The use of child soldiers by armed groups is one of the most regrettable aspects of Colombia’s long-running internal conflict, and is a sticking point in the peace talks between the Colombian government and the FARC, or Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, that began in November 2012. Human rights organizations have accused the rebel group of forcibly recruiting children, and the Colombian military reports that the FARC have trained children for dangerous combat duties such as using grenades and planting mines.
FARC representatives have vacillated between downplaying and justifying the presence of children among their ranks. In an interview with AQ published last fall, Andrés París, a negotiator for the FARC in Havana asserted that the forces practices adhered to international humanitarian law. “We are the people’s army, so all people have the right to participate: children, women and adults,” París said, adding, “we don’t have 10-year-old kids carrying AK-47s.”
No one knows for certain how many children currently remained mired in the conflict. While the Colombian government estimates that the FARC alone retains 2,000 underage combatants, FARC negotiator Iván Márquez stated in an interview last February that the guerrilla had determined that only 13 fighters younger than 15 are among its ranks.
In a hopeful sign, FARC negotiators announced yesterday that they expect to reach an agreement for the “handover” of children under the age of 15 who are within their ranks. According to a statement, the guerrilla’s negotiators hope to “finalize, together with the government delegation, the protocols needed to make good on this promise during the course of” the next round of peace talks, which begin tomorrow.
The FARC announced in February that it would put an end to the recruitment of individuals younger than 17 years old. After the announcement was criticized for not going far enough, the guerilla organization declared for the first time that it would work to discharge children younger than 15.
Speaking from Stockholm, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said, “Let’s hope it’s true. That would be a step in the right direction.”
The announcement comes at a time of increasing tension in the peace process. While the two sides reached an agreement to establish an independent truth commission to look into human rights violations perpetrated over the course of the conflict, talks have been strained by a resumption of violence since the FARC’s declaration of a unilateral ceasefire in December, including a ground attack by the FARC on April 15. In his remarks from Stockholm, President Santos said of the attacks, “They are completely irrational acts that undermine people’s confidence in the peace process.”