On 21 February, governments, civil society organisations and international bodies gathered at the United Nations in New York to mark 18 years since the adoption of OPAC - the child soldier treaty. The ‘OPAC Turns 18’ event celebrated the significant progress made since 2000 and set the agenda for action to ensure that no child is recruited for war. 

OPAC Turns 18 was co-hosted by Child Soldiers International,  the UN missions of Belgium, Canada, Colombia, France and Sierra Leone, and UNICEF. 

'We have come a long way'

Virginia Gamba, the UN SRSG for Children and Armed Conflict and Didier Reynders, Belgium Deputy Prime Minister, were among those to address the 100-plus attendees in the day's opening session.

“It is a very sad situation to know that still in 2018 many children are exposed to the atrocities that go with war and conflict,” Reynders said. “These children are the witnesses and victims of cruelties. But they are also in many cases forced into violent acts. Finding an end to the recruitment of children in armed conflict is a priority policy for Belgium.”

SRSG Gamba reflected on the strides made since OPAC's adoption and commended the 167 states who have ratified the treaty.

“We have really come a long way," she remarked. "Today, 18 years later, we should celebrate the quantifiable progress accomplished. The issue of children and armed conflict has been squarely placed on the international peace and security agenda.

“Since 2000, at least 130,000 child soldiers were released due to the collective efforts of child protection actors. Thousands more were spared the ordeal of recruitment and use - because their country has joined OPAC and put in place measures to protect them."

Reintegration must be a 'priority'

However, in a theme echoed by many speakers and participants throughout the day, SRSG Gamba stressed the need for the international community to prioritise the reintegration of children returning from conflict, adding: “Making sure all boys and girls released and their communities have access to meaningful reintegration - to help them overcome the harrowing experiences they have been through - is essential.

"But this remains a huge challenge. We are still struggling to rally the appropriate expertise and find sufficient resources to support children recovering from the trauma of war. We should make reintegration a priority by establishing a long-term multi-year mechanism for the reintegration of children."

The day's discussions covered a range of topics with reintegration, resources, the need for accountability and children's association with 'violent extremism' among the areas debated.

Child Soldiers World Index 

The 21 February event also saw Child Soldiers International launch the Child Soldiers World Index, a first-ever global database on child recruitment. 

Covering all 197 UN Members States, the World Index, which includes more than 10,000 data points, will include authoritative data on national laws, policies and child recruitment practices worldwide.

Our ongoing work in Democratic Republic of Congo was also highlighted. We were delighted to welcome Simon Kangeta, executive director of AJEDI-KA, our partner organisation in Uvira, DR Congo, who presented our work with girls formerly associated with armed groups and introduced our new animated film on the issue. 

We were also pleased to share with attendees the inspiring work of school children around the world, who have participated in our Red Hand Day Campaign over the past year - a real triumph. 

Working together

We saw lively discussion and renewed plans for collaboration among attendees, making the event a great success, and helping once again to focus international efforts on ending the recruitment of children.

Overall, there was much to be celebrated on OPAC's 18th birthday but, as our Director of Programmes, Rachel Taylor observed, consensus is that there is still a long way to go to ensure no child is recruited for war.

"The past 18 years of OPAC have shown us that there is much cause for optimism. But we must ensure it doesn’t take another 18 years – an entire childhood – to bring this hope to life," she said.