Child Soldiers Human Rights Essay Thesis

Keywords: agents, child soldiers, child worriers, conflict resolution, demobilization, drugs, expendable, illegal activities, military, moral judgement, peacekeepers, public action, punishment, re-education, rewards, Roméo Dallaire, sex slaves, war, weapons

The use of child soldiers:

How many of us are aware that about 250,000 children are being used as soldiers in conflicts around the world? In addition children are used by street gangs in the drug trade, by the drug lords in Brazil, as slave labourers moving illegal diamonds, drugs, precious woods and coltan, a mineral used in cell phones, in African areas where there are weak states, and as intelligence agents elsewhere in the world. These are children who are nine to sixteen years of age. How can this be?

I went to several authors to get answers: Roméo Dallaire, Canadian Senator and retired Canadian Lieutenant-General, who participated in United National peacekeeping expeditions and tried to prevent the 1994 massacre in Rwanda, wrote They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children, (Random House, Canada, 2010); Ishmael Beah, a child soldier in Sierra Leone, wrote A Long Way Gone:, Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, (Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver/Toronto, 2007); Ian Brown, who interviewed child soldiers, wrote Khomeini's Forgotten Sons:, The Story of Iran's Boy Soldiers (Great Seal Books, London, 1990); and H.K.Shin, a Korean child soldier, wrote Remembering Korea, 1950:, A Boy Soldier's Story (University of Nevada Press, 2001).

This essay describes some of the results of my search for reasons why and how children are being used as weapons of war and what becomes of these children.

The enlistment of children:

(1) Children are easy to enlist because:

(a) They don't have an ideology or firm goals, and they can readily be coerced by propaganda and drugs and are easily indoctrinated. They are apt to quickly transfer loyalty to an adult, especially a superior with the power to reward or punish. Girls are sought since they can become sex slaves or because they can manage the cooking and other care-giving needs of their group.
(b) In many instances the child has been separated from the rest of the family, is desperate, totally alone and seeks security. Child soldier Ishmael Beah of Sierra Leone, described how he was lost at age twelve, joined a group of thirty children age seven to sixteen to plunder villagers for food and finally was picked up by the government army. Under the influence of drugs which gave him energy, he witnessed children made to kill their own parents, won a contest for slitting the throat of a comrade and participated in other grave atrocities. (Beah - 72, 111, 121-124)
(c) In other cases the family is destitute and unable to care for their children. This scenario is described in the biography of H.K. Shin, who was sixteen years old when North Korea invaded South Korea.
(d)Brown describes how children were sent to blow up mines to clear the way for tanks and quotes reasons children gave for joining the fight: They wanted to show that they were grow up, they wanted to fight for their country or were willing to be martyred for Islam.

(2) Children are cheap to maintain and are easily manipulated with drugs, punishment or rewards. (Beah - 24, 108)

(3) Children can fire a sub-machine gun as well as an adult, and guns and ammunition are readily available. It is said that "650 million light, simple to use, deadly small arms are cheaply available anywhere, anytime." (Dallaire - 12, 120)

(4) Those employing child soldiers know that when trained militia men come face to face with a child soldier, the veteran soldiers often hesitate to counterattack and become disillusioned with their mission. Children are the ultimate expendable frontline weapon.

Peacekeeping goals:

Through the centuries many societies have articulated through laws, religions and philosophies that all human beings are equal in species and evolution. Until humans learn to value human life, men will continue to impose their ways on others by war, and children are being sacrificed to do the deed for adults.

