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Child Soldiers
and small weapons of mass destruction

Every international organisation worth its salt has condemned the use of child soldiers in third world conflicts and commended the decision of the new International Criminal Court to treat the use of armed children as a war crime. This is all very laudable.

Civilization has come a long way since Swift's 'modest proposal' in 1729 for dealing with the problem of child beggars in Dublin. To offer a reminder, he wrote:

'I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed is at a year old a most delicious, nourishing, and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled ...'

An estimated 300,000 children of the third world now do their begging with the aid of a gun and contribute to the annual slaughter of 500,000 people with AK47 Kalashnikovs, M17 and SA80 assault rifles and Uzi weaponry of the latest design.

The correlation between the unprecedented increase in child soldiers since the end of the cold war and the availability of small weapons of mass destruction - and who is to argue that small arms do not cause mass destruction? - is obvious to anyone who keeps abreast of the news.

To discuss the relationship between these armed minors and the gross excess of small arms, it is necessary to draw a clear distinction between child soldiers of the third world and boy soldiers, who have been a feature of armed forces since the Peloponnesian War. In more modern times, the use of boy soldiers was a common aspect in armies of the western world. Recruitment of boy soldiers ended in Canada with the Hellyer reforms of 1967. The British Army still has junior soldiers (junior to include both underage boys and girls), although they must be at least 17 years on age on enlistment.

Boy soldiers in the sense used here were youths under the age of eighteen accepted for full-time service and subject to military law. They were housed, fed, educated and disciplined by the army. Before and during World War II, tens of thousands of boy soldiers were accepted for service as young as 14 1"2 years of age. In the Canadian Army, six pre-teen soldiers were accepted for active service between 1936 and 1939 - astonishing, but true as records of the Department of Veterans Affairs testify.

Child soldiers and boy soldiers have in common the fact they are still children, products of their societies. Conscience being a learned and not an inherited characteristic, a child's beliefs and attitudes are imprinted on its brain by its parents, guardians, teachers, both secular and religious. With a short memory and an embryonic intellect, a child cannot form a developed, rational judgment. Deprived of conscience, a child is easily led to accept, and exercise, brutality as normal. This is a sinister and frightening aspect of child soldiers as anyone who has been among them will testify.

Sultan Murad I of the Ottoman Sultanate in the 14th Century knew this, which explains how the Janissaries came into existence. They were the warrior corps formed of Christian boys taken from conquered territories at the age of seven, converted to Islam and trained under the strictest discipline. They became the shock troops of the Ottoman Empire.

The Jesuits too were aware of this, which was the foundation of their not very original claim that, given a child for its first seven years of life, the Jesuits could make it a staunch Roman Catholic for the rest of its days.

The extraordinary increase in the number of child soldiers since the cold war is closely related to the equally large number of small arms flooding the world market, advertised as 'Cheaper than dirt' on the internet. The statistics are staggering. According to the Small Arms Survey of 2002 by the Graduate Institute of International Studies, Geneva, published by OUP:

  • In 2002, 639m small arms were in circulation world wide; that is one for every 10 people on the planet.
  • Forty per cent (255m) of these are in the hands of military formations; the remaining sixty per cent (384m) are held by civilians.
  • The estimated annual sale of global arms was $21 billion.
  • Britain, France and the U. S. A. earned more from the sale of arms than they provided in aid to the third world.
  • Deaths from small arms were 500,000 a year. Of these, 300,000 were slain in armed conflict, 200,000 in domestic disputes. That is, near enough, one death a minute.
  • In 2002, an estimated 16 billion rounds of ammunition were manufactured.

What does this volume of weaponry have to do with children? And what has the end of the cold war to do with small weapons of mass destruction and child soldiers? Simply put, the end of the cold war in 1989 irreversibly changed the strategic landscape. Societies once under the restraining hand of one or other of the great powers were free to pursue their own internal political objectives without restraint.

Ample supplies of small arms at low cost - now being advertised as 'cheaper than dirt' at a fraction of the cost of high-tech weaponry - makes it possible to outfit battalions of child soldiers both cheaply and quickly with minimum training. That is what happened. Small arms are light, easily carried by children and both are easily replaced.

For example, consider the micro Uzi, an Israeli automatic weapon that weighs a mere 1.5 Kg, or about 3 or 4 pounds. It fires 1250 rounds a minute. That means a magazine holding 20 rounds of ammunition can be discharged in one second. A weapon of that calibre in the hands of a trigger happy nine or ten year old is too deadly to contemplate.

