- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 21, 2008

NEW YORK — Two new studies into the problem of child soldiers turn their ire on the United States, charging that the Pentagon is so hungry for enlistments that it is allowing officials to violate U.S. and international laws prohibiting the recruitment of minors for military service.

The surveys say recruiters are putting undue pressure on underage boys and girls, sometimes misrepresenting the terms of military service, inflating compensation, or falsifying applicants’ health or criminal records to avoid their rejection.

In addition, Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union say in separate reports that the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind Act gives unprecedented access to the records of high school juniors and seniors, allowing recruiters to contact them directly without parental consent.

“Public schools serve as prime recruiting grounds for the military, and the U.S. military’s generally accepted procedures for recruitment of high school students plainly violate” internationally negotiated norms, according to the ACLU’s “Soldiers of Misfortune” report released last week.

U.S. law permits recruiting at 17 and front-line deployment at 18. A key international treaty sets the same standards.

Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Withington, in an e-mailed reply to questions from The Washington Times, defended the practice of recruiting at schools.

“It is important for recruiters to be able to inform today’s youth, either on or off campus, of the many benefits of serving in today’s military,” he wrote. “While the military may not be for everyone, it does provide many of our youth a great opportunity to further their education, gain a marketable skill, become independent, and serve their country.”

Col. Withington argued that the use of data provided under the federal education law was appropriate.

“The law only requires schools to provide the name, address, and telephone numbers of their junior and senior students. By law, local school administrators are required to notify the parents of their right to have their son’s or daughter’s information withheld,” he wrote. He noted that parents or students may opt out.

The United States is one of 63 nations that permit the recruiting of minors into the national armed forces, although only a few allow soldiers 17 and younger to deploy to combat situations, according to the Human Rights Watch report on the global use of child soldiers released yesterday.

Three thousand middle schools offer Junior ROTC clubs, which the ACLU says reach out to children as young as 14.

“The added strain of fulfilling enlistment quotas necessary to carry out sustained U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan without reinstituting a draft has contributed to a rise in aggressive recruitment efforts and allegations of misconduct and abuse by recruiters,” the ACLU found.

The Pentagon and individual services have grappled with irregularities by their recruiters: An August 2006 report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the increased pressure on front-line recruiters had yielded significant violations of their rule books, and that many of those interviewed said the Iraq war had made their jobs more difficult.

The GAO found that substantiated “recruiter irregularities” increased from just over 400 to 630 incidents between 2004 and 2005, and that criminal violations more than doubled, to 70 incidents, in that time. Irregularities spike at the end of the month, when targets are not met.

The office did not specify how many incidents were related to underage recruiting.

“The United States is in a real leadership position on this issue,” said Jo Becker, a co-author of the Human Rights Watch study, titled “Child Soldiers Global Report 2008.”

“It’s one of the countries that has changed recruiting practice to comply with the new international law in 2003, and it no longer sends 17-year-olds to combat,” Ms. Becker said.

But the group and several lawmakers still have concerns about the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which requires schools to forgo some federal funding unless they give recruiters access to students’ contact and personal information and allow recruiting activities on school premises.

The ACLU quotes the recruiters’ handbook as telling military officials to become a familiar presence on campus, coaching sports, attending school assemblies and lunchrooms, and befriending student leaders.

“The majority of parents are never informed that they can opt out of this records transfer,” Ms. Becker said. “Part of the harm is that they get access to the child, [recruiters] can start calling his home, setting up appointments, send literature or freebies in the mail.”

A bill introduced this year would allow recruiters to access student information only with parental permission.

These are among the issues that will be discussed tomorrow, at the first review of American compliance with an amendment to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, an amendment the Bush administration signed and helped draft.

About two dozen government officials from the departments of State, Defense, Justice, Health and Human Services and others are expected in Geneva to present and defend the government’s position on the recruiting of students age 17 and younger.

The United States and Somalia are the only two nations not to sign onto the original covenant, but they are allowed to join the so-called optional protocols, which forbid the use of child soldiers and child trafficking.

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