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Child Soldiers: a Symptom of War, Poverty & Imperialism

I have seen a number of articles written recently about the problem of Child Soldiers in various conflicts abroad – most notably in Africa and Colombia.   What has struck me about these pieces, and the discourse about this phenomenon in general, is that they treat the phenomenon of Child Soldiers as the disease to be cured, rather than what it truly is – a symptom of the much more deadly diseases of War, Poverty and Imperialsim.   Given that this represents a profound misdiagnosis of the problem, the solutions offered are, at best, woefully inadequate, though they do have the benefit of being comforting to the Westerners positing these solutions.

One typical article is that of Yifat Susskind, the Executive Director of MADRE, entitled, “From Congo to Colombia:  Extending the International Criminal Court’s Landmark Child Soldiers Verdict” and appearing on Znet.

In this article, Ms. Susskind writes:

Today, the International Criminal Court issued its first ever verdict. Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, a Congolese warlord, has been convicted has of participating in the recruitment of child soldiers. He now faces life imprisonment.

The verdict is a milestone. It sends a message to armed groups everywhere that they can’t exploit child soldiers with impunity. In fact, the problem isn’t only confined to Africa.

Child soldiers are being recruited by armed groups much closer to home—and funded by your tax dollars. In Colombia, a decades-long conflict rages on, and children are dragged into combat.

As Colombia has become the staunchest US ally in the hemisphere, the US has poured billions in military aid, weapons and training into the country, fueling a war in which all sides exploit children as soldiers.

Some are boys and girls as young as eight years old.  . . .  These children are virtual slaves; many are sexually abused for years.

Ms. Susskind goes on to tell the story of one girl, Julia, who was recruited by right-wing paramilitary groups – which, as even the U.S. State Department acknowledges, collaborate closely with the military to which the U.S. has been giving its billions of dollars of military aid.  Indeed, Ms. Susskind acknowledges this, stating, that the paramilitaries are “allied with the government in an effort to eliminate leftist guerrillas and protect powerful business interests.”

She then closes her article (after very adroitly setting out the problem) with her one and only piece of advice on what to do to address this issue – “make sure today’s International Criminal Court ruling resonates far beyond Africa, to every community where children, lacking options and opportunity, are lured into war.”

In other words, the argument goes, the problem of Child Soldiers will be solved if those recruiting these children into war are tried and convicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC), or at least mend their ways for fear that they will be.

Of course, while it may be the case that a few Congolese or Colombians will be tried before the ICC for recruiting Child Soldiers, no one from the U.S. – which is funding and fueling the wars in both The Congo and Colombia – ever will be.  This is because the U.S., for fear of ever being held to account for its many war crimes, is not a signatory to the ICC.   Therefore, besides the fact that the ICC is horribly slow and ineffective, reaching a grand total of 1 verdict in its 10 years of existence, it will never reach the top authors of many of the crimes it is investigating.

That is, the ICC will never reach the U.S. political leaders (e.g., Henry Kissinger, the Clintons, George W. Bush or Barack Obama) behind these crimes, nor the “powerful business interests” (e.g., Chiquita Banana which admitted to running guns and money to paramilitary death squads in Colombia, or the cell phone companies so dependent on the tin, tantalum, and tungsten being mined in the Congo and fueling that conflict).  Therefore, these crimes will continue unabated.

These crimes will also continue unabated, a few ICC convictions of Third World leaders notwithstanding, because the issue of poverty which also drives these conflicts, as well as a number of children to join armed groups, will also remain unchanged.

Therefore, instead of calling for one more ICC verdict within the next 10 years, we as Americans should be agitating against the U.S. wars, intervention and corporate exploitation which lead inevitably to war crimes such as the recruitment of Child Soldiers.

Finally, while we are on the subject of Child Soldiers, and while we are now focusing appropriately on removing the plank from our own eye rather than the speck from our brother’s, we should talk about our own Child Soldiers in the U.S.   As the children in The Congo and Colombia who are many times driven by poverty into joining armed groups, many children in this country (i.e., as young as 17 and therefore legally prohibited from drinking, voting and signing contracts) join the U.S. Armed Forces to escape poverty and unemployment.

In the case of 17 year-old girls who join and go abroad to fight, we learn that 1 in 3 will, again as many of the Child Soldiers in other countries, be raped by their fellow servicemen.   See, Al Jazeera’s October 20, 2011 article entitled, “Military Sexual Assault and Rape ‘Epidemic.’”   These minors are also treated as virtual slaves, unable to leave the ranks of the military until their tour(s) of duty have been served.

Sadly, there are very few in this country calling for redress of our Child Soldier problem or our problem of female service persons being treated as comfort women by their own fellow soldiers.  Of course, the reason for this, as well as the reason behind the self-righteousness that many Westerners feel at hearing of an African put on trial for human rights abuses, is that it is unsettling to confront our own crimes and our own sins while focusing on those of others.   But of course, as any decent religion teaches, and as Noam Chomsky has argued for years from a secular point of view, it is the very confronting of our own misdeeds that makes us moral creatures, and which, at the end of the day, has any real, practical value.

Daniel Kovalik is a labor and human rights lawyer living in Pittsburgh.

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Daniel Kovalik teaches International Human Rights at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.

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