Dallaire wrote, "I'm a passionate humanist, and while I long for and strive for universal peace, as ex-military I understand that my resolve to protect and preserve human rights must be tempered by the sad reality that lethal force is sometimes necessary." (Dallaire - 224) "Our peacekeepers and peacemakers believe that they will use their training, their power, their expertise and their weapons to protect life, not to take it." (Dallaire - 186) Yet there is a contradiction. During training the recruits are taught how they are expected to bypass this instinct to preserve and protect the lives. Peacekeepers believe that they are in combat with equals, and they respond when they are given the order to kill those who threaten the vulnerable people in foreign lands. (Dallaire - 188) Still every peacekeeping soldier has to deal with the actual killing of other human beings, which can create "the most heinous of consequences on your mind, soul, moral fibre and humanity." (Dallaire - 186)

Dallaire's heinous experience in the case of a child soldier:

Both forces of government troops and rebel groups had been subjecting the inhabitants of a small village to stealing, kidnapping, raping, mutilating and killing, however the villagers, who had lived in that area for decades, did not want to move.

The United Nations peacekeeping commander sent twelve blue helmeted soldieries to offer some protection. During the evening those peacekeepers met with the village elders trying to persuade them to vacate that area, and finally the elders agreed to consider the option and meet again in the morning. Believing that displaying the presence of the UN would deter raids by both the government troops and the rebels, Jeeps hoisting blue UN flags were dispersed and the peacekeepers were deployed in strategic positions. The rules of engagement for the UN Peacekeepers were clear. "...we were to use deadly force if necessary to protect the population from any group that endangered them by the use of deadly force." (Dallaire - 190)

At night, the UN soldiers took turns at sentry duty, and between shifts, they huddled under mosquito nets until a quick downpour sent some scurrying for protection inside Jeeps. But when morning came there arose the sounds of gunfire and soon the rebels in wet, green camouflage ran screaming and firing weapons toward the centre of the village. Turning the corner, Dallaire came face to face with a rebel aiming and firing an AK-47. Dallaire returned the fire instantly. The rebel was hit and his body was flung backward. Dallaire wrote: "The glance downward was surreal. The rebel with his blazing gun, who had raced around the corner of the building firing away at anyone and everything, including me, now lay face up and dying in the mud, twisted, bleeding and barely able to breathe,. Lying there was a young teenager, at most thirteen or fourteen years old. A child. A girl. ...I was witnessing the grossest of human indecencies, I was, for probably only a few seconds, but for what felt as long as my whole life to that point, observing the transformation of a warrior back into a child and that child was now dying--of wounds I had inflicted on her child body." (Dallaire - 196, 197) Dallaire has been haunted by this deed, and like others who abhor the use of child soldiers, has taken on the task of curtailing the use of children in conflicts.

The Child Studies Institute:

Along with his efforts to prevent genocide and the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, Dallaire has founded the Child Studies Institute (CSI) which investigates how children are recruited, made into soldiers, used, disarmed, demobilized and reintegrated. The agency works through Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada. (

Refusal to prosecute:

David Crane, the American lawyer who served as chief prosecutor for Sierra Leone's UN-backed crimes tribunal refused to prosecute child soldiers and told about his findings in a report before the Canadian Subcommittee on International Human Rights in 2008. (Dallaire - 126)

Our ethical obligation to advance peace:

Although many believe that it is the natural state of humans to be combative for survival, many archaeologists have found evidence showing that our primitive hunter/gatherer ancestors depended on each other for survival. They distributed the work so that all members of the community benefitted through greater food supply, security and must have reaped serenity of mind. Leaders like Desmond Tutu, Mohandas Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taught that we have an ethical obligation for the larger social good, to advance the quest for peace. We cannot survive in isolation. Dallaire refers to Archbishop Desmond Tutu who said that it is the essence of being human that you cannot diminish the worth of others without diminishing yourself. (Dallaire - 242) We are interdependent on this earth. If you think that the drug dealer employing child soldiers in Latin America is far removed from influence in your life, think again. When you travel, you will be searched for the drugs this child helped to produce or distribute; you will pay highly for the police forces in your country who track down illegal drug imports; you may even experience murder in your community where gangs fight over control of drug money. We live in one world and our lives interconnect. The problems of far-away people impact on our everyday lives. Can't we drop the thought of "them" versus "us" and find ways to be friends, friends who see the needs of others and strive to fulfill those needs?