There are millions of Uzis in circulation today, for Israel is a leading manufacturer and supplier of SWMD. India recently placed a $20 million order for a supply of Israel's new TAR 21 assault rifle. This is a drop in the bucket when compared with that earlier quoted $21 billion figure, but as the Yorkshire saying has it, 'many a mickle makes a muckle'. Israel along with Great Britain, France, Russia and the United States supply ninety per cent of the world's SWMD.

To argue that small arms are not weapons of mass destruction is disingenuous. What other weaponry kills over 500,000 people a year? An atom bomb? A canister of nerve gas? A litre of anthrax? Not all the stock piles of gas in the world have killed that many people, and the 500K death figure is an annual estimate.

What about the ammunition to feed all those small arms? Guns need bullets and sixteen billion rounds of ammunition were manufactured in 2002?

Leaving Central America in 1979 on completion of an assignment, I met and interviewed an ex-U.S. colonel returning to the States from Columbia. He was retired from a long, and no doubt distinguished, career in the U.S. Army Ordnance Corps. He specialized in the supply management of military ordnance: shells, anti-personnel mines, and ammunition. He had installed and commissioned a self-contained assembly unit that churned out a steady stream of a million rounds of ammunition a day for the standard U.S.A. M16 assault rifle.

The installation was an achievement of which he was proud because, he said, 'it beat the competition hands down.' Asked who the competition might be, he said, 'In this case, the Brits, but it all depends on the locale. Sometimes it's the French, sometimes the Israelis, sometimes all three.' One had to conclude that this was a practical application of the Monroe Doctrine in the chosen sphere of influence of the United States. Installed in Columbia, one could be excused for speculating that payment for the unit was made with drug money.

Here, then, is the correlation between the availability of SWMD and the exceptionally high number of child soldiers in the third world. The only question -and a minor one - not answered is how are these unfortunate children recruited? The methods used are in fact as simple and brutal as those that filled the ranks of the Janissaries. Armed to the teeth, insurgents supporting a particular ideology or warlord descend on a community. They plunder, pillage, rape and disappear back from where they came with a supply of new recruits destined to become soldiers by menace, threat or other means of coercion.

It takes little imagination to realize what service girls as young as seven and eight years of age provide to their captors. The brutality and abuse inflicted on these children is a reflection of the feudal societies into which they have been born. Nor is it racist, chauvinistic or bigotry to characterize those cultures as feudal. They are all societies governed at best by tribal law and without ownership of land or property beyond a few possessions.

A banker recently pointed out that the people in feudal society, which is most of the third world, have no means of legally proving ownership of land. Without title, they have no means by which to borrow capital as understood in a capitalist system. These are fundamental problems of the third world that are a separate, but related, subject.

These child soldiers are not without their champions on the world stage. UNICEF, Oxfam, Amnesty International and the International Labour Organisation are some of the groups who work on their behalf. Some countries have specially-appointed representatives in matters of children's rights. Canada's representative to the world body is Senator Landon Pearson, an indefatigable Canadian champion of children's rights in general and of the plight of child soldiers in particular. Canada's representative at international conferences has earned her the title of the 'children's senator'.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child contains fifty-four articles that dwell extensively on rights and responsibilities for the care of children. Articles of the convention are supposed to lead to legislation, but all the legislation in the world will achieve nothing unless more attention is paid to eradicating the scourge of SWMD as a basic cause of their distress.
The world keeps ominously silent on the subject of the lucrative trade in small arms. If it is discussed it is treated as an issue totally divorced from the problem of child soldiers. There is no more important source, no stronger taproot to the distress and misery of these children than in the sale and distribution of small weapons of mass destruction. Nations that feed the flood of weapons disclaim responsibility. To characterize the use by children as the 'illegal use of small arms' is no different from the tobacco industry's claim that it only produces and markets tobacco products, which does not make the industry responsible for the cancer that results from smoking.

That the permanent members of the Security Council - the United States of America, Great Britain, France, Russia and China - are principally responsible for the arms trade is a striking indictment of their joint failure of leadership in the United Nations in this regard.

It is ironic that those 'coalition forces' busily searching for WMD in Iraq need only look in their own backyards to find unlimited supplies of SWMD that are the cause of so much carnage.

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