As most of you know, I've been working with child soldiers in the DR Congo most of this year. My focus has been on evaluating programs run by the usual aid agencies: UNICEF, Save the Children, International Rescue Committee, the Red Cross network, and a host of smaller Congolese groups. These actors are funded by tax revenues and private donations from people in developed countries, so directly or indirectly, you and I are paying for them. Such evaluations provide accountability to donors that they're getting what they paid for. Anyone who says international aid is unaccountable is simply uninformed.
In previous postings I've explored some of the problems posed by the child soldier phenomenon, but I tend to take for granted the big picture dilemma that this sad group of victims cum perpetrators poses to our world. It's worth mentioning here: What to do when previously accepted morals and norms prohibiting certain forms of behavior (universally shared taboos, if you like) cease to enforce the limits of barbarism? Capturing and re-programming underage youth to slaughter enemy combatants and innocents is one such taboo that no longer exists in 37 of 55 recently ended or ongoing conflicts.
Efforts to halt child soldiering are gaining little ground. Are limits in wartime entirely obsolete; is everything now permitted? More pointedly, why are contemporary forms of shaming (i.e., activists agitating over genocide in Darfur; publicity campaigns to stop the use of child soldiers) so limited in their impact, and yet a whiff of 'yellowcake' in Niger is enough to trigger a trillion dollar invasion of a ghetto autocrat with no link to Al-Quaeda?
The question strikes deep at the heart of political possibility and its underbelly: that the human condition is essentially immutable. For what it's worth, there is a definite dialectic of moral outrage and political action at work in our world today. Activists shout, politicians and companies react, things appear to change. Elimination of child labor use by Nike and company comes to mind.
But what if you live in a neighborhood where people with conscience fear to tread? Well, I work in those places for a living, and I see what happens to activists. Local ones get imprisoned or 'disappeared' and foreign ones get ignored by politicians who are beyond influence and above the law. So why is nothing done about these miscreants, who have far more blood on their hands than Saddam ever did? I still experience mind-numbing stupefaction every time I recall that a delusional dingdong like Saddam got a visit from Uncle Sam and his heavies, while scores of real warlords who've wrecked countless lives and entire countries continue to dance, sing and run for political office, as in Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, etc. Where are our priorities?
PW Singer, author of the book pictured above (Children at War), raises this question in his course of discussion and analysis of the so-called 'child soldier doctrine'. Singer offers a convincing account of the use and limits of advocacy groups and UN Security Council Resolutions prohibiting the use of child soldiers, but anyone as frustrated as I am with the state of the world already knows these failings in painful detail. Obviously, a warlord controlling thousands of child soldiers is operating in no known moral universe, so the indignation of his compatriots or the threat of a war crimes indictment, for instance, have no impact. The explosion of child soldiers boils down to economic interests and the instantaneous force multiplication provided by hundreds of armed pre-teens. In other words, child soldiers have made getting rich quick in an already lawless environment easier than ever before. In countries like the DRC where anarchy is enormously lucrative, nothing appears capable of stopping this trend.
I most appreciated Singer's historical account of how the child soldier doctrine came about in the first place. He also relates the malignancy of metastasized statelessness where groups using child soldiers become havens for global terrorism. A case in point is Charles Taylor's Liberia exchanging its gold and diamonds with Al Qaeda operatives who needed to 'go light' and drop millions in cash.
Child soldiering. Definitely the world's most unrecognized form of child abuse.
"I feel so bad about the things that I did. It disturbs me so much that I inflicted death on other people. When I go home I must do some traditional rites because I have killed. I must perform these rites and cleanse myself. I still dream about the boy from my village that I killed. I see him in my dreams, and he is talking to me, saying I killed him for nothing, and I am crying." A 16-year-old girl after demobilization from an armed group (Source: U.S. State Dept. TIP Report 2005).