Public action can eliminate the practice of employing child soldiers:

(1) Ensure that your priorities are known to your government and are passed on to other agencies such as the UN. The UN can only act according to the mandates of its membership. Some progress has been made. In 1989 the UN passed The Convention on the Rights of the Child. Graca Machel prepared and presented her report "The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children" to the UN General Assembly in 1996. It called upon the international community to note and respond. The UN appointed a special representative for children regarding armed conflict and passed "An optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (which) pledged signatories to limit the military use of children." Are these pledges being met? In September 2000, Lloyd Axworthy, the Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Maria Minna, the Canadian Minister in Charge of Canadian International Development, convened a conference in Winnipeg calling attention to the "gaps in the international efforts to protect children affected by war." (Dallaire - 217-219) Representatives from 132 countries as well as from the corporate sector, academic circles and former child soldiers attended. What are you doing to urge that your country act? Voters can ensure that their priorities are supported by their elected representatives, yet voters are often lax. I In Canada during the May 2, 2011 Federal election almost 40% of eligible voters failed to turn out to vote for a representative.

(2) Governments are highly influenced by media coverage. It is the media that often tells us what is important, and we follow their lead. We must define to programmers of radio, television, newspapers and magazines what we think is important and engage public opinion to support measures that stop the use of child soldiers. Look what was done about land mines in the 1990s. "The international movement, which roused public and media support around the world, led to a ban that took this weapon completely out of the inventories or arsenals of most nations." (Dallaire - 231)

(3) Support the practice and teaching of conflict resolution within the military, and I would add, in our everyday lives. Dallaire writes that: The military "are coming to understand that the use of force is perhaps not the first and best option in many situations for the armed forces and their political masters." This realization comes about because of experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan working with the local military and civilian populations. Dallaire quotes from advice of the U.S. Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates in Chris Thatcher's May-June 2010 Vanguard article: "integrate the work of various players in conflict zones, both at national and international levels, to achieve a coordinated, collaborative and more effective outcome." (Dallaire - 230)

(4) Address the problem of manufacture and distribution of small weapons. There are over one million small weapons manufactured every year. China, Russia, France, United Kingdom and the United States, all members of the UN Security Council, are the biggest producers, but there are other producers. Bring to justice illegal drug dealers and tell public servants to destroy surplus weapons, not so sell them, except to legitimate states with legitimate security needs, and never to states that curtail the freedom of their own citizens through powerful policing. "States that cannot or will not stop internal atrocity crimes are the kind of states that cannot or will not stop terrorism, weapons proliferation, drug and people trafficking, the spread of health pandemics and other global risks." (Dallaire - 250) Embargoes and other measures have not been successful to stop this proliferation and distribution. The same concerns arise over production and distribution of ammunition. What can we do about the guns in our communities, and what are we demanding that our government leaders do locally and internationally?

(5) Re-education. Children who were child soldiers can't remember what life was like before they enlisted. Their moral judgement is corrupted since they had to focus on ways to survive at any cost. Their conscience is destroyed; they have no compassion or capacity to empathize. Many are addictive to drugs. Communities ostracize girls who have been raped, and many girls have children to support. Former child soldiers often say that they miss the security of serving a leader and the fellowship of belonging to a group. Most have little formal education or skills to make a living. Having experienced power over others these child soldieries challenge us to interest them in ways to use their leadership qualities toward beneficial ends.


I have endeavoured to call your attention to reasons why children are enlisted as child soldiers, to some of the measures, which are being taken to eradicate the use of child warriors and to list some of the problems of rehabilitation. More needs to be done to arouse public action to stop the atrocity of depriving children of the right to grow up with healthy minds by turning them into child soldiers. If you aren't convinced that there is a problem, you can read the gory details of mutilation and forced addiction in the referenced books. Hate, prejudice and selfish drives for power over other people and resources seem to be forces that drive people to action, but I agree with Dallaire who wrote that it is possible to be energized by empathy, compassion, courage, determination and altruism. (Dallaire - 248) Dallaire believes that public sentiment can move governments to make the changes we seek. I hope that this essay will motivate you to teach others about the atrocity of employing child soldiers and will motivate you to act. Action to stop the recruitment of child soldiers can be a measure toward establishing peace in our world.


