The use of children as soldiers in armed conflict is among the most morally repugnant practices in the world, as illustrated by this Los Angeles Times photo essay. Children are combatants in nearly three-quarters of the world's conflicts and have posed difficult dilemmas for the professional armies they confront, including the United States'. Yet moral reasons aside, compelling strategic arguments exist for limiting the use of child soldiers: When conflicts involving children end, experts say the prospects for a lasting peace are hurt by large populations of psychologically scarred, demobilized child soldiers. Parts of Africa, Asia, and South America risk long-term instability as generations of youth are sucked into ongoing wars.
What is a child soldier?
The United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) defines child soldiers as "any child—boy or girl—under eighteen years of age, who is part of any kind of regular or irregular armed force or armed group in any capacity." This age limit is relatively new, established in 2002 by the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Prior to 2002, the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the 1977 Additional Protocols set fifteen as the minimum age for participation in armed conflict. While some debate exists over varying cultural standards of maturity, nearly 80 percent of conflicts involving child soldiers include combatants below the age of fifteen, with some as young as seven or eight.
How widespread is the use of child soldiers?
Approximately 300,000 children are believed to be combatants in some thirty conflicts worldwide. Nearly half a million additional children serve in armies not currently at war, such that 40 percent of the world's armed organizations have children in their ranks. Since their ratification of the Optional Protocol, many armies, including that of the United States, adjusted their enlistment policies in compliance with the new regulations.
Are child soldiers effective?
Yes. Trusting, vulnerable, and often intimidated, children can easily be manipulated, experts say. In combat, children can be daring and tenacious, particularly when under the influence of drugs—a common practice—or when compelled by political or religious zeal. Child units can greatly add to confusion on battlefields, slowing opposing forces' progress. Children have also been used as scouts, messengers, minesweepers, bomb-makers, and suicide bombers. Child units are also effectively used as advance troops in ambush attacks.
Are girls used as soldiers?
Yes. About 30 percent of armed groups using children include girls. In addition to fighting, girls are often subjected to sexual abuse, and in some cases are taken as mistresses by army leaders. Human Rights Watch reports having interviewed girls who were impregnated by their commanders, then forced into combat with their babies strapped to their backs.
Are child soldiers a new phenomenon?
No, they are not. Child combatants have been found on battlefields throughout history. Perhaps the most notable example is the Hitler Jugend (Hitler Youth) in the closing days of World War II. What is new is the extent to which children can be found on the modern battlefield. Several factors have led to this rise. First, children in modern conflict zones are more easily recruited as the social structures around them deteriorate. This is particularly the case in long, protracted conflicts and in parts of Africa, where the AIDS epidemic will have created 40 million orphans by 2010. The majority of child soldiers volunteer, though they often do so because it is their best option for survival. Others enlist to exact revenge after their families are abused or murdered. Second, weapons have become smaller, lighter, easier to use, and more lethal. A ten-year-old can learn to effectively fire an AK-47 in half an hour. Third, despots and warlords regularly use children as effective, cheap, and expendable fighters.
Where are child soldiers used?
According to the 2004 Global Report of the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, between 2001 and 2004, hostilities involving children were widespread. Some of the most egregious use of child soldiers took place in:
Violence has ravaged Burundi since the 1993 assassination of the country’s first democratically elected president after a mere hundred days in office. More than half of Burundi’s population is under eighteen, and the minimum legal age for military recruitment is sixteen. Yet, children as young as ten have played a significant role in the conflict, serving as combat troops, laborers, spies, and sex slaves for the Burundi armed forces as well as armed political groups. Although the major hostilities have ceased, sporadic fighting persists, and an estimated 5,000 child soldiers have yet to be demobilized.
Colombia’s forty-year civil war between government and paramilitary groups has exacted a horrible humanitarian toll. Some 14,000 children, or “little bees” as they are known to the paramilitaries, serve in combat, make and deploy mines, and gather intelligence. Child soldiers in Colombia, a quarter of which are girls, are often forced to commit appalling human right violations.
- Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)
The conflict that has ravaged the DRC, claiming an estimated 3 million lives since 1998, has seen some 30,000 children populate the ranks of government and rebel armies. Fifty percent of some opposition forces are children. Children serving in the Congolese Rally for Democracy-Goma (RCD-Goma), an armed political group, endure a particularly horrifying existence, experts say. The group’s leader, Adolphe Onusumba, claims children join RCD-Goma voluntarily and benefit from the care and education they receive. In reality, analysts say most are abducted, their “education” includes being forced to commit rape, killing their own relatives, and performing sexual or cannibalistic acts on the corpses of their enemies, according to the Child Soldiers Global Report.
