Pausing to think about plight of world’s 300,000 child soldiers for a moment

makiBy Reid Maki, Director of Social Responsibility and Fair Labor Standards

Today is an important day if you care about the welfare of children. Advocates have named February 12 “International Day against the Use of Child Soldiers” to highlight one of the worst forms of child labor. It’s hard to imagine that in 2013 the use of child soldiers is alive and thriving, but the BBC estimates that there are 300,000 child soldiers internationally. This number includes children of elementary school age who are handed automatic weapons and asked to kill, as well as others who are used for slave labor to support armies. Since January 2011, child soldiers have been used in at least 19 countries.

Many of the children suffer the worst forms of psychological warfare from their captors, who in many cases break them down by forcing them to kill or maim their friends or family. Many girls are sexually assaulted and forced to serve as sexual slaves. Many child victims are given drugs to keep them compliant. Their years of enforced service often produce intense psychological scarring that makes it hard to return to their communities. In some cases, they are shunned by their villages. Hear one girl’s compelling story in this YouTube video.

The Child Labor Coalition has tracked dozens of stories regarding the use of child soldiers over the last year and engages with its members to perform advocacy to reduce the use of child soldiers. Most recently, the warfare in Mali led to the recruitment of child soldiers, including children as young as 12. In early January, the United Nations decried the use of child soldiers in the Central African Republic, and in India, reports emerged that the militant group, the Garo National Liberation Army was using children in a variety of roles to support combat, including possibly the use of armed children. In early December, 2012, the U.S. government imposed sanctions on two “March 23 (M23)” leaders in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) for allegedly using child soldiers.

Not all the news has been bad. In June 2012, Burma made significant strides in reducing its use of child soldiers when it released an action plan to tackle the problem. In 2012, Yemeni authorities said they were committed to stopping the use of children in the military.

The challenges governments face to end the use of child soldiers are often formidable, however. A February 6th Huffington Post blog by Jake Scobey-Thal noted that despite some progress, child soldiers are still being used in Burma and cited the International Labour Organization that their numbers may be as high as 5,000.

Two members of the Child Labor Coalition, World Vision and Human Rights Watch (HRW), have been leaders in the effort to pressure the US government into abiding by a congressional law, the Child Soldiers Prevention Act, which prohibits military aid to countries that use child soldiers. They’ve also provided a valuable service with early warnings when civil strife reaches the point that children begin to be dragged into military conflicts as they have been recently in Mali, Syria and the DRC.

Is the U.S. doing enough to protect children from becoming child soldiers or from being harmed by military conflict? On February 5th, HRW cited recent recommendations by the United Nations (UN) committee of experts and urged the United States to do more to protect children harmed by conflict. The UN committee had expressed alarm about reports that hundreds of children have died during US airstrikes in Afghanistan over the last four years and noted that children have been arrested and detained in Afghanistan. US laws, said the committee of experts, have also excluded former child soldiers from securing asylum here.

“The US can and should do more to protect children affected by armed conflict,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at HRW, who urged the U.S. to “take decisive action” on the children rights committee’s recommendations to address these problems.

In November 2012, Jesse Eaves, a senior policy advisor for child protection for World Vision told IRIN Humanitarian News and Analysis that the use of presidential waivers which is becoming a frequent occurrence is weakening the authority of the Child Soldiers Prevention Act. “When the United States government gives a waiver to a country identified in the State Department’s [Trafficking in Persons] report as country using children in their national military, this weakens the authority of the law by not holding the country accountable for removing children from their armed forces,” said Eaves.

In a press release about International Day to End the Use of Child Soldiers, Amnesty International called on governments to adopt a global Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) to prevent armed forces, like those in Mali, from using weapons to recruit children as soldiers. Final talks on an ATT treaty are scheduled to occur in March, and according to Amnesty, “the current draft ATT text proposes weak rules to help prevent arms transfers to states or groups using child soldiers.”

Clearly much work remains to be done to get the U.S. and other governments to do the right thing when it comes to child soldiers, but working together, the members of the CLC and its allies hope that in the near future the use of child soldiers will be banished. Readers interested in this issue should visit the White House comment page and let their concerns about the use of child soldiers and presidential waivers of the provisions of the Child Soldiers Prevention Act be known.

