- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 13, 2003

More than 300,000 child soldiers are serving on the front lines in wars around the world, witnessing and experiencing the horrors of torture, killings and rape, according to a report released yesterday by the International Labor Organization.

The report’s release was timed to coincide with Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao’s announcement of a $13 million initiative to heighten the global response to the use of child soldiers as part of an overall program to raise awareness of child labor.

“The plight of child soldiers offends the world’s sense of decency and the code of conduct of civilized nations. These children are forced to become soldiers, spies, guards, human shields, human minesweepers, servants, decoys, and sentries,” Mrs. Chao as she choked back tears said at the start of a two-day conference in Washington.

“Young girls are forced into prostitution. And when violence fails to intimidate, many children are drugged to make it easier to force them to perform horrendous acts of violence and cruelty. Some victims are as young as 7 or 8,” Mrs. Chao said.

About 120,000 children ages between 7 and 18 are involved in wars in Africa, according to the study, which investigated conditions in Rwanda, Burundi, Congo and the neighboring Republic of Congo.

“The boys are used as spies and sent to the camps of regular forces to obtain information. The girls are used as domestic servants and sex slaves,” the report said. “These children typically lack sufficient training and are often massacred in combat.”

The conference brought together about 500 representatives from the United Nations, State Department, donor governments and nonprofit organizations.

International Labor Organization Director General Juan Somavia called for a three-front plan to end the use of children in armed conflict: enforcement, strategies to help children overcome their trauma and poverty eradication combined with employment opportunities.

“There is no greater challenge or more pressing charge than freeing the 300,000 children who are caught in the crossfire of conflict,” he said.

Mr. Somavia also has spoken with Deputy Secretary of Labor Cam Findlay on the role the International Labor Organization could play in rebuilding the economy of Iraq, which had unemployment or underemployment rates of 50 percent to 60 percent before the war.

“We would have to look at the legal structures, trade unions, and so on: the institutions of a functioning labor market,” he said, warning that high unemployment rates could place enormous social and political pressures on any emerging government.

The International Labor Organization has had similar projects in Kosovo, East Timor and Madagascar.

In an interview with The Washington Times, Mr. Somavia said he had taken the opportunity of his visit to Washington to propose to the Bush administration and international lending institutions based here a globalization policy forum to integrate national labor policies.

With globalization being increasingly criticized for not responding to the fundamental needs of people in developing nations, Mr. Somavia said the lack of formal employment “is the single most important political problem we are all facing.”

“Job creation is seen as an economic policy issue, but it is basically a political issue,” he said. “The underlying question of peace and war are very often questions of social justice or injustice.”

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