GLOBAL: Fighting for the rights of child soldiers

At end-November 2011, Somalia and the Central African Republic became the latest countries to commit to end the use of child soldiers – a move seen as “encouraging” by the UN, albeit with the proviso that the situation in both countries remains volatile.

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All sides to the Somali conflict have reportedly been recruiting children. An official working with an NGO that monitors the state of children in the country told IRIN that although the exact number of child soldiers was unknown, his group suspected between 2,000 and 3,000 children were in different armed groups.

Up to 300,000 children are still involved in more than 30 conflicts worldwide, according to the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

In April 2011, the UN listed dozens of groups that continued to recruit or use children in its annual report on children and armed conflict. This bid to “name and shame” countries into cooperating with the law has only a limited effect, however. While fewer children are being used as child soldiers today, it is thanks to conflicts having ended, not the practice of recruiting and using children.

“Despite some examples of progress, the bigger picture remains essentially unaltered: the recruitment and use of boys and girls by armed groups remains widespread,” according to the latest report by the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers in 2008.

Gender is no protection, as girls are recruited into armed groups or abducted for forced labour or sex. Age also proved no barrier; in Columbia, the FARC militia announced it would recruit all children over the age of eight, reported the UN Secretary-General in April 2011: “In one characteristic use of children, a child was used by FARC-EP to carry out an attack against a police station using explosives. The explosives were attached to the child and activated as he approached the police station, killing him instantly.”


“Many children have few alternatives to, or defences against, joining armed groups,” states the 2008 Coalition report. It cited poverty, discrimination and social exclusion, lack of access to education, and limited job prospects as some of the factors pushing minors to join armed groups.

Not all children associated with armed forces are used as fighters. Minors have been seen manning checkpoints, acting as scouts and guides in battles, running errands, cooking and cleaning for forces during the Côte d’Ivoire election conflict, according to government social workers, UN agency and NGO staff, as well as direct testimonies from children. Social workers in Duékoué, in the west, told NGO Save the Children they saw children involved whom they estimated to be as young as 11.

Suicide bombers

Children have also been made to carry explosives between Afghanistan and Pakistan, conduct military operations in the DRC, Philippines, Myanmar and Somalia, carry out arson attacks and collect kidnap ransoms in Haiti; they were used as suicide bombers in Iraq, according to the Secretary-General’s 2010 report, as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan.

According to a Foreign Policy Association blog: “The use of child suicide bombers appears to be increasing, and while many children are educated and reared into this deadly fate, many are thankfully saved or removed before their actions have deadly consequences. Many have seen the images of infants and toddlers dressed in mock suicide bomber outfits in Palestine, and while they may not commit such acts when they grow up, their fate is one undoubtedly leaning towards violence.”

Laws not applied

There are various instruments outlawing the recruitment and use of children for combat in human rights law, humanitarian law, labour law and criminal law – but a chasm exists between these standards and their application. The Coalition report cites ineffective government and a lack of enforcement mechanisms as reasons why armed groups continued to operate with relative impunity.

Although child soldiers are used all over the world, the largest numbers are in Africa, despite the 1999 African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, the only regional treaty in the world that prohibits the use of child soldiers.

Most observers agree that the practice continues because children make for cheap and obedient fighters, easily frightened or brainwashed into compliance. The accessibility of light weaponry has also fed into the problem, making it possible for very young children to bear and use arms.

“Any country that has an active armed conflict can expect that troop-hungry commanders will use children to fill their ranks,” said professor, author and psychologist Michael Wessells in a United States Department of State webchat in June 2008.

But all agree that the most obvious reason armed forces take on children is because they can. Despite the regulations outlawing the practice, most of those who violate the conventions and international agreements are not prosecuted.

Children who have been displaced or separated from their parents, have limited access to education, or who have suffered an injustice or emotional abuse, are more vulnerable to recruitment, according to UNICEF.

Among other things, protection involves addressing these vulnerabilities, and identifying non-violent ways for them to contribute to their families and communities. Resources and capacity are particularly needed to extend education and vocational training, as well as to revive agriculture and provide other economic opportunities, according to the UN.

Demobilizing, reintegrating and rehabilitating children who have already participated in armed conflict is as difficult as protecting them. “Children who transition successfully into civilian life are less likely to continue the life of the gun, with its inherent dangers. However, instability in the post-conflict environment can put children at grave risk of re-recruitment and thwart their reintegration,” Wessells wrote in his 2006 book, Child Soldiers: from violence to protection.

The effects on children

Child soldiers are subject to ill-treatment and sexual exploitation. They are often forced to commit terrible atrocities, and beaten or killed if they try to escape. They are subjected to brutal initiation and punishment rituals, hard labour, cruel training regimes and torture. Many are given drugs and alcohol to agitate them and make it easier to break down their psychological barriers to fighting or committing atrocities.

Some speak of having been forced to witness or commit atrocities, including rape and murder. Others speak of seeing friends and family killed. Susan, 16, captures the brutalization children suffered at the hands of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda in the following testimony :

“One boy tried to escape but he was caught. His hands were tied and then they made us, the other new captives, kill him with a stick. I felt sick. I knew this boy from before; we were from the same village. I refused to do it and they told me they would shoot me. They pointed a gun at me, so I had to do it… I see him in my dreams and he is saying I killed him for nothing, and I am crying.”