 

Education-for-girls activist Malala Yousafzai walks out of hospital after assassination attempt

makiBy Reid Maki, Director of Social Responsibility and Fair Labor Standards

The world is celebrating great news that came in with the New Year: 15-year-old education activist Malala Yousafzai walked out of a Birmingham, England hospital on January 4th, nearly three months after the Taliban shot her in the head and neck during an assassination attempt in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. Malala spoke out on behalf of her generation of girls having access to education —a position that was in sharp variance with Taliban extremists who tried to silence her.

Malala’s recovery, although far from complete, is being hailed as a miracle and her resilience is being celebrated far and wide. Malala’s courage has touched many, including pop-star Madonna, who dedicated a song to the girl in the days after the attack. She appeared at a concert with Malala’s name in large letters across her back.

Former UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown cited Malala as a hero and visited Pakistan to press for open access to education. “Can Pakistan convert its momentary desire to speak out in support of Malala into a long-term commitment to getting its three million girls and five million children into school?” asked Brown, who is currently serving as the United Nations Special Envoy for Global Education. Brown’s advocacy in support of Malala has led to calls to provide school access to all girls by 2015.

For more than two decades, the Child Labor Coalition has fought to protect children from the worst forms of child labor and Malala’s vision is central to that effort. “Access to education is one of the keys to reducing child labor—that’s what Malala is fighting for and that’s why her work has been so important,” noted CLC Co-Chair Sally Greenberg and the Executive Director of the National Consumers League. According to the Global Campaign for Education, 53 percent of out-of-school youth worldwide are girls, and millions of girls face discrimination, sexual and physical abuse, neglect, exploitation and violence.

In Pakistan, educational inequalities abound. The World Bank estimates that only 57 percent of girls and women can read and write, and in rural areas, only 22 percent of girls have completed primary-level schooling, compared with 47 percent of boys. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs, nearly one-third of Pakistani children aged 5-14 are deprived of schooling, and the country is making “no advancement in efforts to eliminate the worst forms of child labor.” Inspired by Malala’s case, however, the government of Pakistan has signaled its desire to provide equal access to education.

“The right to education is fundamental, and we stand with Malala and all those around the world who are working with us to make sure all children have equal access to high-quality public education,” said American Federation of Teachers Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson, also a CLC co-chair, in the days following the attack.

Malala’s education advocacy began at age 11, when she blogged about Taliban atrocities in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. She wrote about the closing of schools for girls, which were a result of ultra conservative views—supported by the Taliban—toward women’s roles in Pakistani society. According to published reports, Malala felt forced to hide her school books and feared for her life, knowing that advocacy might make her a target of the Taliban. At age 11 she said, “All I want is an education. And I am afraid of no one.”

“Education is power, especially for girls. Malala knows this and has used her voice to advocate for others,” Lily Eskelsen, vice president of the National Education Association, a Child Labor Coalition member reminded us at the time of the shooting. “The Taliban underestimated Malala from the beginning, but her power has already been unleashed. They cannot call it back. An educated girl becomes an informed woman, able to make the best choices for her own well-being and that of her family; generations are impacted.”

Despite the unequal access to education faced by many girls around the world, there is some good news. According to the International Labor Organization’s latest statistics, the number of girls in child labor worldwide fell between 2004 and 2008 from 103 million to 88 million. “We need to keep that progress up. We need to keep Malala’s vision alive and provide girls with unfettered access to education,” said the CLC’s Greenberg.

Although Malala faces many challenges ahead, including additional surgeries, her recovery is nothing short of miraculous. Her heroism and advocacy for girls inspires us all and may indeed lead to lasting changes in educational access for girls and women.

Possible Brazil Mad Cow episode troubling

By Teresa Green, Linda Golodner Food Safety & Nutrition Fellow

In a scary piece of news, it has come to light this past week that Brazil may have experienced a case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), a disease more commonly known as “mad cow” disease.  While the animal became ill and died in December of 2010, it was not until April of 2011 that the first testing was done, and not until last week that the final tests were complete.  This final set of testing, which was carried out at a laboratory in the UK, indicated the presence of the proteins that cause BSE.