Dallaire, Roméo, Senator, L.Gen. (Ret'd). (2010).The Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children. Random House, Canada.

Beah, Ishmael (2007). A Long Way Gone, Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver/Toronto.

Brown, Ian (1990). The Story of Iran's Boy Soldiers. Great Books, London.

Shin, H.K. (2001). Remembering Korea, 1950, A Boy Soldier's Story. University of Nevada Press.

The images of young boys and girls, who have probably not yet reached their teens, look as frightening and wrong, as they look unreal. But real they are. Since the 1970s, several juridical, international efforts have been undertaken to reduce the usage of children in armed conflict. Still, The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers (2008) reports that the phenomenon is widespread: an estimated 300,000 children serve as soldiers in more than 30 armed conflicts around the globe. The largest number of child fighters is used on the African continent, but during recent years many have also been used in countries like Colombia, Sri Lanka and Nepal (Cataldi & Briggs 2007; Singer 2010)

The images of child soldiers appear more often and have become increasingly normal to see during the last two decades of globalization, media revolution and the explosive emergence of NGOs and their armies of PR officials whose job is to feed the mainstream media, suffering under constant cost-reduction policies, with information subsidies.

An interview in the newspaper Verdens Gang (Grønning 2008) with the former Norwegian mercenary Espen Lie attracted a lot of attention, as he admitted to having shot at children during a mission in Sierra Leone: “When you shoot, it is often on a distance of 100 or 200 meters. It is not easy to say whether they are 12, 14 or 16 or older”. The phenomenon has also received attention through former child soldiers who have written books about their own experiences, such as Ishmael Beah (2007) who fought as a child in Sierra Leone, and Emmanuel Jal (2010) from Sudan, who also shares his story through hip-hop music.

It is not only popular media that has engaged with the topic. Also, a growing group of scholars have shown an interest, resulting in an increasing amount of books and articles on the subject. However, NGOs repeatedly present the child soldier phenomenon as a new feature of war, and both the media and several scholars seem to have adopted this view. Anwo (2009, 1) characterizes the child soldier issue in Africa “historically unprecedented”. Singer, for example, says that ”children never where an integral, essential part of military forces through history” and that children in war was a “rarity” until recently (Singer 2010, 93).

This is a vaguely documented claim, though: since Biblical time and in various cultures, children have been recruited into militaries and gone to war as servants, drummers, scouts and spies – but also as fighters. George Orwell makes an account of child soldiers as young as eleven or twelve years old in his book about the Spanish Civil War, “Homage to Catalonia” (Orwell 1986, 25). Some years later, Russian, German and Jewish children were participating in the fighting in World War II (Rosen 2005).

This essay questions the eagerness of presenting child-soldiering as a new phenomenon, as it draws attention away from an important way of building an understanding of it, and will draw comparisons between contemporary and earlier societies.

With this in mind, this essay will try to identify and discuss the most important factors that are at play when children are recruited into armed groups and used in armed conflicts.

Conceptions of childhood

As NGOs, media and even scholars tend to present child-soldiering as a new feature of war, David Rosen makes an important point by underlining that we should not mythologize the past and make the thousands of children who fought in wars invisible (Rosen 2005, 14).

Throughout history and in different cultures, the concept of childhood has not been defined and experienced in the same manner. One of the first scholars to claim that childhood is a modern invention was Philippe Ariès (1996). During medieval times, he argues, children were regarded as mini-adults who did not have any different needs than adults, and that they were not protected against any of the aspects of adult life, such as for example, labour, sex and violence. It should therefore not be a surprise that children have participated in warfare long before our time of living. In medieval Europe, children were seen as natural companions of adults, also in war (Rosen 2005, 7). The young boys that accompanied adult knights in battle on foot were called “infante” by the Italians, and thus making up the “infanteria” – the infantry (Honwana 2006, 26). As Helen Brocklehurst (2009) remarks, adding the prefix “child” to “soldier” does not indicate the beginning of the practice of soldiering by children. Instead, it is the milestone where the western society’s conception of childhood was no longer consistent with its concepts of warfare. Brocklehurst additionally notes “the ‘child soldier crisis’ is a modern political crisis which has little to do with whether there are more or fewer children in wars today” (Brocklehurst 2009, 5).

