The recruitment, use and abuse of child soldiers continues to be a serious problem and a matter of grave concern to Ireland and indeed the international community. The involvement of child soldiers has been reported in most recent armed conflicts and in almost every region of the world over the last two decades. Each year, the United Nations Secretary-General issues a report on children and armed conflict which lists all armed groups – both state and non-state – that recruit and use children. The most recent list includes 52 state and non-state armed groups operating across three continents. It is estimated that up to 300,000 children continue to be involved in more than 30 conflicts worldwide, including, notably, in a number of internal and regional conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa.
Against this background, international legal efforts to curb the practice of using children in armed conflict have been stepped up significantly. In 1996, the UN General Assembly voted to establish the post of Special-Representative of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict, tasked to serve as an independent advocate for the protection and well-being of boys and girls affected by armed conflict. In 1999, the UN Security Council passed its first Resolution (UNSCR 1261) highlighting the impact of armed conflict on children and condemning violations carried out in that context. With the adoption of nine Resolutions and several Presidential statements since then, the Security Council has developed important tools to strengthen child protection and to promote compliance with international standards.
The Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict (OPAC) was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 25 May 2000 and entered into force in 2002. It is considered the core international human rights treaty on child soldiers. It lays out clear standards relating to the recruitment and use of under-18s by state armed forces as well as non-state armed groups which, if fully implemented, provide a strong foundation for long-term prevention of unlawful recruitment and use of children, and for assisting those who have already became involved in armed conflict.
Ireland is a strong supporter of the mandate and the work of the Special Representative of the UN Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict, Ms Leila Zerrougui. At the most recent session of the UN Human Rights Council of which Ireland is currently a member, Ireland expressed particular appreciation for the work that SRSG Zerrougui has been carrying out to mainstream child protection in peacekeeping operations. Ireland called on all parties to conflict to comply with international humanitarian law and to respect schools and hospitals as protected civilian objects. Ireland also highlighted the particular challenges for the prevention of recruitment and the promotion of the reintegration of child soldiers in Mali and expressed concern about the difficult situations of children vulnerable to violence and deprivation in Central African Republic and eastern DRC.
Ireland has engaged on this issue in various ways including, crucially, through the core work of our aid programme in addressing poverty and under-development – major root causes of this problem. Ireland has also supported more targeted and specific interventions from supporting agencies such as UNICEF and the International Criminal Court, to designing interventions in our bilateral programmes that address the needs of children affected by conflict. Ireland places strong emphasis on the importance of prioritising protection and accountability at the national and international level. The conviction of Thomas Lubanga by the International Criminal Court last year for the recruitment and use of child soldiers is a powerful message that no individual who violates international criminal law can be confident of impunity.
We remain deeply committed to addressing this issue, as has been recently reflected in Ireland’s new Policy for International Development, ‘One World, One Future’, where we have pledged to increase our engagement on the issue of child soldiers and children in armed conflict. We are actively examining options for strengthened action in this area. Ireland will also continue to encourage all concerned countries to cooperate with UN mechanisms and to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on armed conflict.