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OPAC 18: NZ featured in new report on child soldiers

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Fuseworks Media
Fuseworks Media

"In many countries the popular myth of the army as a benevolent institution which "saves" disadvantaged and vulnerable young people from an uncertain future remains pervasive. This report deconstructs that myth, the research clearly shows that military life is universally and profoundly unsuitable for adolescents. For many years states have assumed that if they are not routinely deploying child recruits in hostilities, they are abiding by their commitments under international law. But this is not the case. States have far wider responsibilities towards children, including the obligation to prioritise the best interests of the child in all circumstances, protect them from physical and mental harm, and ensure their highest possible standard of health. Enlisting children into the military is fundamentally incompatible with any of these." - Rachel Taylor, Director of Programmes, Child Soldiers International.

To mark the 18th anniversary of the adoption and opening for signature of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict (OPAC / Optional Protocol on child soldiers), Child Soldiers International has today released a new report Why 18 Matters and the first online global database mapping child recruitment practices worldwide.

The report points out that young people considering a military career face misinformation, weak consent arrangements, routine ill-treatment during training, and an unacceptable risk of mental health problems as a result of joining too young. Why 18 Matters examines recruitment and training practices of economically-developed states, drawing on over 200 academic and official sources and the testimony of recruits. It shows how some of the world’s most economically-developed nations capitalise on the social, economic and psychological vulnerabilities of disadvantaged adolescents to meet recruiting targets. In so doing, the authors claim, these states may be violating their commitments under international law.

The report explains that international law allows state armed forces to enlist and train, but not deploy, children aged 16 or 17, provided their best interests are safeguarded throughout. It shows, however, that applicants and their parents are inadequately informed about the risks and obligations of a military career. The coercive nature of military training violates the minimum safeguards required under the Convention on the Rights of the Child and OPAC.

New Zealand is featured in the report because it is one of only 46 states around the world that still recruit under-18s into their armed forces: the recruitment age here is 17 years and 11% of all recruits in 2016 were under 18 (it should also be noted that the enlistment process can be started before applicants are 17). New Zealand is named as one of the states where targeting of indigenous or ethnic minority children occurs (29% of armed forces recruits are Maori), along with Australia, Canada and the US; and as one of the states where the need to keep child recruits out of armed forces is subordinated to the need to maintain ‘operational effectiveness’. The involvement of armed forces in education here is also noted: "New Zealand armed forces regularly visit schools, including primary schools. A corporal involved in one such visit commented, "The kids just love the guns, you know what kids are like"."

Peace Movement Aotearoa, the New Zealand national contact for Child Soldiers International, regularly provides information to the Committee on the Rights of the Child about New Zealand armed forces’ under-age recruitment, recruitment practices and the militarisation of children, young persons and their education.

In its 2003 Concluding Observations on New Zealand’s first report under OPAC, the Committee expressed concerns and made a number of recommendations about the age of recruitment; the activities of the cadet forces, how they accord with the aims of education in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and military recruitment practices within the cadet forces; and the level of assistance provided to refugee and migrant children who may have been involved in hostilities in their home country. It also emphasised the need for systematic education and training on the OPAC’s provisions.

In its 2008 report to the Committee, New Zealand said that the main reason for under-18 recruitment was that recruitment levels would drop if the age is raised to 18, and linked it to the lack of other opportunities for young persons: "Recruitment in the Armed Forces has offered young people, particularly from lower socio-economic groups, the opportunity to succeed in an environment where all recruits start on an equal footing. Ground level entry and skill development provided by the Armed Forces is often not readily available on the same level elsewhere in New Zealand".

In its 2016 Concluding Observations, the Committee expressed regret that New Zealand "did not submit sufficient information on the implementation of its recommendations" - it is difficult to provide information on the implementation of recommendations that have been largely ignored.

The OPAC 18th anniversary and the release of Why 18 Matters highlights the need for New Zealand to take action on the Committee on the Rights of the Child’s 2003 recommendations - to raise the age of recruitment to 18; to ensure the cadet forces are not used for military recruitment and their activities are consistent with the Convention on the Rights of the Child; to end all forms of militarisation of children, young persons and their education; and to ensure that the needs of refugee and migrant children who may have been involved in hostilities in their home country are fully met.

Minimum safeguards in the Convention and OPAC

The Convention on the Rights of the Child and OPAC allow states to recruit below the age of 18, but only where specific criteria are met. These include the requirement for states to:

Take all feasible measures to prevent under-18s participating in hostilities;

Ensure recruits and their parents give fully informed, genuine, voluntary consent to enlistment;

The best interests of the child are prioritised in all circumstances; and

The child's right to be protected from violence and abuse, including physical or degrading punishment, is upheld.

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