The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is helping to find ways to ensure that children do not serve as soldiers in Central Africa, a region plagued by conflicts in which minors have been fighting on behalf of both militias and national armies.A regional conference organized by Chad, with UNICEF’s help, opened today in the capital, N’Djamena, to end the recruitment and use of children by armed forces and groups.“There are thousands of child soldiers involved in the conflicts affecting Chad, Central African Republic [CAR] and Sudan,” said Marzio Babille, UNICEF Representative in Chad. “Children have no place in conflict and their recruitment is a tragedy that must be stopped.”He stressed that groups recruiting children can be held accountable before the International Criminal Court (ICC).Four former child soldiers – including the writer Ishmael Beah, a UNICEF Advocate for Children Affected by War, and Emmanuel Jal, now a hip-hop artist – will take part in the gathering.Specialists of other child recruitment issues such as gender-based violence and psycho-social reinsertion will participate in the three-day event.Government representatives from Chad, Sudan, the CAR, Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon are expected to sign the N’Djamena Declaration, highlighting countries’ commitment to stop recruitment of children in armed forces.The Declaration also seeks to enhance opportunities for children – including in education and employment – once they have left armed groups.“Most countries in the region have signed international agreements and they must now take this one step further and signal stronger commitment by ratifying the additional protocols on the Convention of the Rights of the Child,” Dr. Babille said. Chad and Sudan have signed and ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, while Cameroon and Nigeria have signed the pact, but have not yet ratified it. Niger and the CAR have neither signed nor ratified.UNICEF has voiced concern that refugee children in nations where conflicts have spread beyond national borders are also at risk of being recruited by armed groups. “Failing to protect children from being recruited and used by armed forces and groups will impede the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals [MDGs],” the eight anti-poverty targets with a 2015 deadline, Dr. Babille said.Last month, the UN launched a major campaign for the universal adoption of treaty protocols that outlaw the sale of children, child prostitution and pornography, and protect youngsters in armed conflict, with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon calling for full ratification by 2012.“The sad truth is that too many children in today’s world suffer appalling abuse,” Mr. Ban told a ceremony at UNICEF headquarters in New York marking the tenth anniversary of the adoption of the two optional protocols strengthening the Convention on the Rights of the Child by providing a moral and legal shield for youngsters vulnerable to prostitution and pornography or caught up in armed conflict.“Two thirds of all Member States have endorsed these instruments. On this tenth anniversary of their adoption, I urge all countries to ratify them within the next two years.”Despite recent progress, “much remains to be done,” the Secretary-General declared. “In too many places, children are seen as commodities, in too many instances they are treated as criminals instead of being protected as victims, and there are too many conflicts where children are used as soldiers, spies or human shields.”The Optional Protocols, said the agency’s Executive Director Anthony Lake, “represent a promise made to the world’s most vulnerable children – children born into extreme poverty and despair, children in countries torn apart by conflict and children forced into unimaginable servitude by adults who regard them as commodities.” To date, the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict has been ratified by 132 States, while the Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography, has 137 ratifications. 7 June 2010The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is helping to find ways to ensure that children do not serve as soldiers in Central Africa, a region plagued by conflicts in which minors have been fighting on behalf of both militias and national armies.