What is important to note, with this in mind, is that the conception of childhood is different in many of the developing countries where children are used as soldiers today, for instance in societies of Sub-Saharan Africa, especially in rural areas. While the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and many developed countries strictly draw the line between childhood and adulthood at 18 years, this is not the case in many of these predominantly rural societies where child soldiers are used: once a person is doing adult work or has completed cultural rituals that lead to manhood or womanhood, he or she is regarded as an adult. Consequently, cultural phenomena, traditions and social roles in developing countries is leading to the perception that a person becomes an adult when he or she is in the early teens. At the same time, though, many elders and state officials in these societies either regard a person less than 18 years of age as too young to participate in armed groups, or they can accept this view after a combination of reflection and persuasion (Vermeij 2009, 9; Wessells 2006, 5). Nevertheless, the conception of childhood is one of the factors that are the basis for whether children are used as soldiers.

Connected to the conception of childhood is also the use of child labour. We can see the historical linkages between these two factors and the use of child soldiers. Rosen (2005, 7) argues that the idea of children as “innocent” and “weak” emerged with the introduction of formal, institutionalized education – a development that accompanied the industrial revolution in the Western world, and started the segregation of the stricter categories of childhood and adulthood. Prior to this, the most common form of education was apprenticeship, thus introducing children early to adult life.

Today we can see that the states, in which armed groups have recruited children under the age of 18 into their ranks during the last decade, are also associated with widespread use of child labour (see table 1).

 “Old” and “new” wars

An assumption that is used when explaining the child soldier crisis is that contemporary, “new” wars are significantly different from traditional or “old” wars. According to Rosen (2005), it seems to be a notion amongst a lot of organizations, media and scholars (for example Collier, 2003; Singer, 2010) that there are sharp qualitative distinctions between how war was fought before and now in the 21st Century. This is based in a belief that “old” or traditional wars were self-limiting and rule-bound in several ways: having clear political goals, being limited in time and geographical space, in addition to being “humane” in the sense that these wars were fought in accordance with rules accepted by all, for example by making a clear distinction between civilians and soldiers. In the humanitarian discourse, contemporary wars are in possession of few, if any, of these features (Rosen 2005, 10-11).

Singer (2010, 103) makes the claim that while the military operations of the Western powers have developed to be more technological, the warfare in developing countries “has become messier and criminalized”. World Bank expert, Paul Collier (2003) is one of the scholars claiming that the “new” or postmodern wars are first and foremost fought for economic gains, not ideals, referring to that key characteristics of a country with a high risk of internal armed conflict is economic.

Rosen, on the other hand, criticizes how “new” wars are presented as being conducted by pure criminals without any political goals, and that these wars are portrayed as a “way of life” without any other purpose than upholding the wars themselves. He also points out that despite the brutality of contemporary warfare, neither high civilian casualties nor terrorist or genocidal acts represent a real change from how wars have been fought historically. The wars of the 1700s and 1800s, often used as examples of wars that was fought ”by the rules”, at best constitute exceptions in the history of warfare (Rosen 2005, 11).

