Article by Human Rights Watch Press
Published October 4, 2008
Leaders of military forces and armed groups in Chad who have recruited child soldiers in 17 countries around the world may be arrested and prosecuted in the United States.
The Child Soldiers Accountability Act, signed by US President George W Bush on October 3, 2008, makes it a federal crime to recruit knowingly or to use soldiers under the age of 15 and permits the United States to prosecute any individual on US soil for the offense, even if the children were recruited or served as soldiers outside the United States. The law imposes penalties of up to 20 years, or up to life in prison if their action resulted in the child’s death. It also allows the United States to deport or deny entry to individuals who have knowingly recruited children as soldiers.
Though some 17 countries may be guilty of using children in armed conflict, the law that criminalises the practice has been prompted by the plight of children in Chad.
“The US is saying to the world that using child soldiers is a serious crime and that it will take action,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocate for Human Rights Watch. “Military commanders who use children can no longer come to the United States without the risk of ending up in jail.”
Under the new law signed on October 3, 2008 by President Bush, leaders of military forces and armed groups in Chad who have recruited child soldiers may be arrested and prosecuted in the United States, Human Rights Watch says. The law could apply to leaders of forces that have recruited and used child soldiers in Chad, including the Chadian national army (ANT), Chadian self-defense groups, Justice and Equality Movement, Sudanese Liberation Army, Union des forces pour la démocratie et le développement (UFDD), and the Janjaweed.
Human Rights Watch investigations have found that as the conflict in Chad enters its fourth year, all armed forces and groups involved in the conflict recruit and use child soldiers. During a June 2008 fact-finding mission, Human Rights Watch found recruitment of children into the ANT to be routine in displaced persons sites in the Goz Beida area of eastern Chad, with instances of forced recruitment documented in the Gouroukoun camp in the wake of a February 2008 Chadian rebel invasion.
Although the government reached a formal agreement with UNICEF in May 2007 to demobilize all children from the ANT, the result has been negligible. The vast majority of the 512 children released from the government army to date, more than 93 percent, were former members of rebel factions that joined the ANT under peace accords.
Children in Sudanese refugee camps in eastern Chad are also subject to recruitment, primarily by the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), a Sudanese rebel group that receives backing from the Chadian government. Reports from the camps suggest that JEM now regularly recruits from a large number of camps in eastern Chad.
According to the UN secretary-general, at least six parties to the conflict in Chad are currently in violation of international laws prohibiting the recruitment and use of child soldiers. They include the Chadian national army (ANT), Chadian self-defense groups, the Justice and Equality Movement Sudan Liveration Army, Union des forces pour la démocratie et le développement (UFDD), and the Janjaweed.
The Child Soldiers Accountability Act was introduced by Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois and adopted unanimously by both the US House of Representatives and the US Senate in September 2008.
In a statement issued on October 3,2008, Senator Durbin said: “The United States must not be a safe haven for those who exploit children as soldiers. Period. The use of children as combatants is one of the most despicable human rights violations in the world today and affects the lives of hundreds of thousands of boys and girls who are used as combatants, porters, human mine detectors and sex slaves. The power to prosecute and punish those who violate the law will send a clear signal that the U.S. will in no way tolerate this abhorrent practice” (durbin.senate.gov/showRelease.cfm?releaseId=304082 ).
The recruitment and use of children as soldiers was recognized in 1998 as a war crime under the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. In 2007, four former military commanders from Sierra Leone were convicted by the Special Court for Sierra Leone for recruiting and using children as soldiers. Rebel and military commanders from the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda have also been charged under the International Criminal Court with recruiting and using child soldiers, though none have yet gone to trial.
“This new law is a breakthrough because it no longer leaves the prosecution of child recruiters to international tribunals and the national courts of conflict-affected countries,” Becker said. “The United States is stepping up to hold these war criminals accountable in its own courts.”
Children are currently used in armed conflicts in at least 17 countries. Countries and territories in which children are known to have been used in hostilities between 2004 and 2007 include: Afghanistan, Burma, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Colombia, Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Occupied Palestinian Territories, Nepal, Philippines, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Thailand and Uganda.