UNITED NATIONS, Apr 29 (IPS) - The United Nations remains virtually helpless as an increasing number of armed groups - described as "non-state actors" - continue to exploit, abuse and deliberately harm children in battle zones in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.
A particularly gruesome incident took place last November when Taliban militants in Afghanistan attacked a group of girls en route to school by throwing acid on their faces.
As the United Nations recounts the attack, in a report released here, the militants were reportedly paid 100,000 Pakistani rupees for each girl they were able to burn.
In May last year, insurgents in Iraq apparently strapped explosives to a young girl and remotely detonated her as she approached an Iraqi army command post in Yousifiyah, according to the U.N. study.
In September, a 15-year-old boy blew himself up among pro-government militia members in northern Baghdad, and in November, a 13-year-old girl blew herself up at a checkpoint in Ba'qubah.
The study, which was the subject of a debate in the Security Council Wednesday, also criticises the recruitment and use of child soldiers, mostly by non-state actors in countries such as Afghanistan, Burundi, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Burma (Myanmar), Nepal, the Philippines, Somalia, Sri Lanka and Uganda.
The recruitment of child soldiers by government forces occurs mostly in Myanmar, Chad and DRC, according to the report.
The armed groups that deploy child soldiers include the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka, the Revolutionary Armed Forces and the National Liberation Army in Colombia, and the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda.
Asked how the United Nations could remedy the situation, or rein in non-state armed groups, Joost R. Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group told IPS there is "no easy answer" to the question.
"I doubt the United Nations could do anything about it other than highlighting the issue and reinforcing the ban on the use of children in conflict, especially for such nefarious purposes," he said.
In a statement released Monday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on the Security Council to impose sanctions on governments and armed groups for variety of crimes, including the use of child soldiers, sexual violence against children and attacking schools. The Council should also promote effective prosecution of the commanders responsible for such abuse, HRW said.
In his report to the Security Council, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon identified some 56 governments and armed groups from 14 countries who are accused of violating international laws prohibiting the recruitment and use of child soldiers.
Jo Becker, HRW's children's rights advocate, told IPS there have been a number of cases where non-state actors can be receptive to international pressure, including from the Security Council, on the issue of child soldiers.
For example, she said, the secretary-general announced last year that several non-state actors in Cote d'Ivoire had signed and implemented action plans to end their use of child soldiers.
This year, the secretary-general's report notes that two non-state actors in Myanmar had signed voluntary deeds of commitment to end their use of child soldiers and had sought to complete action plans with the United Nations (but were blocked from doing so by the Burmese government).
Two years ago, Becker said, recorded cases of child recruitment by the LTTE also noticeably dropped after the Security Council said that it would consider further action if the Sri Lanka-based group did not show improvement during a six-month period.
"Many non-state actors desire legitimacy in the eyes of the international community, and may be persuaded that recruiting and using child soldiers undermines their credibility," she added.
The fact that the recruitment and use of children under age 15 is now considered a "war crime" may also influence some commanders who do not want to risk criminal prosecution to stop using child soldiers.
"To be sure," said Becker, "some non-state actors do not care about international legitimacy or criminal prosecution, but for others, these can be effective arguments for changing their practices."
In its report, the United Nations also points out that in Iraq non-state armed groups are allegedly using children to support operations such as transporting improvised explosive devices (IEDs), acting as lookouts for other armed actors and as suicide bombers.
The study cites the case of a 15-year-old girl, a would-be suicide bomber in Iraq, who was arrested while still wearing an explosive vest. She was apparently married to an alleged al Qaeda militant at the age of 14, after leaving school at the age of 11. Both her father and her brother had allegedly been suicide bombers.
At a press conference last week, Under-Secretary-General Radhika Coomaraswamy, the U.N. special representative for children and armed conflict, told reporters her office continued to face obstacles in negotiating action plans with some non-state actors because the countries concerned were denying access. This was particularly true in Burma, she added.
Among the significant developments last year, she said, was the "de-listing" of the Ugandan government, after it successfully embarked on an action plan with the United Nations country team on the removal of children from its armed forces.
Coomaraswamy said that "some positive progress" had also been reported among the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulikal in Sri Lanka, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Philippines, and the Forces nationales de liberation in Burundi.