** I will be on Peruvian TV discussing this issue, check salgalu.tv at 11 am Peru time, 12 pm New York time. **
It has been a great week for children’s rights.
Former African warlord Thomas Lubanga was found guilty by the International Criminal Court of using children as young as nine as bodyguards, sex slaves and fighters. Lubanga had been held by the ICC at The Hague since 2006. He does not deny that he led the Union of Congolese Patriots political group but insists he was not in charge of its armed wing.
The use of child soldiers is a modern form of slavery. When children join armed groups, they are not capable of making their own decisions, and Thomas Lubanga robbed children of more than just their childhoods. It is difficult for these young people to go on to live happy fulfilling adult lives, and even more difficult for them to be fully accepted back by society.
I don’t need to tell you that the issue of child soldiers is solely an African problem: Twelve years old is the average age of recruitment into the FARC.
In the last nine years, the Colombian Ministry of Family Welfare has helped 2034 boys and 928 girls who were former members of illegal armed groups.
In the last nine years, of the 24,303 ex-combatants who have voluntarily handed themselves in, of every 100, 13 were minors.
A paramilitary known as “the German” admitted to recruiting 303 minors, of which 150 of them have returned home. However, none of the families affected have come forward to file formal charges. Likely, it’s from fear of reprisal, and a notion that the law will not protect them.
It is often common in Colombia that an uncle, a brother, or a close friend belongs to an armed group, and so it becomes somewhat acceptable, even a right of passage, for a minor to join. It happens also in the government’s army in which the age of conscription is 18 but younger teens lie to be accepted early.
When asked, families say they have run out of choices; unemployment, lack of schools, and domestic violence forces children to volunteer.
In Colombia, the FARC, the ELN and the paramilitary groups maintain their eye on future peace negotiations. There are times when their image becomes very important for them. During the demilitarized zone, during the government of Andres Pastrana, the FARC hung billboards that said: “Do not mistreat children. They are our future. – FARC EP.” There was an afternoon in which Mono Jojoy, the FARC leader killed by the army in 2010, stood up in the middle of the plaza in San Vicente and announced it was wrong of them to have children and teens in their ranks. He said the minors would be returned home.
But that was a public relations campaign.
The verdict and the sentencing of Thomas Lubanga sends a strong message: If the law at home does not hold one accountable for violating the rights of children, there is the ICC, which, in due time, will not let impunities go.