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January 01, 2005

Child Soldiers Changing a Culture of Violence

by Jo Becker

Children are fighting in nearly every major armed conflict in the world today. The ranks of child soldiers include boys as young as eight recruited into paramilitaries in Colombia, girls trained as suicide bombers by the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, and children kidnapped from their homes by rebels in Northern Uganda. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, child recruitment increased so dramatically in early 2003 that observers described the fighting forces as “armies of children.”

Children are used for front-line combat, often as cannon fodder, and forced ahead of older troops as human mine detectors. They are used as spies, messengers, guards, porters, cooks, and domestic servants. Many child soldiers are girls, who are expected to fight and are also often subjected to rape or sexual exploitation.

Children become soldiers for a myriad of reasons. Some are forced or coerced to join by commanders who view them as cheap and compliant fighters and laborers. Recruiters may prey upon vulnerable children in order to fill their recruitment quotas. Many children, their lives devastated by poverty or war, join armed groups out of desperation. As society breaks down during conflict, children are left with no access to school, often driven from their homes or separated from their families. Many perceive armed groups as their best chance for survival or are drawn to the promise of power or money.

For children, the consequences of participating in armed conflict are particularly profound. They are denied opportunities for education and development. They suffer casualties at higher rates than adults and are more likely to die from land mines or other injuries. Even if they survive the war, they often have no marketable skills and are easily drawn back into conflict. Many are psychologically traumatized and socialized in violence, creating huge obstacles to successful reentry into civilian society.

Legal Protections

Until very recently, the prevailing standard in international law—established in the additional protocols to the Geneva Convention and the Convention on the Rights of the Child—was that children as young as fifteen could be legally recruited and used for combat. This standard was remarkably weak considering that in other respects the Convention on the Rights of the Child generally defines a child as anyone under the age of eighteen and entitles them to special protection.

By 2000, international campaigning by nongovernmental organizations, notably the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, led to three important new treaties that significantly strengthened legal norms regarding the use of child soldiers. In July 1998, 120 governments adopted the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court, defining the conscription, enlistment, or use in hostilities of children under the age of fifteen as a war crime. In June 1999, the member states of the International Labor Organization acted to prohibit the forced recruitment of children under age eighteen for use in armed conflict as part of the Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention (Convention 182). And in May 2000, the United Nations (UN) adopted the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, establishing eighteen as the minimum age for participation in armed conflict, for compulsory or forced recruitment, and for any recruitment by nongovernmental armed groups.

The new standards and increasing awareness of child soldiering have brought some concrete changes. Some governments raised their recruitment age even in the midst of conflict. In May 2000, the government of Sierra Leone raised the minimum age for bearing arms from seventeen to eighteen. The government of Colombia, engaged in a thirty-year civil war, adopted legislation in December 1999 prohibiting all recruitment of children under the age of eighteen and discharged over 600 children from the army and more than 200 from other government forces. In early 2003, the National Security Council of Afghanistan established a new minimum recruitment age of twenty-two.

Nongovernmental armed groups also responded to the international condemnation of child recruitment and use. Armed groups in Burma, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Liberia, Sri Lanka, and Sudan have made public pledges to end the use of child soldiers. Such pledges are rarely fulfilled, however. Many of these groups perceive a public relations benefit from making public pronouncements against the use of child soldiers but often lack the political will or resources to follow through. Although some of these groups have discharged some children from their ranks, nearly all have continued to recruit and use children.

Even governments that have ratified the new treaties prohibiting the use of child soldiers have violated their commitments. Both Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo have ratified the protocol but continue to use child soldiers. The United States also failed to effectively implement new policies adopted after ratifying the protocol in late 2002 and sent over fifty soldiers under the age of eighteen to Iraq in 2003 and early 2004.

The Need for Additional Action

Strong legal standards are essential, but on their own, they are not enough to end the use of child soldiers. Further progress will depend on strong and consistent international condemnation, providing financial and other assistance for demobilization and rehabilitation, and ensuring that violators pay a price should they continue to recruit and deploy child soldiers.

The UN Security Council has adopted some promising initiatives, requesting annual reports from the Secretary-General that include specific lists of governments and armed groups that recruit and use children in violation of international law. This “name and shame” initiative is intended to hold violators accountable for their actions. The council has also demanded concrete action plans to end child soldiering from parties in several countries and threatened targeted measures, which could include military or other sanctions, against those that refuse to comply. However, follow-up to the council’s resolutions has been weak, and key members like China and Russia are unlikely to move beyond threats and support actual sanctions on violators.

In the absence of strong UN action, stronger efforts by individual governments are critical. Governments should raise the issue both publicly and privately in their bilateral relations. As a matter of principle, governments should commit to stop weapons transfers to parties known to use child soldiers. However, to date, only Belgium has adopted legislation specifically barring these arms transfers.

Greater resources are also needed for demobilization and rehabilitation programs and prevention initiatives to provide children with alternatives to military service and address the root causes that lead children to join. Demobilization and rehabilitation programs are operating in over ten countries but are often available to only a small percentage of children who need them. In some countries, like Burma or Nepal, such programs are practically nonexistent.

Finally, stronger efforts must be made to address impunity. In countries where use of child soldiers is routine, recruiters are rarely, if ever, held to account for recruiting children under the age prescribed by law or policy. This impunity can be challenged through national courts, ad hoc tribunals, the International Criminal Court, and other justice mechanisms. To date, the most active pursuit of child recruitment cases has come through the Special Court for Sierra Leone, which has included the use of child soldiers in each of the court’s thirteen indictments against defendants accused of abuses during the civil war, including former Liberian President Charles Taylor.

The persistent recruitment and use of child soldiers presents the international community with a formidable but not insurmountable challenge. Success will depend on continued monitoring and advocacy, practical assistance for demobilization and rehabilitation, effective use of political and military leverage by international actors, and an uncompromising commitment by local, national, and international authorities to hold perpetrators accountable.

Stats: Child Soldiers

• Estimated number of children serving as soldiers worldwide: 300,000
• Number of conflicts worldwide in which children are reported to be fighting: 33
• Typical age of child soldiers: 15–18; recruiting often starts at age 10
• Percent of female child soldiers in El Salvador, Ethiopia, and Uganda: almost one-third


Jo Becker

Jo Becker is the advocacy director for the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch and the founding chairperson of the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers.