In this essay paper, I will discuss Columbia’s use of child soldiers and child combatants as a human rights issue. This problem is in direct violation of Columbia’s national laws, treaty obligations and customary international law. I will then describe what the Columbian government says about its national law and practice regarding this human rights problem and how honest it is about its policies. Next presenting how this human right goes unnoticed by the Universal Declaration of human rights and the American Convention of human rights in which Columbia has ratified. And lastly, I will discuss what the government officials, national citizens and international actors should do to resolve this human rights issue.
In Columbia, like dozens of other countries around the world, children have become direct participants in war. Denied a childhood and often subjected to horrific violence, more than 14,000 of Columbia’s children fight as combatants in its armed forces. This is one of the highest totals in the world, following only Burma (Myanmar) and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which are believed to have significantly larger numbers of child combatants.
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An estimated eighty percent of the children under arms belong to one of the two guerrilla groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) or the National Liberation Army (ELN). At least one of every four irregular combatants in Colombia is under eighteen years of age. Of these, several thousand are under the age of fifteen, tragically ranging downwards to the age of ten.
Physically vulnerable and easily intimidated, children typically make well-trained soldiers. Some are kidnapped or recruited by force, and often obligated to follow orders under the threat of death. But most join armed groups by choice as conflict storms through their villages further destroying their society. Due to such destruction, children are often left without access to school; they are driven from their homes, or separated from loved ones. Many children perceive armed groups as their best chance for survival. Others seek escape from poverty, domestic violence or sexual abuse.
These young combatants participate in every aspect of contemporary warfare. The existence of new weapons that are lightweight and easy to fire, allow children to be more easily armed, requiring less training than ever before.# They wield AK-47s, M-16s, grenades and mortars on the front lines of combat, serve as human mine detectors, participate in suicide missions, carry supplies, and act as spies, messengers or lookouts.
Life for children who make up these forces is very much like that of their adult counterparts, with very little consideration made for their age. In training, they witness prisoners being tortured and mutilated. And often, they are made to kill three to four people a day within their squad, as each squad rotates day to day.# While in conflict, these child combatants march for days with very little rest and food. They are subjected to the harshest storms, and suffer from physical exhaustion, injury, disease, sudden death, and torture at the hands of the enemy.
Before most of these children have realized the strenuous demands of military life, it is too late to back out. Those who try to run away risk execution for fear that they will turn into infiltrators or informers. Their fate is determined by guerrilla “war councils” who vote by a show of hands. Many times, those who are ordered to carry out these executions are children themselves, and may even be the victim’s friend.
This saddening problem has not gone unnoticed by the Colombian government. Although there is no obvious protection promised in the national constitution of 1991, since December of 1999, it’s laws have prohibited military service recruitment of children under the age of eighteen. In that month, Colombia’s army demobilized more than 800 individuals who failed to meet this age requirement from its government forces. And those military authorities that ignore the prohibition of recruiting those under the required age will be deemed guilty under the law of misconduct and may be discharged. In Colombia’s new criminal code presented in article 162, which was introduced in the year 2000, those who recruit children under eighteen years of age or allows them to participate directly or indirectly in the armed conflict faces a penalty of six to ten years’ imprisonment.
In regards to civil wars, international humanitarian law prohibits armed forces from recruiting children under the age of fifteen or allowing them to take part in combat. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), ratified by all U.N. member states (including Columbia) except for the United States and Somalia, establishes fifteen as the minimum required age for military involvement. However, in all other aspects, the CRC defines a child as any person under the age of eighteen. The Optional Protocol to the Convention, which entered into force on February 12, 2002, corrected this inconsistency by prohibiting the military from recruiting any child under the age of eighteen.
When Colombia ratified the CRC in 1991, it proposed that eighteen, instead of fifteen, be the minimum age for military recruitment. By prohibiting even voluntary service for children less than eighteen years old, Colombia seemed to make strong efforts to comply with the requirements of the Optional Protocol, which it has signed, but has not yet ratified. Disturbingly, the use of child combatants is still quite prevalent in the country due to weak enforcement and monitoring strategies.
In Columbia’s “State Party Report”, it noted that in regards to children affected by the armed conflict, its government has given top priority to humanizing the conflict and to seeking humanitarian agreements with immediate results to free children from combat and to save them from becoming victims of war. To fulfill those goals, Columbia insists, a number of institutions involved in child welfare are helping to set up Vocational Care and Training Programs to improve educational development and to teach basic work skills. They have also implemented a Resettlement Program, which will also assist children under the age of eighteen that are detached from the conflict. The report goes on to include that special medical and psychological care has also been given to children injured by anti-personnel mines, those displaced by internal violence and victims of abduction.
Although the Columbian government has implemented such programs, accesses to them are not readily available to bring about significant change. The number of child combatants in the country still reaches estimates of an alarming 14,000. And although national and international laws as well as treaties are put in place, they are not strongly enforceable. And children continue to be negatively affected by internal conflict as their society continues to breakdown.
The issue of child combatants is completely ignored in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. And although Columbia has not ratified the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights or the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, it has ratified the American Convention of Human Rights on July 31, 1973. In the American Convention, the human rights issue at hand is not defined. However, disturbingly, in section 3b of article 6, the right that no one shall be required to take part in “forced or compulsory labor” excludes that of military and national service for one’s country.
There is no need for children to lend their services to fight in an adult war. If government officials, national citizens and international actors want to assist in this human rights issue, they should urge the Columbian government and its armed forces to put an end to all recruitment of children under the age of eighteen and to release the children from their ranks. Assistance can be given by promoting awareness or donating one’s time and finances to improve educational, vocational and medical programs.
In conclusion, I have discussed Columbia’s use of child combatants as a human rights issue. And how this issue is in direct violation of Columbia’s national laws, treaty obligations and customary international law. I have also described what the Columbian government says about its national law and practice regarding this human rights problem and how honest it is about its policies. I have additionally presented how this human right goes unnoticed by the Universal Declaration of human rights and the American Convention of human rights in which Columbia has ratified. And lastly, I have discussed what the government officials, national citizens and international actors should do to resolve this human rights issue.
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