LEAD: The United States is opposing efforts at a United Nations treaty-drafting conference to raise the minimum age at which soldiers can be sent into combat under international law.
The United States is opposing efforts at a United Nations treaty-drafting conference to raise the minimum age at which soldiers can be sent into combat under international law.
The proposal to raise the minimum age for military combat, to 18 years old from 15, is proving to be one of the most contentious issues in negotiations on an international Convention on the Rights of the Child. About 80 countries are taking part in what is intended to be the final two-week negotiating session.
Proponents of the higher age limit say that such an international standard is needed to oppose the widespread use of children in some conflicts, like the Iran-Iraq war.
Treaty negotiations under United Nations auspices began in 1979. Officials said they hoped the document would be ready for adoption by the General Assembly next fall, after which countries will be asked to ratify it.
The treaty, which covers a wide range of issues, including adoption, religion and criminal penalties for children, is expected to receive widespread support.
The minimum age at which soldiers can be sent into battle is included in the 1977 First Protocol to the Geneva Conventions on International Humanitarian Law. It prohibits children who have not reached the age of 15 from taking ''direct part in hostilities.''
The existing text of the draft treaty contains similar language, although there is widespread agreement on closing a loophole in it that would allow younger soldiers in countries that put the age of majority lower than 15. Sweden has presented a proposal to raise the minimum age to 18.
The United States opposes the move, arguing that the First Protocol to the Geneva Conventions should remain the standard for the time being. American officials say any attempt to change it should be done in another international forum, such as a conference to negotiate new protocols to the Geneva Conventions, where experts on military law would be present. 'They Are Easily Manipulated'
''In the U.S. it is possible to enlist at 17, with parental consent,'' said David Balton, of the State Department's Office of the Legal Advisers. ''We are not involved in an armed conflict, but we may be one day, and it would be very hard for the armed forces to guarantee that the 17-year-olds would be separated out from combat.''
Participants say that strong support for the higher age limit comes from the Nordic countries, Switzerland, Austria, India, Angola and Mozambique. ''We have a situation where children are used in destabilization against our country, for terrorist activities,'' said Paulo Adelino Muianga, Mozambique's Vice Minister for Education, who came to Geneva seeking a higher age limit.
Western diplomats support the Government's assertion that the right-wing rebels uses child soldiers on a large scale in their campaign to undermine Mozambique's Marxist Government.
The Swedish chapter of the Save the Children organization said the use of children as soldiers appears to be growing.
''They are easily manipulated,'' said Simone Ek, a spokesman for the group.
Experts say children have been used in civil wars in the Philippines, Uganda, El Salvador, Cambodia, and in conflicts in southern Africa.