There are several reasons why this announcement is troubling.  The first is the length of time that it took to confirm the presence of the disease.  Between the cow’s onset of symptoms in 2010 and the confirmation of its illness last week, almost two years passed.  During these two years, Brazil was not subject to the stringent safety checks that impact nations where there has been a confirmed case of BSE.

Additionally, this event has brought further attention to an important problem plaguing the meat safety system of this country, which is set up with several control points to ensure safe product.  First, USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) does a thorough review to ensure that foreign nations have food safety systems that are “equivalent” to ours before those countries are ever allowed to send meat here.  Secondly, FSIS does routine audits of those foreign systems to ensure equivalency is being maintained.  Finally, FSIS does pathogen testing of meat entering the US to ensure that it is safe.  This system is designed to guarantee a safe supply of foreign meat for US consumers.

Unfortunately, as has been reported recently, the number of foreign inspections being carried out by FSIS has decreased dramatically over the last several years, from an average of 26.4 per year from 2001 to 2008 to an average of 9.8 between 2009 and 2012.

In a time of fiscal austerity and the race to save money, it can be tempting for federal agencies to cut expensive, time intensive programs like inspection.  However, as the ongoing rash of foodborne illness outbreaks illustrates, we cannot be too vigilant when it comes to our food supply.

 

Number of companies pledging to avoid Uzbek cotton Zooms past 100

By Reid Maki, Director of Social Responsibility and Fair Labor Standards

The Cotton Campaign recently passed an important milestone in the fight to protect children in Uzbekistan from forced child labor: more than 100 companies have signed a pledge to try to avoid purchasing Uzbek cotton. Consumers will recognize a lot of the names on the list—Levis Strauss, Fruit of the Loom, GAP, Ann Taylor, Wal-Mart—comprising many of the largest apparel companies in the world. To date, 124 companies have signed the pledge.

Each fall, the country of Uzbekistan compels hundreds of thousands of school children to leave their classrooms and perform back-breaking labor harvesting cotton. The children typically earn only pennies for their work and experience harsh, uncomfortable conditions. In many countries of the world cotton is harvested with machinery, but in Uzbekistan using school children, college students and adults forced into labor has proven to be a cheap solution to harvest needs and picking by hand results in cotton that can draw top prices. Ruled by a totalitarian dictator, Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan is the only country in the world whose government is compelling the widespread use of child labor for non-military purposes.

For years, the members of the Cotton Campaign, including the National Consumers League (NCL) and the Child Labor Coalition, which NCL co-chairs with the American Federation of Teachers, have applied pressure on companies that use cotton to eliminate their use of Uzbek cotton until Uzbek leaders allows the International Labour Organization to monitor the cotton harvest and until Uzbekistan eliminates exploitative child labor and forced adult labor from the harvest.

According to reports coming out of Uzbekistan during this fall’s harvest, more schools have remained open this year and the use of child labor has fallen somewhat. Apparently, Uzbekistan has allowed some younger children to focus on their studies by turning to increased forced labor of older kids in the 15- to 19-year-old range. Advocates see this as a sign that pressure is beginning to work. And having 100 companies sign the pledge to avoid Uzbek cotton sends a powerful message to Uzbekistan: you must do more to eliminate the use of forced labor and child labor and you must let the ILO monitor your next cotton harvest.

One obstacle that companies face who have signed the pledge is ensuring that no cotton actually enters their supply stream—despite their intentions to keep it out. Advocates and companies are working to make certain that the pledge is meaningful and that cotton does not pass through so many middlemen that its country of origin is no longer recognizable.

NCL and the Child Labor Coalition encourage consumers to look at the list of companies that have signed the pledge and if their favorite company is not yet on the list, let it know that it should be.

For more information about child labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields, please visit the Cotton Campaign here. Readers may view a video of children working in the fields here.

SEC adopts reporting rule to help with human rights issues

By Reid Maki, Director of Social Responsibility and Fair Labor Standards

The primary mission of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is to protect investors from unfair or unscrupulous practices. Last week, however, the SEC did something remarkable: It agreed to adopt a rule with the goal of diminishing the human rights consequences of business practices.

