Afghanistan: Child Soldiers and Dancing Boys

As we landed in Kabul, we were informed that Hamida Barmaki, her four children and husband had been killed in a suicide bomb attack on a supermarket in the centre of town. According to intelligence, the bomber was aiming at private contractors attached to Xe, formerly Blackwater. Instead, they killed Afghanistan's leading child rights activist, a member of the independent Human Rights Commission, a beloved professor and someone respected by all sides to the conflict. Such is the tragedy of Afghanistan.

It was supposed to be a celebratory mission that would highlight the cooperation between the Afghan Government and the United Nations. The Government of Afghanistan had agreed to enter into an action plan to release all children associated with the security forces and to take action against those who recruited them.

Since 2009, my office has received strong evidence that the Afghan National Police were recruiting children. We had information about twelve-year-olds conducting searches of cars, fourteen-year-olds at checkpoints, and even younger children forced into the dark world of Bacha Bazi where young boys are made to dance and then exploited sexually by the police and powerful warlords. This was captured in a recent Frontline documentary with the heartbreaking story of a cherubic young boy abducted into this terrifying pocket of Afghan subculture.

Because of the evidence, the Afghan National Police was listed for recruiting and using children in the Secretary-General's report to the Security Council on children and armed conflict. If they persisted with the violations there was the possibility of sanctions at a future date. Of course the worst offenders are the anti government elements such as the Taliban. They were also listed but we had no access to them to begin a discussion.

The government of Afghanistan was initially very displeased and pointed out that their violations were small in comparison to the anti government elements -- who often use children as suicide bombers. After some consideration, they agreed to co-operate. Within six months, due to political commitment at the highest levels, the action plan was finalized.

The agreement committed the government to release the children in the Afghan National Security Forces and to prosecute those who continue to recruit children. In addition, the action plan gave the UN access to all relevant installations such as training centers and barracks for purposes of verification and ensuring compliance with the terms of the action plan -- including surprise visits.

The signing was a crucially important step taken by the government. A steering committee of all relevant ministries was entrusted with the follow up. For the UN's part, a country task force on children and armed conflict made up of UN agencies, chaired by UNICEF and the Special Representative of United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) would be responsible for monitoring, verification and assisting the government in the reintegration of the affected children. My office and UNICEF headquarters will also continue to closely monitor the situation. If the plan is implemented fully, including those at the local level, the Afghan national police will be de-listed.

We had the opportunity to meet with the Afghan High Peace Council that had been entrusted with negotiating with anti-government elements to bring them into the peace process. We managed to impress upon them that the release of children should be one of the initial confidence building measures.

It was the religious elders of the Reis Shura Ulema in Afghanistan who initially apprised me of the practice of Bacha Bazi and urged me to take action during my mission in 2008. At a follow up meeting, I urged the religious elders to put out a statement on the recruitment of children and to re-iterate their strong moral stance on Bacha Bazi. In fact, all the moral voices of Afghanistan are against the practice of the dancing boys and even the Taliban have banned it. Given such widespread public opinion it is even more important to take all necessary steps to end it.

While in Kabul, I also met with General Petraeus to convey some of our concerns. Last year ISAF had put in place tactical directives to protect civilians during air strike and this had led to a 38% decrease in the number of deaths attributed to pro-government forces. We had heard that there was pressure on the military to do away with these directives and we felt it was necessary to convey the importance of these directives and the fact that they save children's lives. If anything they should be strengthened. We also urged ISAF to help us in implementing the action plan since they were the trainers of many of all of Afghanistan's security forces.

During my visit I met with Afghan children who were undergoing landmine awareness training. Afghanistan has the largest number of children killed by landmines. Most of those in the training were orphans and they were being taught inside captured Soviet-era airplanes. The children were enthusiastic about the course and eager to show their knowledge. Having lost their parents in this terrible war, they faced an uncertain future. Yet they had large dreams- everyone wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer or a engineer. It was both heartbreaking and inspirational to hear them. It is because of these children that the international community must not fail in Afghanistan.