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A look at the fate of the 300,000 child soldiers fighting in conflicts around the world.

Children have been in the news a lot these days. Rarely, however, has it been for positive reasons. For two months now, the nightly newscasts have brought us an apparently unending list of death from the Middle East. The Israelis and the Palestinians are killing each other again, and the sight is far from pretty. The most shocking aspect of the latest uprising, though, is the fact that a large number of the Palestinians who have been killed were children or juveniles. Their deaths have, once again, highlighted the fact that people under 18 years of age are regularly being used in military conflicts all over the world.
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Their passing has also raised a number of questions which governments and campaigners against the use of child soldiers have long been struggling with. For instance, is one person's freedom fighter always another person's terrorist? Does that old clich? still apply when the person in question is not an adult? Or should children's lives be held to a different standard from adults when one looks at the issue of 'proper conduct' during military hostilities?
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Last January, the international community replied to such questions by agreeing that children should be treated differently. The United Nations Working Group on Children in Armed Conflict agreed to raise the international minimum age for active participation in military hostilities from 15 to 18 years. It also agreed to do a way with conscription for anyone under 18 years of age. Subsequently, on 25 May, the agreement was adopted by the UN General Assembly as the Optional Protocol to the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child. Unfortunately, although the Optional Protocol has raised the minimum standard by which children in conflict zones should be treated by states, there is little in the document that appeals to guerrilla groups or other non-state forces. This is the case because the new agreement prohibits any form of recruitment of children by non-state armed groups, but allows states to take on voluntary recruits from the age of 16. According to Rory Mungoven, the Co-ordinator for the London-based Coalition to Stop Child Soldiers, it will prove virtually impossible to properly protect children caught up in armed combat until this 'double standard' is done away with.
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Thankfully, groups like Radda Barnen/Save the Children, Sweden, have pledged to 'continue to advocate [for] the abolition of the recruitment of children into any armed force.' Still, as the current situation in Gaza and the West Bank illustrates, campaigners against the use of child soldiers have a hard time ahead of them. Israel, for one, has not signed the Optional Protocol and is in no apparent hurry to do so. Nor does it show any willingness to switch its response to the current Palestinian uprising from a military reaction to a more appropriate police-based response, as Amnesty International has urged it to do.


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