UN hears call to help children forced to be soldiers

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UNITED NATIONS, Oct 2 (Reuters) France and the UN children's agency urged more countries to sign an international set of principles outlawing the use of child soldiers and helping restore them to civilian life.

Governments of 59 countries originally signed the ''Paris Commitments'' in February, pledging to do more to prevent children from being recruited as soldiers. Another eight committed themselves at yesterday's meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.

French Secretary of State for Human Rights, Rama Yade, called yesterday's meeting to rally support for the principles, drawn up with the United Nations children's agency UNICEF, which estimates that more than 250,000 children were recruited or used by armed forces in 2006.

''Every country says that they support the commitments and the principles of Paris,'' Yade told reporters after the meeting. ''The problem is some accept to sign and the others don't.'' She cited the United States as an example of a country that backs the core principles but has not signed because it opposes a clause dealing with the International Criminal Court.

''There's not two camps, on the one side against, on the other side for. It's more complicated,'' Yade said.

Among the countries that signed the document, which carries moral rather than judicial weight, are a number of African states with high numbers of child soldiers, including Angola, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Chad.

Ivory Coast's foreign minister, Youssouf Bakayoko, said the growing divide between rich and poor countries created the conditions for children to be ''easy prey'' for armed groups.

''Poverty and misery are breeding grounds for the use of child soldiers,'' Bakayoko told the meeting.

''Developed countries that have not yet done so must increase the volume of official development aid,'' he said.

''They must lift all tariff barriers seeking to unfairly restrict the entry of products from developing countries to their markets while striving to put an end to protectionism.'' February's meeting in Paris agreed a set of principles, meant as practical guidelines for governments and aid groups working in the field, and commitments, which governments were asked to sign.

The documents include some 20 specific measures to protect children from being employed by armed forces or groups.

Many of the measures refer to ways of reintegrating child soldiers into society, saying such minors should be viewed ''primarily as victims'' and helped to overcome their traumas.

The document calls for particular focus on the needs of young girls, who are often forced into sexual slavery.

The eight countries that agreed to the Paris Commitments on Monday were Argentina, Croatia, Guatemala, Laos, Mauritania, Morocco, Ukraine and Vietnam.

Reuters MP VP0533

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