Too Young to Fight

Children have been used as tools of war throughout history, serving not only as foot soldiers on the front line, but also as spies, porters and sexual slaves. Lawmakers and human rights organizations generally recognize the following from the 1997 Capetown Principles as the standard for defining a child soldier: “a child soldier is any person under 18 years of age who is part of any kind of regular or irregular armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to cooks, porters, messengers and anyone accompanying such groups, other than family members. The definition includes girls recruited for sexual purposes and for forced marriage. It does not, therefore, only refer to a child who is carrying or has carried arms.”

Children are the ideal recruits for armed organizations. They are unlikely to escape, easily brainwashed and respond to orders well. Sexual and physical abuse is rampant in many military and rebel organizations and easy to inflict on a child; and fear is a powerful retention tool.

Photo by Endre Vestvik, CRN/Hope In Action – Celebrating the end of the rehabilitation programme.

While many children are abducted and forced into warfare, others join of their own volition. Cultural acceptance and familial pressure to fight is still widespread, despite increased public awareness of the long-term ramifications of children engaging in conflict. For other children living with collapsed infrastructure, high unemployment, moribund economic and education systems, dysfunctional governments and an environment of constant violence, joining a military group can be an appealing alternative. And since vast numbers of children in war-torn countries lack parental figures – many of them have been killed – seeking an authority figure is a powerful draw. On the run, often hungry and without shelter in a war-torn environment, an armed group, even a loosely structured one, offering food, security and housing, can be a refuge to a child.

Exacerbating the situation is the proliferation of small arms. Children no longer need serve only as porters and couriers. The lightweight nature and ease of operation of these weapons make them an ideal choice for arming a child. The number of current child soldiers varies, but some recent estimates, one from the United Nations, report that there are still at least 300,000 active child soldiers in the world. Targeted international treaties and a surge of legal instruments have emerged in recent years, offering increased protections for children exploited in warfare and preventative measures against future uses of child soldiers; this has probably resulted in the overall decline in the number of countries using child soldiers. According to the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers the number of countries where child soldiers are being used by either government or non-state armed groups decreased from 19 countries in 2004 to 17 by the end of 2007, those countries being: Afghanistan, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Colombia, Côte d’Ivoire, the DRC, India, Iraq, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Myanmar, Philippines, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Thailand and Uganda. Other causes for this decline are possible, however, including a drop in the number of countries engaged in conflict.

Legally, the international community has come a long way in defending the rights of children caught up in armed conflicts and in preventing children from being exploited in the future. With respect to children, there are a number of protective measures for children in armed conflict that are designed to ensure their safety and well-being. The Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions provide specific and special protection to children in armed conflict. Additional Protocol I requires state parties to implement feasible measures to prevent children under the age of fifteen from participating directly in hostilities. Article 4(3)(d) of Additional Protocol II Geneva Conventions provides that children under fifteen who take direct part in hostilities and whom enemy forces capture do not lose the special protections guaranteed under Article 4. One of the most widely adopted laws protecting child soldiers is the Convention on the Rights of the Child, was adopted by The United Nations General Assembly on 20 November 1989; it has been ratified by 191 nations out of 193. The Convention obliges that states take all feasible measures to ensure protection and care of children affected by armed conflict. Specifically, Articles 37-39 offer safeguards to children against torture, being conscripted, enlisted or used in battle under the age of 15 as well as ensure that states “promote physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration” for child victims. Under international law this Protocol directly prohibits the use of child soldiers by ratified parties. In 2002, the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict was “put into force” by the United Nations. This Protocol requires states to take “all feasible measures to ensure that members of their armed forces who have not attained the age of 18 years do not take a direct part in hostilities,” but states may take volunteers aged 16 and older. In addition, armed groups that are not affiliated with state governments must not recruit or use children under the age of 18 in hostilities.

The Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court at The Hague, may offer the strongest protection measures for child soldiers. Under Article 8(2)(b)(xxvi), conscripting or enlisting children under the age of fifteen or using them to participate in hostilities is defined as a war crime. The first case to be tried at the International Criminal Court is that of Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, who is being tried for enlisting and conscripting children and using them in armed conflicts. Lubanga was the head of the Union des Patriotes Congolais (UPC) during the conflict in the Ituri region of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) from 1999 to 2003, and has been accused of having as many as 30,000 boys and girls serving under him. Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, two former commanders in the Germain Force de résistance patriotique en Ituri (FRPI) in the DRC conflict have also been accused and pled not guilty of using children under the age of fifteen to take active part in the hostilities under article 8(2)(b)(xxvi). That trial is also underway.

Charles Taylor, former Liberian president and warlord during the first Liberian Civil War, is also being tried at the ICC for 11 counts including using children under the age of 15 in hostilities; however, his case is under the jurisdiction of the Special Court for Sierra Leone. Recently, in a landmark case in February 2009, the Special Court for Sierra Leone convicted three former Revolutionary United Front (RUF) Commanders of war crimes, two of whom were convicted specifically of recruiting children to fight as soldiers. Several individual nations have started to adopt laws prohibiting the use or recruitment of children as soldiers. In the United States, the Child Soldiers Accountability Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush in October 2008 and prohibits “the recruitment or use of child soldiers, to designate persons who recruit or use child soldiers as inadmissible aliens, to allow the deportation of persons who recruit or use child soldiers, and for other purposes.” In Sri Lanka, the Anti-child soldier action plan contains a zero tolerance policy, including provisions for the release and reintegration process for children already involved in the conflict. And in Southern Sudan the Child Act of April 2009 ensures safeguards to children, recognizing anyone under the age of 18 as a child and guaranteeing the rights established in the Convention on the Rights of the Child to children in Southern Sudan.

—Compiled by Kate Davey, Sarah Pierce and Christine Williams