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Youth against Child Soldiers

Interview with Anne-Sophie Lois

The minimum age at which children are permitted to be recruited into the armed forces and participate in hostilities was highly contested during the drafting of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Due to the lack of consensus, fifteen years was established as the minimum age in article 38 of the CRC. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), a member of the Ad Hoc NGO Group for the Drafting of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (Ad Hoc Group), argued for higher standards to be adopted in the CRC. Anne-Sophie Lois worked for the Youth Section of the Swedish Red Cross from 1987-1989. Here, she describes a last minute appeal to try and convince States to adopt eighteen as the minimum age for recruiting children into the armed forces and participation in hostilities. 

The ICRC in Geneva was very active at the time in the work around the development of what was article 20 and became article 38 of the CRC. There was a spokesperson working at the legal department of the ICRC looking at article 20. Her key area of work was to see that the standard would not be lower than what was in the Geneva Conventions. That was the minimum, minimum. When you develop new treaties, the risk is that it becomes worse than what is already out there. In the spring of 1988, we (the Swedish Red Cross) learned that this article was really, really weak and there was a risk that it would go below the Geneva Conventions. When we heard this, we said that we needed to mobilize young people, because there had been no mobilization around child rights and youth organizations. There had been no attempts by the drafters to involve children and young people and the Ad Hoc Group was busy trying to feed into the negotiations and didn’t have the capacity to include young people in this process. We thought that maybe we could influence the decision making by saying what children and young people actually believed and thought. 

An appeal to better protect children

This was an initiative coming from the Swedish Red Cross that ICRC supported. What we decided to do was to send out an appeal to try to join forces and make a statement that the age for engaging children in armed conflict must be eighteen and cannot be lower. I organized a small secretariat in Stockholm and developed a text. The text asked the United Nations (UN) to better protect children in war than what was in the draft CRC and that children under eighteen should be protected. “We young people from all nations do not accept this. Children who are not recognized as full responsible citizens should not be sent to the scene of war and risk to be killed or maimed for life. We urge that the proposed draft article on children in armed conflict should be opened to improve the protection of children in war and prohibit the recruitment of child soldiers.” The text was drafted in all UN languages. 

We asked youth and child rights organizations to support the statement. This was hard work. It was before the era of Internet and it was not just a click away. It was quite difficult. We went to the archives of the UN from the 1985 international youth year and the international year of the child of 1979. We also went to the Minister of Foreign Affairs who had catalogues of different international organizations and wrote to the Swedish Embassy in countries and asked them to give us addresses. We sent the text out to 1,500 organizations with a letter accompanying it. We contacted the Red Cross national organizations, scouts, groups working with sports, religious groups, political groups, and humanitarian groups. Anyone we could associate with children and youth. We reached 2,000 organizations in 150 countries over the summer. We got answers from 655 organizations in 120 countries. Half of the organizations gave information about how many youths they represented which was around 95 million. So, at least one to two hundred million youth were supporting this. We got youth from Afghanistan, Nicaragua, Lebanon, Mozambique, and Ireland: all over the world. It was really great. We asked the art school in Stockholm to write out all the names in a scroll. It was four meters long and had the names of all the organizations that we managed to gather from around the world. 

Influencing the Drafting

I had to get permission to speak at the Working Group meeting so I had to meet with a lot of people. I didn’t want to come here representing over a hundred million youth and not be able to speak. The president of the youth section came and made a speech to the Working Group. We handed over to the Chair this papyrus scroll and then nothing happened. It was completely silent. The Chair thanked us for “this very unusual action” but “but no one took the floor following the initiative.” This was depressing and scary to see how things worked at the international level. It was so disappointing. I was really shocked. I was very disappointed that it was not taken seriously. We wrote back to the youth groups to tell them what had happened. We were all really disappointed. 

It was a last push to try to make a point and influence public opinion. I spoke with many people at that time trying to push for this, but it was very late and the negotiations were sometimes really difficult. Coming in at a late stage made negotiating even worse. There was just no way governments were ready to listen to us. Even today, twenty-five years after the CRC was adopted, I still believe that governments do not take the voices and opinions of children and young people seriously enough to actually influence what they think. In this first round, it was a failure, but in the end it was a success. We got it through the Optional Protocol a few years later. We actually got more than what we wanted.

 

Impact

I don’t know the direct effect of this initiative, but we did get the CRC in which children are recognized as right holders by themselves and their views and ideas should be listened to and taken into account, particularly when it regards their own life, but also beyond. Starting from there a lot has actually changed. There is a lot of interest and many States are positive towards child participation and are trying to engage young people. It was part and parcel of what was embedded in the CRC and what the CRC was actually saying; children need to have a say on what concerns them. That was the key message of this appeal too. You cannot send them to war if they cannot vote and have no rights. This is just not feasible. Since then, there has been a big shift. We are not where we should be yet regarding the implementation, but we have definitely moved forward. 

Looking Ahead 

I think that child participation is where Child Rights Connect could make a difference. Children, through the national coalitions, should be more involved in national processes so that they have a say on accountability and how governments are living up to what is written in the CRC and how their rights are being fulfilled. I think that it is important to give guidance on this and support those initiatives. Even though Child Rights Connect is a Secretariat based in Geneva and influencing processes that take place in Geneva, there are consequences for these processes at national level. We should also try to have a network in which our members can be more active. We need to look at ways to work with the membership and try to have them more involved. We should listen more to what members need and create more communication tools.

 

Anne-Sophie Lois is the Head of the Plan International UN Liaison and Advocacy Office in Geneva, Switzerland.

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