Child Soldiers

It is a year since I ran with a story and interviewed Leslie Laskow, a Dutch expert on the Darfur region of Sudan and human right’s activist for Human Rights Watch, who spoke about the problem of “child soldiers” in Sudan, and she stressed: that children as young as twelve years of age were being recruited for military purposes. A year later, and the problems of child soldiers have resurfaced in yet another African country – the Côte d’Ivoire. According to a recent report put by the Human Rights watchdog security forces in the Côte d’Ivoire are robbing and extorting money from citizens at checkpoints, and that they have even progressed to extrajudicial executions.

The UN and African Union have so far refrained from holding abusers to account, fearful that it might damage the peace initiatives in operation, but the policy hasn’t gone down well with Peter Takirambudde, the Executive Director of the African division of Human Rights Watch. He has been quoted as saying that “the strategy of putting justice on hold for an elusive peace settlement has emboldened human rights abusers on both sides of the conflict. This approach has fuelled a pervasive culture of impunity that has led to ever-increasing acts of violence against civilians.” The Ivorian government has been linked with the recruitment of child soldiers from war torn Liberia, and such recruitment is a war crime as defined by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and is also a breach of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The newly created Security Operations Command Centre which recruits from the army and police units has allegedly being involved in serious rights abuses, and somewhat like the tensions that surfaced in Rwanda back in the nineties, the country is infused with local militias, a “hate media” that incites racial hatred, and one human rights activist was even threatened at an International conference in Dublin. Somewhat like Rwanda too, “ethnic” divisions ravage the country, and followers of President Gbagbo’s FPI party have been linked to “suppressing opposition demonstrations and anti-government unrest, stifling unfavourable press comment, and attacks on the rebel-held coffee and cocoa producing areas in the west.” Within Sudan, children as young as 12 are fighting in the Darfur region according to Leslie Leskow, a spokeswoman for the watchdog ‘Human Rights Watch’. She explained that rebel movements and the central government in Khartoum are locked in a devastating campaign against farmers in the Darfur area, and there have always been differences between these two groups. It is unclear if the children are recruited directly to participate in the conflict, but concerned observers are closely monitoring the situation. Many are orphans whose parents have been killed in the fighting. The Sudanese government’s hiring of the Janjaweed rebels – local tribal militias with a “nomadic nature”, and who “traditionally have some tension” with their farmer neighbours, have rendered “large parts of Darfur barren of people” and has exacerbated a tricky situation. Many have fled the region –“specifically driven out” – or have gone to neighbouring Chad. Millions have been killed and displaced. The African Union has approximately 1,800 peacekeepers in the Darfur region and Leskow agrees they “have to be given credit”, but she also stresses the impossibility of policing an area the size of France. She also states that the proposed UN force of 10,000 peacekeepers might not make a difference to the Darfur region, as it is envisaged that they will be sent to the south Sudanese area to monitor another conflict in the country that has been raging for at least 20 years, and where a cease-fire arrangement was recently brokered. “A window of access” was opened by the Sudanese government last year, which allowed humanitarian workers to be issued visas, including members of ‘Human Rights Watch’, and journalists, Leskow points out. However, this “window” has since been closed, and she says that since November 2004, “the Sudanese government have once again been restricting access and clamping down”. She agrees that all parties to the conflict are in breach of the Apr 8th 2004 Humanitarian Cease-fire Agreement and states that her organisation believes that “ethnic cleansing” has occurred in Darfur, and that a “genocide” has occurred of the people living there. It is hoped that people who have committed war crimes will be brought before the International Criminal Court (ICC). Leskow argues that the “ICC was designed to investigate and prosecute cases like Darfur,” and she makes the point that it would send a very “strong signal” to those committing abuses that they can’t get away with it. Meanwhile, the UN Security Council is dragging its heels over Darfur. Leskow states that the “US administration has been quite strong in denouncing what is happening in Darfur, but on the other hand it has displayed strong ideological opposition to the International Criminal Court,” and “seems willing to sacrifice the interests of the victims for their own political interests”, and she adds that this would be “a very sad day for international justice if they don’t support it in the end”. She agrees that intransigence within the Security Council is causing further bloodshed and that delay means death. She adds that “violence is continuing, not on the same scale, but women are still being raped and people are being attacked and killed when they leave the displaced camps”. Leskow says a “big difference” would ensue if the EU, UK and US got more involved. Asked about the possibility of arraigning war criminals before the tribunal set up in Arusha, Tanzania to investigate and prosecute alleged war crimes during the Rwanda “genocide”, Leskow opposes this vigorously. She outlines a number of potential problem areas such as the length of time taken to “recruit the staff and judges, waiting yet another year for investigations to even begin”, and states emphatically that this would not be “responsible or justified morally where abuses are occurring on a daily basis”. She emphasises the “incredibly devastating campaign by the government,” and the “amazing brutality of the campaign,” and puts the blame for the fiasco at the feet of the people responsible, claiming that the “bulk of the atrocities were committed by the Sudanese government.”