In Myanmar, conflicts between the armed forces and ethnic armed groups have raged for over half a century. Since independence in 1948, Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, has conducted a national campaign to establish central control over a unitary state, while many of the country’s diverse ethnic groups have taken up arms to fight for varying degrees of autonomy. Over decades of war, the use of child soldiers has been widespread.

In February, Child Soldiers International and Equality Myanmar hosted workshops with Parliamentarians and civil society organisations in Myanmar to encourage ratification of OPAC, the only treaty focused on limiting the involvement of children in armed conflict. Myanmar took the welcome step of signing OPAC in 2015, but must ratify it to make it fully binding.

The workshops in Yangon and the capital Naypyidaw focused on the various ways that children can become associated with armed forces and armed groups, the history of the use of child soldiers in Myanmar, and progress in dealing with the issue to date.

The discussions came hard on the heels of an event in New York to mark global progress on the issue since the treaty’s adoption 18 years ago, co-hosted by Child Soldiers International and the UN missions of Belgium, Canada, Colombia, France and Sierra Leone and Unicef. Placing Myanmar’s efforts to end the use of child soldiers in the international context shows that while much has been done, both in Myanmar and globally, there is still a long way to go.

The UN has documented the use of child soldiers in the country for at least 15 years. Highlighting the importance that the international community places on protecting children in war, each year the UN Secretary-General (UNSG) publishes a list of parties to conflict that use child soldiers, informally known as the “list of shame.” The Tatmadaw was first listed in the report in 2003, and remains on the list today alongside seven ethnic armed groups.

Joining them on the UNSG’s 2017 child soldier list were six state armed forces and 47  armed groups in 13 other countries. Strikingly, UN-verified child recruitment in Somalia and Syria more than doubled compared with the previous year, and 1,022 children were recruited in South Sudan.

However, since the adoption of OPAC in 2000, UN engagement with listed parties has led to the release of at least 130,000 children from the ranks of armed forces and armed groups, and the UN has signed 29 Action Plans with warring parties to end the practice.

Myanmar signed an Action Plan with the UN in 2012 to end the use of child soldiers by the Tatmadaw. Since then, the Tatmadaw has released 849 children and young people and taken significant steps to reduce child recruitment, but has yet to sustainably root it out. Some ethnic armed groups have policies not to recruit children, they have also failed to implement them consistently, and the UNSG has urged the government to allow the UN to engage with listed armed groups to enable them to sign Action Plans of their own.

Ratifying OPAC would demonstrate Myanmar’s political will to continue to address the issue, in line with the roughly 85% of states that have already done so, including every other member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The key provisions of the treaty are largely in line with Myanmar’s existing national laws and policies on armed forces recruitment, and would build on progress achieved to date under the UN Action Plan. Furthermore, ratifying OPAC would provide an avenue to strengthen dialogue with armed groups on child protection in areas they control, and provide a framework for the government and civil society organisations to highlight national efforts to end child soldier use to the international community.

Globally, the issue of child protection during armed conflict remains high on the international peace and security agenda, and OPAC has been one of the key instruments that has driven progress to date. With the need to consolidate a global norm against the exploitation of children in war as urgent as ever, Myanmar should seize the opportunity to become the first state to ratify OPAC in 2018, and fulfil its commitments to end the use of child soldiers once and for all.