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Soldiers of Misfortune

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May 13, 2008

The United States is shirking its commitments under an international agreement and failing to protect the rights of vulnerable young people. In a report to the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, the ACLU charges that the U.S. isn’t upholding its obligations under the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict that it ratified in 2002.

For one thing, in this country the U.S. military is employing recruiting tactics that target youth under 17 and especially target low-income youth and students of color. While the U.S. entered a binding agreement under the protocol to raise the minimum age for recruitment to 17, recruiters still collect the personal information of hundreds of thousands of 16-year-olds in a database for recruitment purposes (the database has been improved slightly to protect student privacy after a lawsuit brought by the NYCLU but still collects information about 16-year-olds including race and ethnicity), students as young as 14 report classroom time being taken by recruiters, and the Pentagon has produced a video game meant to attract potential recruits as young as 13.

The U.S. also is failing to institute basic safeguards required by international law for recruitment of youth under 18. A provision of the No Child Left Behind Act forces schools to open their doors to military recruiters who heavily recruit on high school campuses without parents’ consent, in violation of international law . And while international law requires that youths’ recruitment be genuinely voluntary, exaggerated promises of financial rewards and coercion, deception, and other abusive recruitment practices undermine the so-called ‘voluntariness’ of recruitment.

The U.S. is also failing to protect the rights of foreign child soldiers. Alleged child soldiers such as Omar Khadr are held at Guantanamo and U.S.-run prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan without any regard for their juvenile status. And former child soldiers seeking asylum in the U.S. because they can’t safely return to their home countries – including those that were abducted and forced to fight in government armies and militias – are often denied protection under immigration statutes meant to keep out those who victimized them.

The Committee on the Rights of the Child will review the ACLU report before questioning a U.S. government delegation on its compliance with protocol obligations May 22 in Geneva.