“Fighting groups have developed brutal and sophisticated techniques to separate and isolate children from their communities. Children are often terrorized into obedience, consistently made to fear for their lives and well-being,” wrote the UN’s Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict. “Sometimes they are compelled to participate in the killing of other children or family members, because it is understood by these groups that there is ‘no way back home’ for children after they have committed such crimes.”

Many child soldiers report psycho-social disturbances – from nightmares and aggression that is difficult to control to strongly anti-social behaviour and substance abuse – both during their involvement in war and after their return to civilian life. Others, who held high ranks and were feared and respected by other children, find it difficult to go back to classrooms or family dwellings where they are expected to be subservient.

For that reason, according to UNICEF, successful demobilization and rehabilitation programmes not only involve taking the guns out of children’s hands but finding ways to reunite and resettle the children with their families and communities, and provide for their psycho-social care and recovery.

In Burundi, for example, the lucky ones among the country’s 3,421 former child soldiers who went through a demobilization, disarmament and reintegration (DDR) process returned to school but most languish in poverty, with little to do, officials told IRIN.

Cyprien Ndayishimiye, supervisor of former child soldiers in Bubanza province, said the situation for many former child soldiers was “dangerous” as even those who underwent vocational training during reintegration had yet to find gainful employment or set up income-generating activities.

“Many have even sold the materials they got from the DDR programme, such as sewing machines for those who learned sewing, and planes for those who hoped carpentry would help them,” Ndayishimiye said.

Tougher for girls

Girls – especially orphans or unaccompanied girls – are especially vulnerable because they are often sexually exploited, raped or otherwise abused, subjected to human trafficking and prostitution, and forced to be “wives” by other combatants. This, in turn, can result in physical and psychological trauma, unwanted pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases (including HIV/AIDS) and social stigmatization.

“Girls are mostly used by armed opposition groups, paramilitaries and militias, but they are also used by government forces,” wrote Dyan Mazurana and Khristopher Carlson in a paper for the UN. “Worldwide estimates suggest girls may account for between 10 to 30 percent of children in fighting forces.”

Girls returning from war are often stigmatized and ostracized by their communities, especially if they return with children.

“Girl soldiers are exploited in all the ways that boys are and carry the added burden of gender-based violence,” wrote Wessells.

Girls in particular continue to be excluded from official demobilization, disarmament, repatriation, resettlement and reintegration (DDRRR) programmes, despite their special post-conflict needs.

For example, some 3,000 girl soldiers in Liberia were officially demobilized while as many as 8,000 were excluded or did not register, according to the 2008 Coalition report. In the DRC, only about 15 percent of the girls believed to have been involved in the conflict were officially demobilized as the national programme drew to a close.

For the girls who do not go through the official programmes, there is no formal support at all.

Society pays a high price

Military recruitment is not only harmful to the children themselves but to societies as a whole. Children’s lost years of schooling reduce societies’ human and economic development potential. The educational system is further damaged when violent attacks are aimed at schools. The UN reported in 2010 that such attacks are becoming a “significant and a growing trend”.

Tensions may also be high between children returning from combat and those who stayed behind, especially when social support and reintegration programmes are aimed at ex-combatants, seeming to reward participation in violence.

Though child soldiers have committed and continue to commit some terrible crimes in wartime, they are still entitled, as children, to special provision and protection.

Besides criminal proceedings, “other, more age- and culturally-appropriate options exist, including truth and reconciliation commissions, community-based rehabilitation and reintegration programmes and the traditional practice of cleansing rituals”, wrote Radhika Coomaraswamy, Special Representative to the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict.

There is no international consensus on the minimum legal age for criminal responsibility, said Coomaraswamy. International Criminal Court (ICC) Article 26 prevents the court from prosecuting anyone under the age of 18, but not because it believes children should be exempt from prosecution for international crimes, “but rather that the decision on whether to prosecute should be left to states”, says Coomaraswamy’s office [ Working Paper Number 3: Children and Justice During and in the Aftermath of Armed Conflict, September 2011 ]. “[The] exclusion of children from the ICC jurisdiction avoided an argument between States on the minimum age for international crimes,” it noted.

There are substantial challenges in healing and reintegrating children into their communities when they have been instruments of brutality and atrocities, and whole societies must sometimes be involved in communal healing and acceptance of the returnees.

Somehow, the differing needs for justice and the reintegration in society of former child soldiers have to be accommodated.

Progress update

The past decade has seen a steady commitment to ending the use and abuse of children in conflict, and a strengthened framework to protect minors and bring perpetrators to justice.

By 2010, 129 countries had signed up to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict while 143 had also ratified it.

The Protocol outlaws recruitment of children under 18 years of age, obliges states to ensure that members of their armed forces under age 18 do not take direct part in combat, raises the minimum age for voluntary enlistment into armed forces to 16 years and includes specific measures requiring proof of a wish to enlist.

