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May 19 2000

Armed groups and government forces in the Asia-Pacific region must stop using and recruiting children under 18 for war, the Kathmandu Declaration on the Use of Children as Soldiers says.

The statement also calls on states within and beyond the region to deny arms, military equipment, training and personnel to states and armed groups that allow children under 18 to take part in hostilities.

The declaration issued after the Asia-Pacific Conference on the Use of Children as Soldiers urges the safe release of all boys and girls being used as soldiers and help to reintegrate them into society in a "holistic" manner.

Some 150 delegates from 30 countries including representatives of Asia-Pacific governments, U.N. agencies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working on children´s rights attended the May 15-18 conference in Kathmandu.

"This was a very unique conference because it was the very first time governments, NGOs and others of the Asia-Pacific came together to specifically deal with the problem," Jo Becker, children´s rights advocacy director for the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch, told a press conference May 18.

Becker, also chairperson of the steering committee of the London-based Coalition to Stop the Use of Children Soldiers, said the plight of child soldiers in Asia has failed to receive the attention it deserves.

She said the biggest achievement of the conference was that it created a regional network on the issue that will now work to reverse this neglect.

Earlier, the coalition issued a statement calling for a consensus from Asian countries to ban the use of children as soldiers.

"Some Asian governments, like Sri Lanka, Nepal and Thailand, have already spoken for a ban, against powerful opposition from the United States and the United Kingdom. What we need is Asian consensus," the May 10 statement said.

It noted that some Asian children "are being recruited at gunpoint, but often it is poverty, propaganda and social alienation that drive them."

The one thing that unites leftist and separatist rebels, right-wing nationalists and armed religious extremists, it said, is "exploiting children for their cause.

Coalition coordinator Rory Mungoven, who presented findings on child recruitment and participation in armed conflicts in Asia, said such use of children is widespread in Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and Afghanistan.

He said modern lightweight weapons enable children as young as 10 to be efficient killers in combat. They can carry bombs and can undertake high risk jobs like de-mining while having the "tactical advantage" that adult soldiers are reluctant to shoot children, Mungoven said.

Besides, children can be paid less, he added.

In Afghanistan and Pakistan students are recruited from religious schools and trained to fight a "holy war" in Kashmir, he said, adding that in India, armed militia also recruit children to fight in Kashmir and children are also used by Maoist rebels in the south-central region of the country.

Myanmar has one of the highest numbers of child soldiers in the world, both within the government´s armed forces and among non-government groups, he said.

Nepal´s Foreign Minister Chakra Prasad Bastola said that more than 300,000 children under 18 are currently taking part in hostilities around the world.

In Asia and the Pacific, up to 75,000 have been recruited, "sometimes forcibly," he said, adding that the time has come for the international community to adopt measures to stop the use of children as soldiers.

The conference declaration asks Asia-Pacific states to ratify the optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child that prohibits involvement of anyone under 18 in armed conflict.

It also urges that regional forums such as the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), and organizations such as the Group of Eight (G-8, major industrialized countries) include the declaration on their agendas.

It calls on NGOs in the region to disseminate and work to implement the declaration, and to encourage further consultation on the issue.

The declaration urges peaceful resolution of disputes.