Taking a closer look at for example the Thirty Years’ War, the Napoleonic Wars or the American Civil War provides us with clear evidence that “old wars” neither were self-limiting nor rule-bound. Claiming that the actors in the armed conflicts of Liberia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Rwanda and Congo-Kinshasa, all examples of conflicts were children were present as soldiers, did not have clear political goals, do not serve any other meaning than to reduce them to “apolitical criminals and child abusers” (Ibid., 14)

It can be shown that certain aspects of warfare, for example technology, has developed through history, but according to Rosen there is no empirical justification for making a distinct division between “old” and “new” wars at the end of colonialism. Children have always been present on the battlefield as soldiers, thus “the roots of the child soldier crisis cannot be said to lie in the anomie of modern warfare as it is experienced in postcolonial states” (Ibid., 12)

Supply and demand

Achvarina and Reich (2010, 55-76) have shown that possible factors, such as poverty levels and the proportion of orphans in a population, do not help us much in explaining the differences in occurrence of child soldiers throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. On the other hand, they have evidence that suggests that there is an important connection between the access to refugee and internally displaced persons camps and the participation of child soldiers. They presume children, whether orphans or not, are less likely to be recruited if the camps are well protected. It is well documented that children join armed groups and armies by free will, of a variety of reasons, as well as by forced abduction (Honwana 2006, 49-74; Vermeij 2009). Poverty, education, war, protection of refugee camps, family relations and friends are all factors that shape the supply of children for recruitment. Nevertheless, demand is determining how many children are actually ordered to kill (Andvig & Gates 2010, 78-79).

Children’s role in war through history is recognized by Andvig and Gates (Ibid.), but they point out that while historically child soldiers were complementary to adults and therefore proportionally fewer, in several contemporary armed conflicts children seem to be substitutes for adult soldiers as they represent a high proportion of the total number of combatants. For instance, in the recent wars in Liberia, Sudan and Angola, the child soldier rates were 53%, 39% and 28% respectively (Ibid.; Achvarina & Reich 2010, 72). In the rebel group Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Northern Uganda, children under the age of 18 constitute a high proportion of the soldiers (Vermeij 2009). Several scholars argue that it is easier for children to join war, and that they can substitute adult combatants, because of the availability of cheap, powerful, yet lightweight and easy-to-carry weapons such as the AK-47 assault rifle (Singer 2010, 99-102; Vermeij 2009, 28). The same argumentation has been used both by UNICEF (1996) and Human Rights Watch (2008), the latter stating that: “Technological advances in weaponry and the proliferation of small arms have contributed to the increased use of child soldiers. Lightweight automatic weapons are simple to operate, often easily accessible, and can be used by children as easily as adults.” The proliferation of light and powerful firearms is what we can call an enabler and an important structural factor for the use of child soldiers.

But why are children more favourable recruits than adults for certain military groups? A Congolese rebel leader interviewed in an article in The Economist (Children under Arms  1999) summarizes the three main reasons why children are good soldiers: “they obey orders; they are not concerned of getting with getting back to their wife and family; and they don’t know fear” (cited in Andvig & Gates 2010, 79). These characteristics appear in several studies of child soldiers. Both Vermeij (2009), Sanin (2010), Wessels (2010) and Singer (2010) show how armed groups recruit and socialize children into the groups to make them stay. Not surprisingly, children adapt more easily into personalized management, which still is very common in the poor countries where child-soldiering is taking place. The key demand factor is, however, whether there are armed groups that find children useful and want to recruit them.

Developing international legal standards

Historically, the lack of laws and regulations prohibiting child-soldiering may have been a contributing factor to the recruitment and use of children in armed conflict. States have been very eager to secure their own interests, rather the interests of underage individuals participating in hostilities. For example, the international delegitimizing of state-authorized non-state violence began already in 1856 with the Treaty of Paris and the attached Declaration of Paris, which declared, “privateering is, and remains abolished” (Thomson 1994, 70-71). It should take more than a century before the international community declared something similar about child-soldiering.

