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There has been a sharp increase in the annual recruitment of under-18s into the UK armed forces, and between March 1998 and March 1999 there were 9,466 under-18s recruited - more than a third of the total intake.

The report also criticises the UK for undermining the new Optional Protocol to the UN's Convention on the Rights of the Child signed in September, which sets out to limit any deployment of under-18s into combat.

Amnesty International UK Director Kate Allen said:

'The risks to under-18s in the armed forces are so serious that the UK should change its policy from one of relying on school-leavers to fill the ranks, to one of attracting mature adults into the services.

'The UK government should give a cast-iron guarantee that no under-18 will ever be sent into dangerous situations for this country.'

The chances of deployment for UK armed forces recruits are not theoretical and no exception is made for Children's rights. Under-18s were deployed to the Adriatic Sea and to Macedonia during the Kosovo crisis. In April 1999, the media reported that the youngest tank driver, a 17-year-old, was 'ready for battle' and had already been deployed in Macedonia.

The report also details serious cases of bullying and ill-treatment. In May 2000 a 17-year-old rifleman was found not guilty of desertion after he argued that he had been systematically bullied, including from his superiors; that he had been dragged out of his room, forced to strip and to sing with others jeering at his genitals; he was then forced to run naked around the barrack block.

Amnesty International urges the UK to ratify the new Optional Protocol as soon as possible without any reservation; and to adopt a policy of not deploying under-18s in situations of armed conflict or in any other peace-keeping or similar mission. The organisation also urges the government to implement a policy of maintaining the civilian status of under-18s during the training.

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