Former child soldier becomes UNICEF ambassador

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NEW YORK, Nov 21 (Reuters) A former child soldier in Sierra Leone's civil war was named an ambassador for the UN children's agency, vowing to be an advocate for children worldwide, not just in African war zones.

Ishmael Beah lost his family in a rebel attack at about age 12, was kidnapped by Sierra Leone's national army and forced, along with other captured children, to fight a deadly war.

His memoir ''A Long Way Gone'' was a best-seller this year, recounting his remorse over the war and how he eventually found support from a UNICEF rehabilitation program and from a new adoptive family in the United States.

''I met UNICEF at a time of my life when I had lost hope,'' Beah said as he was appointed UNICEF Advocate for Children Affected by War in a ceremony marking the 18th anniversary of the UN's convention on the rights of the child.

Education equipped Beah to become an outspoken defender of children's rights and, now aged 26, he has become a regular public speaker on the plight of children.

He said his new role as UNICEF ambassador would give him ''more strength to continue to do what I have dedicated my life to, which is to make sure that what happened to me does not continue to happen to other children around the world.'' The use of children in Africa's armed conflicts is still routine.

Last week, some 230 child soldiers, whose average age was 14, were released from Congo's pro-government militia, according to UNICEF.

Beah said he did not want to focus only on war-ridden countries.

He said social and economic disparities were the root of violations of children's rights around the world.

''Either children are leaving home because they are extremely poor, social conditions are bad, or because they're abused at home,'' Beah told Reuters after the ceremony.

''All of this is coming from the social, economic disparities in these places,'' he said, pointing to the poor condition of children in Brazil's ''favelas,'' or slums.

He said the UN's 18-year-old international treaty had helped focus attention on children's rights but added that he was often frustrated by the slow pace of change.

''Especially when it comes to the development of international legal standards and resolutions to these problems, it develops very slowly while the problem goes on.'' Reuters SZ DB0954

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