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    HRW: Hundreds of Afghan children killed in US attacks

    KABUL (PAN): A UN committee of experts was “alarmed” at reports of the deaths of hundreds of children from US attacks and air strikes in Afghanistan since the committee last reviewed US practices in 2008, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.

    The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child released a report and recommendations to the US government on Wednesday, raising a number of concerns regarding US practices during armed conflict that were harmful to children, the rights organisation said.

     “The US can and should do more to protect children affected by armed conflict,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “The US should take decisive action on the child rights committee’s common-sense recommendations.”

    On January 16, the 18-member, Geneva-based UN committee conducted a formal review of US compliance with an international treaty, the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict.

    The protocol was ratified by the US in 2002, barring governments from forcibly recruiting children under 18 and from using them in direct hostilities. It also requires countries to take steps to prevent the use of child soldiers and to rehabilitate and assist children who have been involved in armed conflict. The committee’s report and recommendations regarding US compliance with the protocol were adopted on January 28.

     “The US has taken some important steps by ending its deployment of 17-year-old soldiers in armed conflict, and by passing groundbreaking laws that allow the US to prosecute those who recruit children and that prohibit military aid to governments using child soldiers,” Becker said. “However, the committee has identified significant gaps in US practice that put children at risk and should be addressed.”

    US forces have detained hundreds of children in Afghanistan, holding many of them for over a year with inadequate access to legal assistance, education, or rehabilitation services. Children under 18 have been detained with adults, contrary to international standards. Although most of these children have been transferred to Afghan custody, Human Rights Watch expressed concern that such children may be subject to torture. UN reports have documented torture of numerous children by Afghan security forces.

    The committee urged the US to separate detained children from adults, to grant the UN children’s fund, UNICEF, and other humanitarian agencies access to detained children, to provide detained children with legal assistance and juvenile justice procedures, to investigate cases of torture or ill-treatment, and to provide education and rehabilitation assistance for detained children. 

    In 2008, the US adopted a groundbreaking law, the Child Soldiers Prevention Act, which prohibits several categories of US military assistance to governments using child soldiers. However, President Barack Obama has invoked the law’s presidential waiver to allow continued military aid to governments using child soldiers including Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Libya, South Sudan, Sudan, and Yemen. The committee urged a full prohibition on military assistance to such countries and encouraged the US to consider amending the Child Soldiers Prevention Act to remove the presidential waiver provision.

    Former child soldiers, including those who have been forcibly recruited into armed groups, face hurdles to asylum or refugee protection in the US. The US considers nearly all non-state armed forces to be “terrorist organizations” for purposes of immigration law, and people who fought with such groups are considered ineligible for asylum. The committee urged the US to adopt a discretionary exemption from the “terrorist activity” bar to allow former child soldiers to be considered on a case-by-case basis for asylum or refugee protection.

    “The Child Soldiers Prevention Act can put real pressure on governments to stop using child soldiers,” Becker said. “Obama needs to give fewer waivers to countries abusing their children this way.”

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