“Children in the Crossfire: Prevention and Rehabilitation of Child Soldiers”

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U.S. Department of Labor

U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao

Remarks as Prepared

“Children in the Crossfire: Prevention and Rehabilitation of Child Soldiers”
Grand Hyatt Hotel
Washington, D.C.
May 7, 2003

Good afternoon, and thank you all for coming.

I’d like to begin by asking you to do something a little unusual.

Imagine that you are an African boy only 11 years old. A rebel army captures you and your family and takes you to their camp. When you arrive, you are greeted by the sight of decomposing bodies strewn everywhere. The soldiers shoot your father. Seeing this, another captive tries to escape. She is caught, assaulted, and brutally murdered. You are taken away and forced to fight for the people who killed your parents. When you try to resist, you are mercilessly beaten.

Or imagine that you are an innocent 16-year-old girl abducted by soldiers on the way home from school. You don’t want to go with them, but they threaten to take your clothes and shame you before strangers. You break down in tears, but they are unmoved. You are taken far away from home. You don’t know if you will ever see your parents again.

Or imagine that you are a child, forced to fight for a commander who says—as one commander actually did—“Children make good fighters because they think it’s all a game, so they’re fearless.”

These are just a few of the terrible stories of the world’s 300,000 child soldiers. These young people are forced to fight by government-sponsored armed forces or by other armed groups in more than 30 conflicts around the globe. And we believe these numbers are conservative estimates.

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. 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, and many more are 10 to 15. Children who are orphans, refugees, or victims of poverty or family alienation are particularly at risk.

But today, by our presence at this conference, we are telling the world in no uncertain terms that these horrors must end. The compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict is a barbaric practice condemned by the community of civilized nations. No child should have to experience the atrocities that child soldiers must face every day of their lives.

This conference sends a message of hope to these children. Over the next day-and-a-half, we will discuss ways to help these children reclaim their lives through education, rehabilitation and reintegration. This conference brings together key stakeholders in the concerned community, which is an important step towards global action. We have hundreds of representatives with us from nations and agencies around the world. I want to recognize the governments, U.N. agencies, non-profit organizations, researchers, members of the media, and concerned individuals who have come here to work together. I want to thank each of you for accepting the invitation of the U. S. Department of Labor to participate.

The Department of Labor is involved in this issue for two reasons. First, as you know, the United States is a signatory to the International Labor Organization Convention No. 182. This convention names the forced recruitment of children for used in armed conflict as one of the worst forms of child labor. And second, President George W. Bush believes—as you do—that children have human dignity and must be protected from exploitation.

I pledge to you today that the U. S. Department of Labor will work with our counterparts around the world to help save children from the brutal life of a child soldier. The United States strongly believes that all nations should join together to pursue effective solutions. Many developing nations are showing their commitment to this cause by attending this conference, and we appreciate their participation.

There are two faces of the child soldier issue—the face of despair, and the face of redemption. In the next few moments, I want to show you both faces. First, in some video footage shot in Africa. And then, in the faces and voices of some very brave guests who are with us here today.

First, please join me in watching this video supplied by World Vision about Uganda. In this video, we visit a child soldier rehabilitation center. I want to commend the government of Uganda for its commitment to rehabilitating these children. This video is particularly interesting because it shows children engaging in mock battles. This kind of therapy allows them to safely express their feelings about their experiences. Let’s watch.

As I’m sure you can imagine, overcoming such horrors requires great courage. We are fortunate that 9 such courageous young people—former child soldiers—are with us today. These remarkable young people have traveled from all around the globe to present the reality of their experiences as only they can. They are here to bear witness for the children who are still in captivity and cannot speak for themselves. But they can also provide us with a blueprint for change and a message of hope—by proving that it is possible to rebuild shattered lives.

At this time, I want to introduce each of these brave youngsters and ask them to stand as I call their names.

Fabrice, from Burundi. Radjabu, from Burundi. Eider, from Colombia. Berta, from El Salvador. Steven, from Sierra Leone. Emilia, from Sierra Leone. Mohan, from Sri Lanka. Grace, from Uganda. And Paul, from Uganda.

I also want to thank the parents, guardians, and representatives from government and non-profit organizations who accompanied these children to the conference.

Our young guests are participating in a program with students from schools in the Washington area. I’m delighted that young Americans are getting involved in this issue. Exposure to this information will help them gain new insights about the benefits of liberty, basic human rights and the rule of law.

We can’t give child soldiers their childhood back, but we can help them to rebuild their lives. That is why this conference will examine all of the strategies at the community level.

As Secretary of Labor, I have a particular interest in education and job training programs to help rehabilitate former child soldiers. This is the only way to ensure that these brutalized children will someday have a chance to become productive members of their societies. And I also have a strong interest in developing special protections and facilities for young girls, who have particular vulnerabilities that deserve our attention.

Today, I’m pleased to announce that the U. S. Department of Labor is launching a new $13-million global initiative to help educate, rehabilitate and reintegrate former child soldiers.

This initiative includes a $7-million project funded through the ILO’s International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor. It will develop comprehensive strategies to help former child soldiers in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Colombia. This project builds upon and expands a Department of Labor project in the four Central African countries.

The initiative also includes a $3-million project to address the education needs of former child soldiers and children living in northern Uganda, an area that was featured in the video. Just this morning, I signed a Memorandum of Understanding with representatives of the Ugandan Government to launch this program. The Department of Labor looks forward to our future collaboration with the Ugandan Ministry of Gender, Labor and Social Welfare, and the Ministry of Education and Sports.

The third part of the initiative is a $3-million project focusing on the education needs and reintegration of child soldiers in Afghanistan. This project will be implemented by UNICEF, an international organization with a long history of helping children.

Child soldiers suffer in many ways—often in silence.

As one young girl said after witnessing the wanton slaughter of men and women, “So many times I just cried inside my heart because I didn’t dare cry out loud.”

Child soldiers cannot cry out—but we can speak up for them, with clarity, compassion and resolve. That is why we are here today. As part of our commitment, let us also pledge ourselves to address the root causes of child soldiers, which is the absence of basic human rights and fundamental freedoms—a situation all too prevalent in the world today. I look forward to working with you to give these children back their future, and to bring them the hope and opportunity that is every child’s birthright.

Thank you very much.

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This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work of the United States federal government (see 17 U.S.C. 105).