PARIS – Nearly 60 nations pledged Tuesday not to use children to wage war and to disarm and rehabilitate underage soldiers — an agreement seen as a strong moral step against the problem, though it carries no legal weight.
Signatories to a new document released in Paris include countries notorious for child fighters such as Sierra Leone, Liberia and Congo. Several other countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and all 27 nations of the European Union, also signed.
The so-called Paris Commitments are the biggest step yet in two decades of international efforts to stop the use of child soldiers. At least 250,000 children are believed to be fighting in about a dozen conflicts worldwide, according to the United Nations. Often they are used not only as fighters, but as messengers, spies, porters and to provide sexual services.
Even during wartime, countries will be expected to track down and demobilize child soldiers, and to punish those who recruit underage fighters.
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy insisted the document was more than just "good words."
"It is a text that will have a great political value," he said in releasing the text at the end of a two-day conference on child soldiers sponsored by UNICEF and the French Foreign Ministry.
Jacques Hintzy, president of UNICEF France, said, "It is an immense satisfaction to see that this problem of child soldiers is taken into account by governments, and not only NGOs."
Ishmael Beah, a former chid soldier, appealed to the conference Monday for strong steps to keep children from returning to battle.
He described turning to an armed faction when he was just 13, after his mother, father and two brothers were killed in Sierra Leone's civil war in the 1990s.
Once he started fighting, said Beah, now 26, "Taking a gun and shooting someone was as easy as drinking a glass of water."
After serving in an armed group for two years, Beah went through a rehabilitation program in Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown.
"No one is born violent. No child in Africa, Latin America or Asia wants to be part of war," said Beah, who lives in New York City and has written a memoir about his experiences.
The conference was aimed at developing ways to prevent the recruitment of children and reintegrate former child soldiers into society.
It also sought to help girls, who account for nearly 40 percent of recruits in certain armed groups and are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse, organizers said. Girls, often the victims of discrimination and stigma, are frequently rejected by their families and have an especially hard time returning to society.
An estimated 95,000 former child soldiers have taken part in recent demobilization programs in countries from Asia to Latin America, including Afghanistan, Haiti, Somalia, Sri Lanka and Liberia.
Not all recovery efforts work out. Often, the psychological support and technical training prove too little, too late.
Another hope for fighting the use of child soldiers are the courts.
Last week, the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, ordered Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga to be tried for allegedly recruiting child soldiers and sending them to kill and be killed in a bloody tribal conflict. The court, set up in 2002, has expanded its definition of war crimes to include the drafting of children under age 15 into armed conflict.