The SEC voted by a narrow 3-2 margin to require companies that use so-called “conflict minerals”—metals like gold, tantalum, tin, and tungsten which end up in a wide array of products like cell phones, computers and other electronic devices—to file reports about the use of minerals that have been fueling violent conflict and abetting widespread social abuses like the use of child soldiers. The rules were mandated under section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill and targeted towards minerals extrated in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and neighboring countries.

Although two commissioners debated whether the SEC’s core mission of protecting investors should be expanded in this way, they agreed that conflict in the DRC and neighboring countries is a pressing problem and that warring groups are using profits from mineral extraction to engage in armed conflict and a wide variety of human rights abuses. Commissioners Troy Paredes and Daniel Gallagher voted against adopting the rule, arguing that there was no clear evidence that the reporting requirement would help solve civil rights abuses and that the SEC had no jurisdiction to tackle human rights problems. Gallagher complained that the SEC’s proposed rule had no exemptions for small businesses and said the reporting requirements might be overly burdensome.

SEC chair Mary Schapiro joined  commissioners Luis Aguilar and Elise Walter in voting for adopting the reporting rule. The three commissioners were quick to point out that the SEC was under a congressional mandate to implement the provisions and that the humanitarian crisis in sub-Saharan Africa is severe and required action.

The nonprofit community in general is pleased with the adoption of the reporting requirement, although some groups complained that the rules could be tougher and shouldn’t allow companies to list the origins of their mineral use as “indeterminable” for a two- to four-year period.

The hope is that by making the use of “conflict minerals” transparent, companies will be under pressure from stock holders and the public to seek “cleaner” minerals that are not tied to armed conflict or abuses. At the National Consumers League, we applaud this expansion of SEC’s role. It is our hope that supply chain transparency will help move the region’s intractable problems toward solutions and nudge war-torn countries like the DRC towards greater peacefulness. As a co-chair of the Child Labor Coalition, NCL has long worked for the protection of children from military exploitation and the use of child soldiers in this region has been endemic for years.

At the same hearing on Wednesday, August 22nd, the commissioners voted by a 2-1 margin (with two commissioners recusing themselves) to require companies extracting resources—like fossil fuels and minerals–to report payments of $100,000 or more to foreign governments. NCL joins the nonprofit community in hailing this rule as an important step toward greater supply chain transparency.

Liberia: Are foreign corporations helping or hurting?

By Brianne Pitts, NCL public policy intern

Recently, members of the nonprofit community gathered in Washington, DC to attend a forum that examined the current social, economical, and political conditions in the West African nation of Liberia. After two decades of instability and two civil wars that killed 250,000 people, Liberia has begun the process of picking up the pieces of its shattered nation, which is no easy task: Six in seven Liberians live in dire poverty. Fortunately, the country, founded by freed American slaves in the 19th century, has abundant natural resources. With the restructuring of Liberian government to a unitary constitutional republic led by President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa’s first female elected head of state and a Harvard-trained economist, it seems as if these resources could bring some needed revenues into the country.

With the return of political and economical stability, however, there is a rising concern over worker’s rights for Liberians. There has been a steady and growing increase in land ownership and the extraction of Liberia’s natural resources by U.S. companies like Chevron, Firestone, and other conglomerates.

As Western outsiders acquire more land, Liberians already living on the land are being pushed from their homes. Village lines have had to be redrawn due to land grabbing. Different communities have been squeezed together and forced to share increasingly limited resources left behind by the corporations.

Large-scale extraction of the land has caused rivers and streams to become polluted, simultaneously wiping out the food and water sources as well as possible trade opportunities for local families.

A major problem with the presence of big business in Liberia is the corporation’s failure to invest in the Liberian people. Alfred Brownell, a Liberian lawyer, told event participants that “the (American) Firestone Corporation has been present in Liberia for over 80 years, and still to this day there is not a single person of Liberian descent in a position of power within that company.”

Liberian workers are relegated to labor-intensive, menial, low-paying jobs. If companies like Firestone or Chevron proceed to invest only in the land without investing in the people, and provide wealth for themselves but not the Liberians, then the American-Liberian relationship will continue to be exploitative. Consumers should hold big corporations accountable for how they produce their products and the devastation they leave behind. American corporations must be held to a high standard when it comes to extracting resources from the world’s poorest nations.

