGO called the Network of Young People Affected by War (NYPAW), urged diplomats to focus on the prevention of child soldier recruitment and rehabilitation.
”When these children, who were once soft and playful but who have become cold and hard, get out of the bush”, he said, they need sustainable programmes facilitating their reintegration and education.
Kelei added that the western approach to ”helping” former child soldiers might not always be the right one. ”All those psychologists wanting to counsel us, they make me feel sick,” he said. ”This counseling sometimes broke me down, at times when I needed to rebuild myself. They are needed, for sure, but not [always] at the level and moment they offer.”
The inclusion of former child soldiers in designing programmes to help their peers is also crucial, said moderator Radhika Coomaraswamy, special representative of the secretary-general for children and armed conflict.
Asked about the issue of justice, and how to deal with children who are victims of war as well as committers of serious crimes, Kelei told IPS that ”no child soldier is a perpetrator”.
”I am happy I can say I have not killed anyone, but any child soldier who did, I would not consider a killer. Any child who was forced to rape, is not a rapist. Instead of prosecutions I would argue for a truth and reconciliation commission that takes care of this,” Kelei said.
Coomaraswamy added that, of course, children should be made to see that the crimes they committed as soldiers were heinous, but ”there are different ways of letting children understand the gravity of what they did without prosecuting them”, she told IPS.
The Hague-based International Criminal Court, which takes on cases of the most serious war crimes and crimes against humanity, has a similar view, and does not prosecute children under 18.
Alternative mechanisms for transitional justice besides the establishment of a truth commission can be found, for example, in government-led grassroots courts such as the gacaca (”judgement on the grass”) in Rwanda, or through NGO-led informal community healing such as fambul tok (”family talk”) in Sierra Leone.
All rights reserved, IPS – Inter Press Service, 2009.
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