Child soldiering: a damaging and despicable practice
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has condemned child soldiering as a "damaging and despicable practice". Five UN Security Council resolutions have denounced it. Pope John Paul II has called the use of child soldiers a "horrible form of violence". About half the world's governments have formally committed themselves to end under-age recruitment or to do so in the future. Most major armed political groups, under increasing international pressure, have pledged (although often failed) to end their use of child soldiers.
Yet despite near-universal condemnation hundreds of thousands of children have fought and died in almost every major conflict in the world. The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers has documented information on more than 20 countries and territories where armed hostilities occurred between April 2001 and March 2004. It has found that government forces in at least 10 continued to use children on the frontlines, including in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Myanmar.
Some governments which did not directly recruit children nevertheless backed paramilitary groups, militias and local defence groups which used children to fight and to kill, to commit human rights abuses against civilians, or to loot and destroy property. Those using these unofficial forces included Colombia and Zimbabwe. At least six governments claiming to have ended child recruitment, continued to deploy children to gather intelligence, and to act as messengers or scouts, directly exposing them to the hazards of war or to violent reprisals if identified by opposing groups. Governments have ruthlessly targeted children suspected of membership of armed political groups. Such children have been detained and reportedly tortured often to extract information, such as in Israel. Some have been sentenced to death in unfair trials, including in military courts, such as in the DRC. Others have been killed during military "clean up" operations in Burundi, Indonesia and Nepal, or "disappeared", such as in Chechnya in the Russian Federation.
Scores of armed political groups in most regions of the world continued to recruit children, force them into combat, train them to use explosives and weapons, and subject them to rape, violence, hard labour and other forms of exploitation. Children were also involved in a range of factional and clan-based groups, tribal militias or ethnic minorities fighting in opposition to central governments or to defend territory or resources from other groups, in Afghanistan, Chechnya, India, Laos and Yemen.
In all the conflicts children were forcibly recruited, sometimes in large numbers. Others enlisted voluntarily as a means of survival in war-torn regions after family, social and economic structures had collapsed. Many joined because of poverty, unemployment, lack of access to education, or to escape domestic violence, abuse or exploitation. Child "volunteers" often identified government abuses as their motivation to join non-state armed groups, enlisting after seeing family members tortured or killed by members of government forces. Tens of thousands of under-18s were estimated to have been recruited by armed forces in at least 60 countries. While thousands were legally recruited, others were forcibly conscripted in military round ups to replenish numbers in unpopular armies. Still others were enlisted in countries where the lack of a functioning birth registration system made it impossible to verify the age of recruits and ensure protection of under-18s from active military service.
Much has been achieved during the last three years. Substantial progress has been made in establishing an international legal and policy framework for protecting children from involvement in armed conflict. The Optional Protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict came into force in 2002. It sets 18 as the minimum age for direct participation in hostilities, for compulsory recruitment by governments and for all recruitment into armed groups. States may accept volunteers from the age of 16, but must deposit a binding declaration when ratifying the treaty, which must outline certain safeguards for such recruitment. By August 2004, 77 governments had ratified the Optional Protocol. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) defines all recruitment of children under 15, by governments and armed groups, and their active participation in hostilities, as a war crime in both international and non-international armed conflict. The ICC provides for the possibility of identification, prosecution and punishment of recruiters. By July the ICC had begun preliminary investigations of war crimes and crimes against humanity in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 182 had been ratified by 150 governments by August 2004. It defines the forced or compulsory recruitment of children under 18 for use in armed conflict as one of the worst forms of child labour.
From 1999, a series of UN Security Council resolutions have condemned the use of child soldiers and outlined progressively stronger measures to stop the practice. Demobilization programs for child soldiers have been officially established in at least 12 countries, where UN agencies work in partnership with governments and international NGOs. Some governments have created their own programs. Community, church and grassroots organizations throughout the world have supported demobilized child soldiers and assisted them to return home.
From 2001 to 2004 the global situation improved substantially in some countries while it remained the same or deteriorated in others. Wars ending in Afghanistan, Angola, Sierra Leone and elsewhere resulted in the demobilization of more than 40,000 children. During that same period, however, up to 30,000 more were drawn into new conflicts in Côte d'Ivoire and Liberia. And some countries which had pledged to stop using child soldiers continued to involve children in war. Overall, the use of child soldiers - young people under 18 years old associated with armed forces both in and outside conflict zones - appears marginally improved. However, rapidly changing circumstances on the ground and the difficulties of accessing child soldiers in conflict areas made it impossible to establish the exact numbers of children involved.
The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers Global Report 2004 documents child recruitment policies and practices in 196 countries and territories, including those mentioned above. It reviews trends and developments related to the use of child soldiers since the publication of the Coalition's last global report in 2001, and highlights failures - by the international community, governments and armed groups - to protect children's fundamental human rights. A team of researchers assisted staff in collecting information from the Coalition's global network of member organizations and partners. Information was also sought from a wide range of government and independent sources, organizations and individuals. The Coalition provided training and guidelines on research, interviewing and fact-finding to grassroots groups in national coalitions in most regions. In turn, international and local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and partners provided data obtained through local interviews and research. The research process strengthened an international network of activists working to put pressure on governments, politicians and communities in all countries where this shameful abuse of children persists.
So what needs to be done? The Coalition urges the UN Security Council to ensure that its "naming and shaming" of those using child soldiers in armed conflicts is followed by decisive action. It advocates the prosecution of child recruiters by the International Criminal Court and other justice mechanisms, for restrictions on military assistance and weapons trading, travel restrictions, asset freezing or other sanctions. Concerned governments must support dialogue between warring parties, and peace agreements should include specific provisions for reintegrating and rehabilitating former child soldiers. Demobilization, disarmament and reintegration (DDR) programs for child soldiers must be adequately funded and sensitively constructed, to ensure that the specific needs of boys and girls are addressed.
Children's rights to protection from grave threats to their life and health, to family life and education, and to freedom from sexual and economic exploitation must be actively promoted. War-affected children should be closely involved in peace processes and decision-making which affect their lives. The international community and individual governments must renew their commitment to the demobilization and reintegration process. The Coalition will continue to campaign for universal ratification and enforcement of international treaties protecting children, and for governments to ban all recruitment of under-18s into any armed force. The Coalition's members and partners remain committed to a world that does not allow children to fight wars.
Between 2001 and 2004, armed hostilities involving children less than 18 years old - "under-18s" - occurred in Afghanistan, Angola, Burundi, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea, India, Iraq, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Indonesia, Liberia, Myanmar, Nepal, Philippines, Russian Federation, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda.
Governments which used child soldiers in armed conflict were Burundi, DRC, Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea, Liberia, Myanmar, Rwanda, Sudan, Uganda and the United States of America. Government-backed paramilitaries and militias, were using under-18s across the world, including in Colombia, Somalia, Sudan and Zimbabwe. Government forces and authorities also made informal use of children as informants, spies or collaborators in conflicts, including in Israel, Indonesia and Nepal.
Thomas (not his real name) was hit in the back with rifle butts in his five months of military training. His injuries were so severe that he was left without full use of his legs. "Being new, I couldn't perform the very difficult exercises properly and so I was beaten every morning. Two of my friends in the camp died because of the beatings. The soldiers buried them in the latrines. I am still thinking of them".
At the age of 13, Thomas was on his way to school with his eight-year-old brother, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), when an armed group forcibly recruited them.1 An estimated 30,000 children in the DRC were child soldiers in 2003. "Other trainees, if they were caught trying to run away, their hands and feet were beaten with a bamboo stick and then put in shackles and beaten and poked again and again and they then were taken to the lock up." Boy from Myanmar, abducted at age 13 by government forces.
Who are the child soldiers?
While there is no precise definition, the Coalition considers a child soldier any person under the age of 18 who is a member of or attached to government armed forces or any other regular or irregular armed force or armed group, whether or not an armed conflict exists. Child soldiers perform a range of tasks including: participation in combat, laying mines and explosives, scouting, spying, acting as decoys, couriers or guards; training, drill or other preparations; logistics and support functions, portering, cooking and domestic labour; and sexual slavery or other recruitment for sexual purposes.
Children and armed conflict: the key issues
- The majority of the world's child soldiers
are involved in a variety of armed political groups. These include government-backed
paramilitary groups, militias, and selfdefence units operating with
government support in many conflict zones. Others include armed groups
opposed to central government rule, groups composed of ethnic, religious
and other minorities; and clan-based or factional groups fighting governments
and each other to defend territory and resources.
- The use of children in hostilities by
official government armed forces has declined since 2001 but continues
in some countries. Government forces also continue to use children informally
as spies, messengers and to run errands, exposing them to injury and death,
as well as reprisals by opposing forces. Some government forces target
children for suspected membership of armed political groups. Such children
have been arrested, detained, tortured and killed.
- Many child soldiers are between 14 and
18 years old and enlist voluntarily. However, research shows that such
adolescents see few alternatives to involvement in armed conflict. War
itself, lack of education or work, and a desire to escape domestic servitude,
violence or sexual exploitation are among the factors involved. Many also
join to avenge violence inflicted on family members during armed conflict.
- Forcible recruitment and abductions
continue unabated in some countries. Children as young as nine have been
- Demobilization, disarmament and reintegration
(DDR) programs specifically aimed at child soldiers have been established
in many countries, both during and after armed conflict. Such programs
have assisted former child soldiers to acquire new skills and return to
their communities. However, the programs lack funds and adequate
resources. Sustained long-term investment is needed if they are to be effective.
- Despite growing recognition of girls'
involvement in armed conflict, girls are often deliberately or inadvertently
excluded from DDR programs. Girl soldiers are frequently subjected to rape
and other forms of sexual violence as well as being involved in combat
and other roles. In some cases they are stigmatized by their home
communities when they return. DDR programs should be sensitively constructed
and designed to respond to the needs of girl soldiers.
- A series of international legal mechanisms
provide for the protection of children from involvement in armed conflict.
They include the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the
Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, which prohibits
the direct use of under-18s in hostilities, the compulsory recruitment
of under-18s by governments and any recruitment of under-18s by nongovernment
armed groups. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court
defines the recruitment of children under 15 as a war crime and provides
for the prosecution and punishment of offenders. International Labour Organization
(ILO) Convention 182 defines the forced or compulsory recruitment of any
person under 18 for use in armed conflict as one of the worst forms of
- The UN Security Council has repeatedly
called for action to stop the use of child soldiers. Proposed measures
include dialogue with parties to armed conflict aimed at the immediate
demobilization of children; and measures to sanction those who continue
to use children in hostilities.
- Despite near-universal condemnation
of child soldiering and a solid legal and policy framework, lack of political
will is an obstacle to achieving concrete improvements and effective child
protection on the ground.