Mon, 02 Jun 2003

Child and female soldiers a reality in Aceh war

Lela E. Madjiah, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

We must not close our eyes to the fact that child soldiers are both victims and perpetrators. They sometimes carry out the most barbaric acts of violence. But no matter what the child is guilty of, the main responsibility lies with us, the adults. There is simply no excuse, no acceptable argument for arming children. -- Archbishop Desmond Tutu quoted in Youth Advocate Program International, "Child Soldiers: Youth Who Participate in Armed Conflict", 1999, and in Juvenile Justice and Child Soldiers: Trends, Dilemmas, Challenges by Christina Clark, Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers (CSC) Secretariat.

Nothing is perhaps more heartrending and disturbing than hearing reports of children being killed in war, not as innocent victims but as combatants. It is therefore not at all surprising that recent reports of children in Aceh becoming targets of government security forces' bullets have caused grave concern at home and abroad.

The reports have also cast doubts on promises by the Indonesian Military (TNI) to avoid civilian casualties and to respect human rights in the war against Acehnese separatist rebels.

Will the military spare children, and women too? This is a question many are asking.

In an interview with Time magazine (June 2 edition), Army Chief of Staff Ryamizard Ryacudu explained that it was not a question of being children or women.

"If they are armed and fire, they will be shot because children and women can kill too," Ryamizard said in the interview with the magazine.

He was responding to a question about youths aged between 11 and 20 years old killed by government forces in Bireuen regency, northern Aceh.

In fact, the Acehnese rebels have an army of women soldiers known by their local name Inong Bale. There are also reports of the use of child soldiers by the rebels. According to the Map of Child Soldiers 2000/2001 published by the London-based Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers (CSC), in Indonesia child soldiers are used by paramilitary and opposition groups. The latter include the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

The recruitment of women into armed forces is governed by law and their involvement in armed conflicts comes under the jurisdiction of the law of war, also called the rules of engagement or the humanitarian law.

In a simulation used by the International Committee of the Red Cross to promote the law of war among troops across the globe, a nurse is shown pushing a baby carriage in a war zone. She is considered nonhostile. Suddenly, the nurse grabs a gun from the carriage and aims it at a soldier. The soldier then has the right to shoot her because, although she is a woman and wearing a habit, she is a threat to the soldier.

On the other hand, if the soldier faces an enemy in uniform but the enemy raises his gun above his head in surrender, then the soldier is prohibited from shooting the enemy and will be committing a gross violation of humanitarian law if he does.

While women's participation in war is protected by law, the use of child soldiers is banned by a United Nations treaty prohibiting the use of children under 18 in hostilities. The treaty was enforced on Feb. 12, 2002.

Earlier in September 1999, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1261 condemning the targeting and use of children in armed conflict.

The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court meanwhile defines the recruitment and use in hostilities of children under the age of 15 by any armed force or armed group, in both international and non-international armed conflicts, as a war crime (Article 8 (2) (b) (xxvi) and (e) (vii).

Despite the international ban, some 300,000 children under the age of 18 are actively participating in armed conflicts in more than 35 countries worldwide. Most are between the ages of 14 and 17, but some are as young as seven or eight, according to CSC in its November 2002 report to the United Nations Security Council.

In its Global Report on Child Soldiers 2001, the CSC said it found evidence of children as young as seven participating in some aspects of a conflict -- as cooks, porters, messengers or spies. Once children are strong enough to carry and handle weapons, usually around age 10, these children may also take on the responsibilities of frontline soldiers, the report said.

While the law of war provides a clear guidance for soldiers to act in various combat situations and in facing enemies in civilian disguises, there is still unclear guidance on how to treat child soldiers.

As Ryamizard said, children can kill too. The first U.S. casualty in Afghanistan was a Green Beret sergeant named Nathan Ross Chapman. A veteran of the Panama invasion, Chapman was shot in the legs with an AK-47 and bled to death. The shooter was 14, according to an article published by the St. Petersburg Times on April 8, 2003.

Indonesian security forces fighting guerrilla fighters in Aceh face the same problems as any government and regular armed forces in the world face when dealing with irregular armies fighting guerrilla warfare.

Child soldiers in Aceh are indeed a dilemma for the TNI. This is partly due to the fact that the Acehnese rebels apply the guerrilla tactic of wearing civilian clothes during combat, according to a TNI officer who asked not to be named.

"When a battle is over and they (the rebels) are on the losing side and are unable to take their fatalities with them, all we will find are dead bodies in civilian clothes. This is what the media and human rights groups report as civilian casualties while in fact they are guerrillas," said the officer.

It may be so. It is also a fact that the law of war only applies to regular armed forces. However, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu said, children are both victims and perpetrators. Dealing with child soldiers is therefore a challenge for the TNI: to be compassionate without endangering their mission and the lives of soldiers.