New State Department report suggests the global enormity of trafficking

By Steven Dorshkind, NCL public policy intern

The State Department released a new update to its annual Trafficking in Persons Report recently, and the results are shocking. The report states that approximately 27 million people are victims of human trafficking globally. This report also evaluates the countries of the world and places them into four different tiers depending upon the level of commitment and action the individual government have shown to combat trafficking.

Trafficking may take many guises: commercial sexual exploitation, and prostitution of minors, debt bondage and forced labor.

Of the 27 million victims of human trafficking, 55 percent are women and girls who make up 98 percent of the sex trafficking industry. These women and girls can be moved from their home, lured by traffickers by promises of a better life. Once far from home, they often find themselves trapped with no help in sight.

The State Department’s tier system is divided into four components, the First, Second, Second Watch List ,and Third Tier. The First Tier designates countries in which some trafficking may exist, but the government is very proactive in dealing with problem and the country meets the minimum requirements set up by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA). The Second Tier consists of countries that do not fully meet the TVPA’s minimum standards, but are making significant efforts to bring themselves into full compliance. The Second Watch List has countries that do not meet the minimum standards and the country has not provided significant evidence that measures are being taken to comply with the standards. The Third Tier has countries that do not comply with the TVPA’s standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.

Thirty three countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom, France and Australia, all received First Tier ratings. Ninety four countries, including Albania, Greece, Hong Kong, and Pakistan all received Second Tier ratings. Forty two countries, including Afghanistan, Iraq, Uzbekistan, and China, received Second Watch List Tier ratings, and sixteen countries received a Third Tier rating, including; Algeria, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Kuwait, Libya, Madagascar, Papua New Guinea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Yemen and Zimbabwe. Receiving a Third Tier ranking on this report comes with the threat of sanctions: the withdrawal of non-humanitarian and non-trade related forces and assistance, and removal of funding for government employees’ participation in educational and cultural exchange programs, and opposition from the US toward trade and certain development related assistance, from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

Many consumer and human rights advocates believe that Uzbekistan should be moved down to the Third Tier because of their blatant disregard for human rights and a lack of effort in trying to meet the minimum standards set up by the TVPA. The groups have written a letter and sent it to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, asking the State Department to lower the Uzbek government standing from Second Watch List, to the Third Tier. Uzbekistan refuses to allow the International Labor Organization (ILO) to monitor the harvesting of cotton, and therefore an accurate read of how the cotton is harvested cannot be obtained, and many charge that child labor is rampant. The National Consumers League believes this warrants a Third Tier rating, but the United States government has yet to lower the ranking of Uzbekistan.

The ranking of 42 countries has changed from 2011 to 2012. Fifteen countries were lowered in the rankings, and 27 were raised. Countries moved from First Tier to Second Tier are Nigeria and Portugal. Countries moved from Second Tier to Second Watch List are; Bahrain, Djibouti, Jamaica, Kenya, Macau, Malawi, Namibia, Senegal, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, and Syria. The country moved from Second Watch List to the Third Tier was Suriname.

The new report also speaks to the measures that governments can put into place to help ensure the end of human trafficking in their own country. One problem noted by report authors: states that some countries have such strict rules against illegal immigration the victim of trafficking is treated as an illegal alien and tried as a criminal. The report asks for further in-depth study of people found in areas that are considered high risk trafficking zones, suggesting that the police and first-responders to an area must be better trained to identify a trafficked person. This skill is vital to ensure that those who are victims of human trafficking are not merely lumped together with the criminals and treated unjustly. The report puts a large focus on protecting victims.

As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said, “Over the coming months we will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, which Abraham Lincoln announced on September 22, 1862 and issued by Executive Order on January 1, 1863.” The idea that slavery is only in the past must be cast out, and the world needs to see that slavery exists in the modern-day and age. Twenty-seven million people are modern slaves who do not enjoy basic human rights and guarantees, they have been pushed to extremes with little food or rest, and they need to be helped. We cannot rest until all of those who are enslaved are freed.