Since the 1970s a number of international legal standards to protect children from recruitment and use as soldiers have emerged (Anwo et al. 2009; CSUCS 2011a). Here we can also see an inconsistency in the definition of a child, as discussed in the first section, Conceptions of childhood:

  • ILO Minimum Age Convention 138: States should pursue a policy to abolish child labour and to rise minimum age of work to ”a level consistent with the fullest physical and mental development of young persons”. (ILO 1973)
  • ILO Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention 182: States should “take immediate and effective measures to secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour as a matter of urgency”. Children are persons under 18 years of age and the worst forms of child labour include child-soldiering. (ILO 1999)
  • Additional Protocols to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949: The minimum age for recruitment and use in all types of armed conflict is set to 15 years of age. (ICRC 1977)
  • Convention of the Rights of the Child: Even though a child is generally defined as a person below the age of 18 in the convention, the age of 15 is used as the minimum age of recruitment and participation in armed conflict. (OHCHR 1989)
  • Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict: The age of 18 is set as the minimum age for direct participation in hostilities, nevertheless states can accept volunteers from the age of 16. (OHCHR 2000)
  • Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC): The ICC shall try persons charged with committing war crimes, which includes the conscription, participation and use of children under the age of 15 in both war and internal armed conflict. (ICC 1998)
  • African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child: The world’s only regional treaty that addresses child-soldiering defines a child as any person under the age of 18. (AU 1999)
  • UN Security Council Resolutions 1261 (1999), 1314 (2000), 1379 (2001), 1460 (2003), 1539 (2004), 1612 (2005) and 1882 (2009) contains condemnation of the recruitment and use of children in hostilities. The Security Council does not offer its own definition of a child, but calls on all parties in armed conflicts to comply with international law, referring to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Optional Protocol, as well as the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, thus setting the minimum age to either the age of 15 or 18 (UNSC 2009)
  • The Paris Commitments and Principles: The Commitments consists of legal and operational principles to protect children from being recruited and used in armed conflict. 95 countries have so far endorsed the Paris Principles, which defines a child as ”any person less than 18 years of age in accordance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child”. (Paris Comitments and Principles  2007)

Fighting impunity

Although many states have ratified one or more of the above-mentioned international legal instruments – as many as 120 states have ratified The Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict – the big challenge is to make sure that ”they are used to maximum effect” (CSUCS 2008, 9). There has never been better international legal standards for the protection of the rights of children, but the existence of laws that prohibit the use of children under the age of 18 is in itself not enough to ensure that the use of children in armed conflict is not actually taking place. Little evidence actually exists that these measures have been effective. The concerned states’ (in)ability and willingness to apply and bring the international conventions they have signed into force remains a problem. So-called “naming and shaming” of states using child soldiers could be argued to have had some positive effect on the situation in Colombia and the UK, although regimes such as Burma continues to recruit children into its armed forces (Gates & Reich 2010, 4).

Additionally, child-soldiering is highly apparent in non-state armed groups that operate outside of, and in disregard for, human rights and international law. The “naming and shaming” strategy has failed in respect to non-state groups, which are highly dependent on child soldiers, such as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda. Insurgents do not care about neither blacklisting from NGOs, the media and the UN, nor international legal standards – at least as long as the impunity that has been the general rule so far is maintained.

The last few years there have been developments towards holding child recruiters accountable for their actions. In June 2007, the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) found the three accused, Alex Tamba Brima, Ibrahim Bazzy Kamara and Santigie Borbor Kanu, guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity and other violations of international humanitarian law, including the recruitment and use of child soldiers. Each of the three former rebels of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) received sentences of more than 45 years in prison, and the judgement represents the first case were someone is found guilty of recruiting and using children in an armed conflict (CSUCS 2011b; SCSL 2011c).

A couple of months later, in August 2007, a former leader of the Sierra Leone’s Civil Defence Forces Militia, Allieu Kondewa, was found guilty on several counts, among others the recruitment of child soldiers. He was sentenced to eight years in prison (CSUCS 2011b; SCSL 2011a). In February 2009, Issa Hassan Sesay, Morris Kallon and Augustine Gbao, senior leaders of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), were found guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity – thereunder recruitment of child soldiers – that took place during the civil war between 1991 and 2002. They all received sentences between 25 and 52 years in prison (CSUCS 2011b; SCSL 2011b).

Former Liberian president Charles Taylor currently stands trial at The Special Court for Sierra Leone, charged with using child soldiers. Additionally, the founder of the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC), Thomas Lubanga, was found guilty of recruiting boys and girls under 15 years of age to fight with his militia in 2002 and 2003 by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on the 14 March 2012 (BBC 2012; CSUCS 2011b; ICC 2011; SCSL 2011d).

