15 Years of Work on Child Soldiers: Where We've Come and Where We Need to Go

On February 12, the global community marks the International Day against the Use of Child Soldiers, also known as Red Hands Day. Currently, at least 56 groups in 15 conflicts recruit and use child soldiers, and some of these groups increasingly employ tactics of extreme violence in their recruitment strategies, as well as their methods and means of warfare.

This February, Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict, a network of leading human rights and humanitarian organizations working together to protect the security and rights of children in situations of conflict, also celebrates its 15th anniversary. Formed in 2001 as a result of a growing need for a unified civil society voice and pressure on the United Nations to implement and strengthen its children and armed conflict agenda, over the last 15 years, Watchlist witnessed and contributed to formidable and commendable advancements towards the protection of children in conflict at the global level and in the field. Current global affairs, however, starkly illustrate that in the midst of numerous emergencies and increasing threats, much more must be done to protect the security and rights of children in conflict, and ensure they receive the necessary support for a more peaceful and promising future.

While child recruitment and use still regrettably occurs, since 2001, more and more governments have come together to condemn the practice and join international treaties and adopt national legislation to end this phenomenon. Today, the vast majority of groups (48*) included on the Secretary-General's "list of shame" for recruitment and use are armed non-State actors (ANSAs). Only seven governments are listed for this practice and six of those governments have signed action plans with the UN aimed at ending and preventing the recruitment and use of children in conflict. Two of those governments, Myanmar and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, have reportedly made great progress towards the implementation of their action plans. In 2014, Chad successfully completed the requirements under its action plan and was delisted from the Secretary-General's list. Sustained global advocacy, naming and shaming, and the use of international justice mechanisms to hold perpetrators accountable for recruitment and use, have been largely successful in pressuring the few remaining governments who still engage in this practice to work towards eliminating it.

Although there has been much success towards eradicating the recruitment and use of children by national armed forces, much work is still needed towards ending this practice among ANSAs. All 48 of the armed groups currently listed for grave violations against children on the "list of shame" commit this practice, but only two have signed action plans. The Secretary-General's Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict (SRSG-CAAC) is mandated to work with all parties to conflict, including armed groups, to sign action plans, but unfortunately states often block such efforts. The SRSG-CAAC has in the past had some success working with armed groups, and comprehensively 13 ANSAs have successfully signed action plans. In fact, more ANSAs have been delisted as a result of action plan implementation than government forces. This is evidence that some ANSAs are willing and can be compelled to adhere to international law and norms regarding recruitment and use of children. Member States should not only refrain from blocking the SRSG-CAAC's efforts to engage with these groups, but should actively encourage such engagement by the SRSG-CAAC as well as NGO actors.

When the global community - states, UN, and civil society - acts together, it can make great progress towards the protection of children in conflict. An important example of the progress that can be achieved when actors collectively work to promote the rights of children in conflict is the recent global movement towards ending military use of schools and protecting education from attack.

In 2014/2015, the global community witnessed a rise in brutal attacks on students, teachers and schools in war zones. Galvanized by this trend, actors from across the political spectrum came together and drafted the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict. In an outstanding show of support, 51 states endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration, expressing broad political support for the protection and continuation of education during conflict and commitment towards implementation of the Guidelines. Through workshops and consultations, state representatives and education and protection experts are sharing experiences and collaborating on measures for protecting education in various contexts. Efforts such as these not only go a long way towards providing safe and secure spaces for children in conflict, they also have the potential to reduce the likelihood of recruitment or re-recruitment.

Watchlist and its partners continue to work together with the UN, its Member States, and international and national humanitarian and human rights groups to coordinate advocacy on children and armed conflict issues. During its 15 years, Watchlist has seen much progress towards the alleviation of suffering for children in conflict. Although work towards eliminating grave violations against children in conflict is ongoing, one lesson learned is that by working together, we can achieve more impact for children on the ground.

*This figure counts ISIL once, although it is listed twice in the Secretary-General's list, under both Iraq and Syria.