One boy left behind: the ethical challenges of liberating child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

AuthorConradi, Carl
PositionFeature: The Law and Armed Conflict


Child soldier. The very concept should offend ones deepest sensibilities. A young boy or girl-- sometimes as young as 8 or 9 years old--forced into a brutal life of carrying material and supplies, espionage, sexual slavery and murder. Sometimes these children are kidnapped by roving militias who are on the lookout for violent, impressionable recruits who are below suspicion. Other times, they are pushed into soldiery by their parents, who may see recruitment as a means of acquiring an income, buying the rest of the family's safety, or naively guaranteeing a better life for the child. Regardless, the ensuing months or years are an excruciating loss of opportunity and childhood; and according to UNICEF, there are approximately 300,000 children suffering such an existence worldwide.

In the spring of 2009, I had the great honour of spending three months in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), working with the non-governmental organization Search for Common Ground on behalf of Lt. Gen. (Ret.) Romeo Dallaire's Child Soldiers Initiative. My task was to assess communication strategies that were being employed in South Kivu province by various local and international actors, so as to advertise the country's disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) program to child soldiers in the field.

The project was vital. The Democratic Republic of Congo has long been a locus of child soldiery and in the wake of the country's second civil war, an estimated 70,000 children were in need of DDR services. A further 7,000 boys and girls had been retained by the DRC's various armed forces--including the Forces Armees de la Republique Democratique du Congo (FARDC), the DRC's national army--and more were being recruited every week by the notorious Forces Democratiques de la Liberation du Rwanda (FDLR), a militia made up of former Rwandan genocidaires.

At one point, about halfway through my contract, I was given a privileged opportunity to join a day-long mission coordinated by the United Nations Mission in Congo (MONUC, now known as MONUSCO). Our assignment was to drive to a nearby FARDC field camp, controlled by the 10th Region, where two alleged underage combatants were being held. While our two child protection officers verified these soldiers' ages, I would interview the camp's colonel, so as to assess his willingness to abide by international child protection standards. It proved to be the most fascinating and revealing experience I had during my stay in the DRC.

As we drove north from the South Kivu capital of Bukavu, I asked the small MONUC child protection team how they worked to disseminate information regarding child soldiery and the DDR process. I was told that MONUC strives to hold as many field workshops as possible, in which senior military figures are given explicit facts regarding international conventions on children's rights. They are also told what the legal punishment is for denying children the basic entitlement of security.


Indeed, there are myriad agreements that enshrine the international community's obligation to protect children from underage soldiery. Article 38 of the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child demands that...

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