GENEVA -- A treaty banning the use of child soldiers took effect Tuesday, and activists said they hoped it would turn the tide on a practice that sends more than 300,000 children to war worldwide.
The accord, which bans the recruitment of children under 18 by armies and rebel militias, was approved by the U.N. General Assembly in May 2000. It has been signed by 96 countries and ratified by 14.
"There can no longer be any excuses for using children for war," said Mary Robinson, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights during a ceremony in Geneva Tuesday.
Napoleon Adok, who attended the ceremony, recalled that he was 11 years old when he fled Sudan and headed to a refugee camp in Ethiopia. But the camp turned out to be run by rebels who aimed to transform youngsters like Napoleon into hardened soldiers.
"I was lured into military service. I was trained to assassinate, to lay land mines, to infiltrate enemy lines," said Adok.
Adok, who is now a 28-year-old aid worker after the Red Cross helped him leave the forces of the rebel Sudanese People's Liberation Army, has devoted himself to helping other ex-child soldiers readjust to being civilians.
"I was trained for six months," Adok told reporters. "Because I knew how to write my name, I was given the rank of sergeant-major and was in charge of 200 boys aged from 9 to 15."
'It's hard to heal'
He saw his best friend die when a mine they were trying to defuse exploded. "It's hard to heal some of the visions that stick in my mind," Adok said.
Since 1983 the SPLA has been battling successive Sudanese governments for greater autonomy and religious freedom for southerners. It has demobilized many child soldiers and promised to remove all children from its ranks.
Recruited in 1984, Adok fought until 1991, when he became an ambulance driver. After meeting staff from aid groups, he was able to quit the SPLA and study in Kenya.
"Where once children were recruited because of a shortage of adults, children have been increasingly recruited because they are children," said Rory Mungoven, coordinator of the London-based Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. "They are cheap, obedient, they can be easily brainwashed into committing extreme violence."
The United Nations estimates that more than 300,000 children under the age of 18 are fighting worldwide, mostly with rebel groups.