International Day against the Use of Child Soldiers

Today marks International Day against the Use of Child Soldiers. This is a concept more typically associated with African nations such as Chad and Uganda. (Thanks KONY 2012).

I have been wondering, however, if this terminology can be applied here in Jamaica. On the weekend, the Jamaica Observer ran an article called “Young ‘shottas’ take on frontline duties,” in which is described the phenomenon of young men being recruited as gunmen for inner-city gangs.

We are seeing more of these cases where youngsters between ages 17-25 are being given more roles to carry out the major crimes in communities where gangs operate,” Steve McGregor, who heads the volatile Kingston Western Police Division told the Jamaica Observer.

The police said that in the first month of the year alone, approximately 25 of these young criminals, all below age 25, have been apprehended in the volatile Kingston West division in connection with serious crimes.

The latest three were nabbed during a series of operations that took place in Denham Town last week. Three high-powered weapons, including an AK 47 were seized during the raids.

“The men were between 17 and 18 years old,” a senior member of the Major Investigation Task Force (MIT) said.

According to the police, criminals between ages 16 and 20 are being used as front men by gangs to commit deadly crimes in communities.

“Young criminals are being placed as front men by criminal gangs to drive fear in the hearts of citizens in communities while older members venture out of their haven to commit other crimes such as contract killings,” the senior investigator said, supporting claims made by McGregor.

I’ve also heard of this from a couple of the youth who have come through YOU. Read about one young man’s experience here.

Child soldiers are usually recruited at a young age by people involved in organized crime. They come from impoverished communities and are often unattached (ie no parental figures), have limited education and live in “conflict zones.”

This is not a secret in Jamaica. But I wonder if the fact that it has become a norm, and the fact that Jamaica is not “Africa”, has cast this issue in a different light. In any case, let’s look at Unicef’s definition of a child soldier:

For the purposes of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programmes,
UNICEF defines a ‘child soldier’ as any child, boy or girl, under 18 years of age, who is part of any kind of regular or irregular armed force or armed group in any capacity, including, but not limited to: cooks, porters, messengers, and anyone accompanying such groups other than family members. It includes girls and boys recruited for forced sexual purposes and/or forced marriage. The definition, therefore, does not only refer to a child who is carrying, or has carried, weapons.

From my observer’s perspective, I would say Jamaica’s youth who have been recruited into gangs, and in the service of gangs, qualify. The term could apply to females as well, who at a young age are called into service by the neighbourhood dons.

According to international NGO Child Soldiers International, there are tens of thousands of youth who are serving as child soldiers. Many groups are working to eradicate this phenomenon, and I wonder, were this definition applied to youth here in Jamaica, what the implications would be. According to the Paris Principles, which were established in 2007, youth under age 18 face different protocols in terms of being punished by law for whatever illegal activities they engage in. So this could have ramifications for Jamaica, should the nation’s lawmakers and citizens choose to embrace this concept. It would, however, probably require a vast shift in mentality in how children and youth are regarded, especially those from so-called “ghetto” communities. Here’s a brief description of the Paris Principles:

The aim of the Paris Principles and Commitments is to combat the unlawful recruitment or use of children by armed forces or armed groups. Their specific objective is to prevent the occurrence of this phenomenon, to secure the release of children concerned, to support their social reintegration and to ensure that they are afforded the greatest protection possible. In adhering to the Paris Commitments, states agree to uphold certain basic principles which will allow them to achieve the set objectives. The Paris Principles give more detailed guidelines on the implementation of the Commitments. As at September 2011, 100 states had endorsed the Paris Commitments.

Clearly, there are more questions than answers at this point, so this is something to ponder on this International Day against the Use of Child Soldiers.

UPDATE: A quick comment on Jamaica from a colleague of mine who works for the Romeo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative: “The techniques for recruitment, the use by adults and the vulnerabilities are all the same – the context can be different but all in all we do see the connections. Context can be considered different given that it is not all out war but conflict still…”

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