Poverty is a factor in conflict and the buying of arms. In turn, conflict is the root cause of poverty, important in itself and intertwined with other causes. High military spending means overconsumption of resources, and it results in degradation of the environment and distortions in the economy. Such spending is intimately related to problems of debt, illegal drugs and the denial of democracy and human rights. It may lead to armed conflict that causes loss of civilian life, displacement—we are well aware of that today—destruction of the environment and infrastructure, and severe disruption of the economy.
I particularly wanted to speak in this debate because of my role on the Select Committee on International Development. Unless we address the issues already raised pertaining to arms sales and human rights abuses, I fear that we will not reach our global goals of ensuring action for people, planet, peace, prosperity and partnership. I will particularly address humanitarian issues linked with arms sales to countries that have child soldiers and with our UN obligations.
There are an estimated 250,000 child soldiers in the world today. People may not be aware of it, but 40% of all child soldiers are girls, who are often used as wives—in other words, sex slaves—for male combatants. Many rebel groups use child soldiers to fight Governments, but some Governments also use child soldiers in armed conflicts.
Africa has the largest number of child soldiers. They have been used in armed conflicts in the Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia and Sudan. In June 2013, the United Nations set a goal of having no child soldiers anywhere in the world by 2016. Of the eight Government armies listed for the recruitment and use of children, six have committed to making their armies child-free. In 2012, South Sudan, Myanmar, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo signed action plans with the UN, and Afghanistan and Chad made similar commitments the previous year. Discussions initiated with the Governments of Yemen and Sudan are expected to lead to action plans.
I speak also as a clinical psychologist. It is important to note that children are used as soldiers because they are easier to condition and brainwash. They do not eat much food, they do not need much pay and they have an underdeveloped sense of danger, so they are easier to send into the line of fire. As children make up the majority demographic in many conflict-affected countries, the supply of potential recruits is constant, and due to their size and, tragically, their perceived expendability, children are often sent into battle as scouts or decoys, or sent in the first wave to draw the enemy’s fire.
The effects on children are felt long after their physical scars have healed. Many child soldiers are desensitised to violence, often at a formative time, and it psychologically damages them for life.
It is crucial that we as a Government support aims to get children out of army uniforms and into school uniforms. It is crucial to support humanitarian efforts and ensure that arms are not sold directly or indirectly to countries or regimes that deploy child soldiers. Although child soldiers can go through formal demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration programmes when they are free, many are vulnerable and marginalised, and are not accepted back into society. We must ensure that we support humanitarian efforts to make child soldiers a thing of the past.