The use of child soldiers is prevalent not just in Colombia but across the world. Like Jorge and Edwin in the video above, many child soldiers enlist in armed conflict due to economic or family hardships.
Jorge, one of the former child soldiers in the video above, also explained the disorientation and trauma he experienced in his attempts to reintegrate into society:
When I arrived to the big city, everything was chaotic. I didn’t know how to defend myself in a city as a big as Bogotá. My biggest difficulties were transportation and the lack of money. I entered then a reinsertion program, where I had to follow certain rules. Today, I live independently and still… I have to follow some rules and attend psycho-social support meetings. This program also supports me with a monthly stipend. Once I was independent, I had to face new problems, such as paying for rent, buy food and clothing. That’s when one goes through tough times. And that’s when I would feel like crying and I thought about going back to one of the armed groups.
Then I found the organization Taller de Vida, which supports me through the arts. I participated in a project called Bambu, where they taught me to believe in myself as a person, they gave me a job, and helped me live a life with dignity and not hurting anyone.
We’ve already posted on this blog about innovative local efforts to support former child soldiers. But crucial efforts have also taken place at the international level.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was put in place, in part, to address violations of children’s rights, including with the use of child soldiers. Created in 1989, this body of standards was set in motion to recognize that children have human rights.
Yet, the United States has not ratified the CRC for over twenty years. The only other country not to ratify is Somalia—and Somalia has indicated that they are moving towards ratification. In the US, it has been opposed by such figures as the late Senator Jesse Helms, who claimed that “the Convention has the potential to severely restrict States and the Federal Government in their efforts to protect children and to enhance family life,” a claim that has been refuted by those who point out that the Convention would maintain national sovereignty.
In December 2002, the US ratified the Optional Protocol to the CRC on the involvement of children in armed conflict, an addition to the Convention establishing a minimum age of 18 for direct participation in armed conflict. In early 2003, the US military changed some of their policies stating that they could not deploy soldiers under 18 outside of the US, but reports have highlighted that in 2003-2004, the US military did deploy (at least 62) seventeen-year-old soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan. For the Marine Corps, obligations under the Optional Protocol have been cast aside, as it is left up to the commander’s discretion to decide whether a soldier under 17 may be deployed in combat.
The Obama Administration must now take steps, not only to implement the terms of the Optional Protocol on child soldiers, but to ratify the Convention itself.