An August 2003 peace agreement put an end to the fourteen-year civil war in Liberia that saw widespread use of child soldiers in both government and opposition forces. The national army even had a Small Boys Unit with commanders as young as twelve. “Most of these boys are orphans of the war,” then-President Charles Taylor told the New York Times. “Some of them saw their mothers wrapped in blankets, tied-up, and burned alive,” he said. “We keep them armed as a means of keeping them out of trouble. It’s a means of control.” When the conflict ended, an estimated 21,000 children needed to be reintegrated into Liberian society. In November 2005, little violence was reported in Liberia’s first presidential elections since the war, though many observers worried that former child veterans would revolt when the candidate they favored, George Weah, was defeated.
Tens of thousands of children are believed to comprise as much as 35 percent to 45 percent of combatants in clashes between the Myanmar army and sixteen armed resistance groups. Many of these children are abducted and subjected to brutal treatment in training camps before being forced into combat.
Children serve in the ranks of the government’s Uganda Peoples’ Defense Force as well as in the opposing Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). According to Brookings Institute Senior Fellow Peter W. Singer, the LRA is "effectively a cult with a core of just 200 adult members," who have been able to prolong the conflict by abducting some 25,000 children and forcing them into their ranks. LRA units carry out widespread attacks on civilians, killing, raping, and looting. Kidnappings are so widespread that Amnesty International reported in November 2005 an estimated 30,000 “night commuters”—children hoping to avoid abduction—were seeking refuge in urban areas each night.
Have Western armies fought against child soldiers?
Yes. In fact, the first U.S. soldier killed in the war on terrorism was shot by a fourteen-year-old sniper in Afghanistan. In 2003, at least six Afghan boys aged thirteen to sixteen were captured by U.S. forces and sent to a special facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Children were among the ranks of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi militia that fought U.S. and British forces in the summer of 2004. A twelve-year-old boy told London’s Daily Telegraph “Last night I fired a rocket-propelled grenade against a tank.” Western clashes with child soldiers are not limited to the war on terrorism: Sierra Leone’s West Side Boys militia took a squad of British soldiers hostage in 2000.
Child soldiers pose unique challenges to professional armies. They are lethal combatants, but they are also victims, often forced to fight. For professional soldiers, hesitation out of sympathy may prove fatal. Furthermore, encounters with child soldiers can greatly demoralize professional fighters.
What becomes of child soldiers when they leave their armies?
As soldiers, children often witness or commit horrifying atrocities including rape, beheadings, amputations, and burning people alive. Those who are fortunate enough to survive their military experience are often left with severe mental health problems. Furthermore, they often lack basic survival skills, as the armies using them provide food and shelter. Various human rights groups have set up programs to help rehabilitate demobilized child soldiers, but they can only do so much, says Victoria Forbes Adams of the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. With entire generations of scarred children heightening the chances of recurring conflict, Adams says more long-term analysis of these programs is needed.
What can be done to limit the use of children in armed conflicts?
Of course, the most effective way to stop the use of child soldiers is to end the conflicts in which they fight. "Child soldiers will be used by [warring] parties for as long as the war continues. There must be a political solution," says the International Crisis Group's Senior Adviser John Prendergast. Beyond this, there are few viable strategies. Efforts to limit the proliferation of small arms have been ineffective, and as Adams points out, "That wouldn't tackle the issue of children who don't have to carry a gun." Governments have responded to both advocacy and the threat of sanctions. As a result, governments rarely include children in their armies. However, government forces are often aligned with militias who do enlist children. In Afghanistan, for instance, U.S. and coalition forces rely on alliances with local militias and warlords who have been reported to use children as soldiers. Preventing the use of children by militias and opposition forces is a true challenge, as these groups rarely respond to advocacy and imposing sanctions on them is quite difficult. One approach is prosecution. The International Criminal Court (ICC) recently issued arrest warrants for leaders of the LRA in Uganda. However, the ICC has no police force to arrest these individuals, who remain at large. The Special Court for Sierra Leone ruled in 2004 that recruiting child soldiers is a war crime and has begun prosecutions. Though this is taking place after the fact, it may set a precedent for future recruiters of child soldiers.