Two weeks ago, the Thai-Burmese border-based Yoma News Service released a report detailing the Burmese army’s widespread use of under-age soldiers in combat operations. In October 2002, Human Rights Watch detailed the policy of forced under-age conscription instituted by the Burmese regime, suggesting that "70,000 or more of the Burma army’s estimated 350,000 soldiers may be children." In response to Human Rights Watch’s report, the United Nations formed a Committee for the Protection of the Recruitment of Child Soldiers. The committee’s efforts to enforce the Convention on the Rights of the Child were ineffective. Child soldiers remain a widespread tool for the Burmese army’s genocidal policies in the eastern Karen and Shan States. In fact, the Human Rights Watch report suggested that "Burma is believed to have more child soldiers than any other country in the world."
Though the Burmese junta maintains that the presence of child soldiers is entirely voluntary, the recent Yoma3 report and the 2002 Human Rights Watch report suggest otherwise. Forced conscription occurs among the Burmese army and its proxies as well as among ethnic minority opposition groups. The international community’s feeble attempts to enforce the Convention on the Rights of the Child and, in doing so, uphold the responsibility to protect are blights on our maintenance of human rights. The United States has yet to ratify the Convention on the Rights of the Child, precluding any conscientious American leadership on the issue of Burmese child soldiers. During Hillary Clinton’s Senate confirmation hearings, blogger Mark Leon Goldberg, of UN Dispatch, indicated the Obama administration’s intention to ratify the Convention sometime over the next four years. It is time to make that intention an actionable reality, in order to overturn the widespread policy of forced under-age conscription in Burma and ensure the security of Burmese children in conflict areas.
Burma’s isolation from the international community frequently muddles our efforts to ensure the protection of human rights throughout the war-ravaged country. Positive steps can be made, however, with regard to the status of child soldiers in genocidal conflicts. The joint UN-African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur (UNAMID) recently facilitated the initial stages of the UN Children’s Fund’s Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) program. According to the UN News Service, "[t]hirty-six child soldiers who once served with an armed rebel movement in Sudan’s Darfur region have been voluntarily demobilized and given assistance so they can return to school and their communities." DDR programs have limited effectiveness where UN peacekeeping forces do not operate, as in Burma. UNICEF’s efforts in Darfur, however, demonstrate a genuine commitment by the international community to removing the plight of forcibly conscripted child soldiers in Darfur. We must demonstrate the same commitment to the children of Burma. We must push for an end to forced conscription in the Burmese army and among ethnic minority opposition groups. We must urge ratification of the legally-binding Convention on the Rights of the Child, first and foremost by the United States government. The norms of universal human rights mandate that we reignite our efforts to ensure the protection and well-being of Burmese children, and of children everywhere.
-Daniel Solomon, National Burma Education Coordinator.