Paris conference focusing on ways to demobilize world's child soldiers

Monday, February 5th 2007, 6:21 am
By: News On 6

PARIS (AP) _ An international conference aimed at preventing the recruitment of child soldiers around the world and returning them to normal society opened Monday.

A quarter of a million children bear arms in conflicts worldwide. French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said the situation ``really is a crime against humanity ... it has to be stopped.''

Many of the children are recruited or coerced into fighting, and are often driven by fear and ignorance, organizers of the 50-nation conference said. Children and teens under 18 are believed to be fighting in dozens of conflicts worldwide, many in Africa.

Douste-Blazy was among the participants at the conference, sponsored by UNICEF _ the United Nations children's agency _ and France's Foreign Ministry. It will focus on strategies to prevent the recruitment of children and help reintegrate former child soldiers into society.

It also aims to develop ways to help girls, who account for nearly 40 percent of recruits in certain armed groups and are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuses, conference organizers said.

``Children are being recruited into unlawfully participating in armed conflicts as soldiers, messengers, spies, porters, cooks or to provide sexual services,'' Ann Veneman, the head of UNICEF, said in a statement before the two-day conference. ``This is taking place every day, violating children's rights and compromising their futures.''

Douste-Blazy said some 250,000 children ``are sent by dictators on to battle fields to find out if there are mines or not ... so that their armies, their militias can go past. It is frightening.''

``More than an appalling reality, more than a war crime, it is a time bomb which threatens the stability and the growth of Africa and beyond,'' he said on Europe-1 radio.

Douste-Blazy warned that countries that recruit soldiers under 18 should not be allowed to ``slip through the net.''

An estimated 95,000 former child soldiers have taken part in recent demobilization programs in countries from Asia to Latin America, including Afghanistan, Colombia, Uganda, Somalia, Sri Lanka and Liberia.

Last week, the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, ordered Thomas Lubanga to stand trial on charges he recruited child soldiers in Congo and sent them into battle. The court, set up in 2002, has expanded its definition of war crimes to include the drafting of children under age 15 into armed conflict.