- The Washington Times - Monday, June 18, 2001

NEW YORK — The United States has signed — and may soon ratify — an international treaty banning the use of child soldiers, saying the agreement is consistent with American enlistment policies.
But organizers of an international ban on the recruitment of children continue to criticize the U.S. militarys policy of accepting 17-year-old recruits, contending that 18 should be the minimum age for service.
They also criticize military-oriented academies for young teens.
Governments that use underage soldiers abdicate their moral authority on the issue, argue members of a group called the Coaltion to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. They also warn that younger recruits are more vulnerable to the ravages of combat and subject to severe hazing from within the ranks.
U.S. officials reject these concerns, saying the Pentagon has adopted policies that shield its youngest soldiers.
The United States allows teen-agers with parental consent to enlist in the armed services at 17. Such volunteers, who sign up at a rate of 35,000 to 40,00 annually, go through boot camp and other training, said a U.S. official, who added that by then, nearly all have turned 18.
The Pentagon has decided that even the estimated 1,500 who are still minors may, in fact, be sent to duty stations in the Persian Gulf, the Balkans or elsewhere. These youngsters will not be engaged in hostilities, said a U.S. official, but will be assigned to desk jobs in communications, logistics or other support sectors.
The military must recruit young volunteers, insisted one official.
"The only way well meet force requirements is [to recruit] fresh out of high school," said a U.S. official, adding that the minors make up only about 5 percent of the 200,000 service members recruited annually.
Britain, citing similar reasons, allows 16-year-olds to enlist.
"The United States and United Kingdom recruit children and deploy them to conflict zones," said Rory Mungoven, coordinator of the coalition against child soldiers. Even though they may not be put into combat, "they are at risk of injury, accident, bullying and hazing, initiation procedures, cruel punishment, rape, sexual harassment and abuse."
So far, 79 nations have signed the accord banning child soldiers. The five governments that have ratified it are those of Canada, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Andora and Congo.
"We signed it because of the growing problem of child soldiers in the the world," said Michael Southwick, a human rights expert at the State Department. "The protocol does not affect our recruitment practices at all."
The optional protocol was designed to allow the United States to sign it without accepting the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which not only bans military recruitment of minors but could restrict parental rights to discipline, educate and rear their children as they wish. The United States is the only country, besides Somalia, that hasnt signed the agreement.
However, the Bush administration is now formulating its policy on child soldiers. One official said the White House may send it to the Senate in the next few weeks with a recommendation to ratify it.

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