Colombia’s largest left-wing rebel group, the FARC, will release 170 child soldiers, the country’s Defense Minister said Thursday.
The Ministry of Defense confirmed that 100 boys and 70 girls would be handed over to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) through whom a restoration of rights can be guaranteed.
Defense Minister Luis Carlos Villegas made the announcement through the ministry’s Twitter portal stating that “170 children who are in the hands of the FARC will be delivered with the collaboration of UNICEF.”
The freeing of the children comes after an announcement earlier this week that agreement had been reached on security protocols for the release of child soldiers as well as a “road map” for their demobilization.
‘Historic moment for children’
The agreement pledged to grant those under 15 years of age “victim status” while the rest will be treated under the transitional justice mechanism.
The release of the child soldiers, which can happen as soon as within a month, has been welcomed by UNICEF who pledged to support the minors with their reintegration into civil society.
“This is a historic moment for the children of Colombia”, said the UNICEF representative, Roberto de Bernardi.
“As the country approaches the achievement of peace, it is critical that all children who have paid the price of this conflict, directly or indirectly, receive the protection, support and assistance they need,” he added.
The FARC had announced it would end recruiting and wanted to release child soldiers in June last year already, but there has been ongoing speculation about actual number of minors within the guerrillas’ ranks.
While the FARC earlier this year reportedly claimed to have less than 20 children in their ranks, Colombia’s Family Welfare institute said it was preparing for as many as 2,000.
Between 1999 and 2015, the government organization said it received on average more than 200 deserted minors from the FARC per year, leaving questions whether the FARC will surrender each child.
The Prosecutor General’s Office said Tuesday it has criminal files on the recruitment of 12,000 child soldiers since 1975.
Paramilitary child soldiers
In the aftermath of the demobilization of the right-wing rebel group the AUC between 2003 and 2006, serious questions were raised about the accuracy of the figures relating to paramilitary child soldiers.
Verdad Abierta, a website dedicated to investigating Colombia’s armed conflict reported that “913 children were demobilized but it is believed that this represented just 10% of all children in paramilitary ranks.”
The discrepancies in the figures led to the establishment of a program called “Finding Nemo” by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) to find the missing demobilized children.
As the government and the FARC close in on the final stages of negotiations hastening towards agreement on a bilateral ceasefire and the demobilization of the rebels, releasing child soldiers is a significant step.
This week’s developments mark the beginning of the demobilization and reintegration process of the minors, and has been welcomed by international observers.
Regional Director of UNICEF for Latin America and the Caribbean, Maria Perceval, said that this agreement is the “clearest expression of hope” that Colombia is moving towards a definitive peace.
“At UNICEF we celebrate this agreement and reaffirm our commitment to contribute to the effective reintegration of these children and adolescents in their families and communities,” said the regional UNICEF chief.