By Pauline Rose, director of the Education for All Global Monitoring Report
The widespread use of child soldiers – whose damaging effects on education we examined in the 2011 Global Monitoring Report – came under the global spotlight for the second time in a week on Wednesday, when the International Criminal Court delivered its historic first verdict. Thomas Lubanga, a militia leader from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was found guilty of recruiting child soldiers.
A week ago, another rebel leader, Joseph Kony, hit the headlines as the Kony 2012 video spread around the Internet at record-breaking pace. Despite international efforts to bring him to justice – including the first arrest warrant issued by the International Criminal Court, in 2005 – Kony continues to lead the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army. The group has been accused of abducting children and forcing them to fight, as well as numerous other human rights abuses, in northern Uganda, DRC and South Sudan.
As much as creating worldwide buzz, the Kony video has caused controversy (summarized here by The Guardian) about whether or not the organization behind the video, Invisible Children, had chosen the best way to target Kony. As the Yale University development expert Chris Blattman – an authority on the region’s conflicts – wrote in his blog post on the issue, “successful advocacy often tells a simple story; simple stories usually lead to simple solutions; and simple solutions can do more harm than help.”
What is certain is that perpetrators of crimes against children in situations of armed conflict should be brought to justice. The forced recruitment of children into armed forces involves grave human rights violations, not only because it denies them their right to education but also because the trauma involved with abduction and the problems of reintegration have far wider effects, as we found in the 2011 Global Monitoring Report, The hidden crisis: Armed conflict and education. Furthermore, many child soldiers are forcibly removed from classrooms, frightening children, teachers and parents, and resulting in some cases in school closure.
While data on child soldiers are inevitably limited, the problem is widespread and underreported. The UN Secretary-General found in 2010 that 57 groups in the 15 countries he examined had recruited children as soldiers. In several countries, child soldiers were still used by government forces or government-supported militias at the time of the report, such as in the Central African Republic, Chad, DRC, Myanmar, Somalia and the Sudan.
In addition to both boys and girls being recruited as soldiers against their will, girls have been systematically abducted and raped in many conflicts, as we found in the 2011 GMR. In 2009, there were 9,000 reported cases of rape in the Kivu provinces of DRC – and many unreported incidents. As well as harming individuals, such extreme forms of collective violence have other devastating effects on education systems, making many parents afraid to send girls to school.
In Uganda, tens of thousands were forcibly recruited by the Lord’s Resistance Army during two decades, two-thirds of them under 18, according to a paper by Chris Blattman and Jeannie Annan. The main impact for these children, the paper found, is “substantially lower education, diminished productivity and increased poverty and inequality”. But the ill-effects of conflict also reach beyond those who are recruited to rebel groups and armies. Of the world’s out-of-school children, 42% – 28 million – live in conflict-affected countries. Only 79% of young people are literate in conflict-affected poor countries, compared with 93% in other poor countries, according to the 2011 GMR.
The verdict against Lubanga is a landmark first step towards bringing perpetrators of crimes against children to justice. In the words of the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy, there is hope that it will serve as a “strong deterrent” to other warlords and commanders. Along with other international efforts to end impunity for violators of children’s rights in conflict, it will hopefully lead to the world becoming a safer place for children, wherever they live.
Illustration: A drawing done in 2006 by Nickson Okwir, a boy who had fled fighting between the Lord’s Resistance Army and government forces in northern Uganda. (Courtesy of Nickson Okwir and A River Blue.)
Follow Pauline Rose on Twitter: @Pauline_RoseGMR