To what extent leaders of states, militias and rebel groups in the future will let the risk of prosecution be a factor to be taken into account when considering to use children as combatants, remains to be discovered. In present conflicts, it is likely that groups that are dependent on child soldiers will not abolish the practice if that involves the risk of defeat. There is also a danger that criminalization could be an obstacle to negotiating peace agreements: If the utilizers of child soldiers fear post-war prosecution, there is a risk that they will not lay down their weapons (Gates & Reich 2010, 5).


This essay has argued that the use of children by armed groups is nothing new. Children have been present as soldiers in war throughout history and in different cultures. It has also been argued that the strict division between childhood and adulthood at the age of 18 is a relatively modern, western phenomenon. Despite this, even western powers have used, and still use, persons under the age of 18 in their militaries.

The conception of childhood varies in different cultures and sub-cultures, and is often linked together with labour: When a person is able to work, the person is adult. States where children are used as soldiers are associated with high child labour rates. While present in many cases through history, and today, is an understanding that children are in possession of some other features than adults, it is not then said that there is an understanding of any moral or ethical problems related to the use of children in war. The perception of childhood, maturity and the ethics connected with these concepts are therefore important factors at play when children are recruited into armed groups.

A way several scholars have tried to explain the use of child soldiers, is to draw a line between “old” and “new” wars, trying to make the brutality of contemporary insurgencies a factor in itself. However, war has always been brutal and children always have been used as soldiers. To mythologize the past in this way do not give us an improved ability to understand the contemporary child soldier crisis.

The most important factors that determines the supply of children to be recruited as soldiers has also been presented. Poverty, education, protection of refugee camps, family relations, orphan rates, and not at least war itself, are all important supply factors. What is an even more important factor, though, is the demand for children to be recruited. Historically, child soldiers have been complimentary to adult soldiers. What we have seen in several later armed conflicts is that children to a higher degree have been substitutes for adult soldiers. The proliferation and the increased availability of light but powerful firearms have been an enabler for the use of children as soldiers. The demand for children is also influenced by the perception that children are better soldiers, as they obey orders and are less likely to desert.

Historically, there have been no legal restrictions on the use of children in war. More than hundred years after the use of authorized non-state violence in war was outlawed, the first regulations on the use of child soldiers came in the 1970s as a result of western, liberal initiatives. During the last five years we have gotten several cases where former leaders of different armed groups have been prosecuted and sentenced for using children as soldiers. It still remains to see whether the criminalization of the use of child soldiers will have a general preventive effect, or if it will cause obstacles in the negotiations of peace agreements.

In respect of the long history of children fighting in war, the conclusion is that the use of child soldiers will persist as long as military leaders and the societies within which they operate do not have any conceptual, moral or ethical problems by using individuals under the age of 18 as combatants, and as long as the military organizations see these individuals as useful.


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Table 1

Countries where children under 18 were recruited and used by armed groups 2001-2007Child labour 2000-2009 (% of children 5-14 years old)
Africa south of Sahara
Central African Republik47
Côte d’Ivoire35
Sierra Leone48
Americas and the Caribbean
Colombia7 (Data incomplete)
Afghanistan13 (Data incomplete)
Bhutan19 (Data incomplete)
Indonesia7 (Data incomplete)
MyanmarData not available
Nepal34 (Data incomplete)
PakistanData not available
Sri Lanka8
RussiaData not available
Additionally, the UK deployed under-18s to Iraq where they were exposed to risk of hostilitiesData not available
Middle East and North Africa
Israel/OPTData not available
IranData not available
LibyaData not available



Sources: Child Soldiers Global Report (2004), Child Soldiers Report (2008), The State of the World’s Children (UNICEF 2011).

Written by: Stian Eisenträger
Written at: The Norwegian University of Life Sciences
Written for: Professor Espen Olav Sjaastad
Date written: March 2011


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