In 2006, integrated disarmament, demobilization and reintegration standards were created, and the Paris Principles and Guidelines on children associated with armed forces or armed groups were created in 2007 to protect children from being recruited, and helping those who already were. A 2009 policy directive mainstreamed the protection, rights and well-being of children affected by armed conflict within peacekeeping operations.

Local approaches to justice and reconciliation are increasingly playing a role in transitional justice strategies, building upon traditional norms to strengthen the protection of children in communities.

In addition, the UN says more attention is being paid to understanding the root causes of child soldiering in an effort to provide more insight into children’s vulnerability and decision-making. There is, for example, increasing recognition of the role that notions of masculinity play in enticing or coercing children into armed groups.

The UN Security Council passed resolutions 1539 in 2004; 1612 in 2005; and 1882 in 2009, which together created a working group and a monitoring and reporting mechanism to systematically monitor, document and report on the recruitment, abduction, killing or maiming of children, rape and sexual violence, attacks on schools and hospitals, and the denial of humanitarian access. It also led to systematic listing of parties that recruited or used child soldiers, in the Secretary-General’s annual report.

This public humiliation may be effective: in the last two years, five armed groups have signed special Action Plans with the UN, the first step in being de-listed from the annual report.

“However, the gap between what governments say and what they do remains wide,” says the 2008 Coalition report.

The UN does not monitor and report on every country where children are being used in fighting or these grave violations occur. For example, Côte d’Ivoire is not on the official list of countries monitored by the UN Security Council task force for recruitment of children, yet, as cited earlier, social workers told Save the Children they saw children involved with armed groups who they estimated to be as young as 11.

Other parties pledge to change but do not, despite the “naming and shaming” of the annual report. “More must be done to systematize and activate the full range of options available to the international community to ensure more robust action against recalcitrant violators,” said the Office for the Special Representative for the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict. “There are, for instance, 16 such persistent violators who have been explicitly named and listed by the Secretary-General for five years or more and the lack of action against them undermines accountability initiatives.”

And of course, national governments are only part of the problem. The Optional Protocol outlaws the recruitment or participation of anyone under 18 in insurgency groups and rebel forces, but “a wide array of armed groups – with diverse aims, methods and constituencies – continue to use children as soldiers and they have proved resistant to pressure or persuasion to stop the practice”, says the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers.

“Despite progress, the overall picture is one of armed groups that have ignored international law and standards, that renege on commitments, are resistant to pressure and persuasion, or have so far proved to be beyond the reach of efforts to end the involvement of children in conflict and political violence,” said the Coalition’s 2008 report.

Higher political profile

The UN said national and international tribunals were setting important precedents in the fight to end impunity for grave child rights violations, serving as a deterrent for commanders and warlords all over the world and creating leverage for their compliance with international norms.

Of the 12 individuals publicly indicted by the International Criminal Court at The Hague, seven have been charged with war crimes against children such as using child soldiers. They include Lord’s Resistance Army leaders Joseph Kony, Vincent Otti (since deceased) and Okot Odhiambo. Also on trial or in the pre-trial stage are cases against Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, a militia leader from the Democratic Republic of Congo, who is on trial for recruiting children under 15. The ICC also has open cases on DRC commanders Bosco Ntaganda, Germain Katanga and Matthieu Ngudjolo Chui for their crimes against children.

The Special Court for Sierra Leone is nearly finished trying a case in The Hague against Liberia’s Charles Taylor for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including conscripting or enlisting children into armed forces or groups and using them to participate actively in hostilities. The trial of a former president is a strong message to the world that even leaders of nations are not beyond the reach of international law when it comes to protecting the rights of children.

Calls for future action

Tackling impunity remains a key priority for the international community. “Concerted emphasis must be maintained on fighting the impunity of perpetrators,” said Coomaraswamy’s office.

It is also strengthening the data collection and reporting on sexual violence, in the hope it will allow for better identification of perpetrators and better analysis of trends on sexual violence against children. The proliferation of small arms is another issue that the UN would like to see addressed in order to make sure weapons do not end up in the hands of children.

In 2010, Coomaraswamy, with the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence against Children, UNICEF and the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, launched the Zero Under 18 Campaign: a two-year initiative to achieve universal ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict by 2012. The push is premised on the belief that the strongest defence against impunity for child rights violators is to have an international moral consensus that no child should take part in armed conflict – and a strong enforcement mechanism to back it up.

“I think the political will is there. What is lacking is the momentum, and that is what we hope to achieve in this campaign,” said Coomaraswamy.

Ending child soldiering remains a daunting challenge. “The military imperatives of the group and the political, economic and social factors that drive conflicts and cause children to enlist – often underpinned by local cultural attitudes towards the age of majority – can outweigh legal and moral arguments,” said the 2008 Coalition report.

The report analyzed 21 conflicts where children were used or deployed and found that children will “almost inevitably” become involved when armed conflict breaks out.

And no matter how strongly the international community pushes for stronger protection and decreased impunity, national laws have to reflect the same in order for change to take place.

Governments must also remember that the problem has deeper and more human roots than the conflict du jour. Because children are more likely to be drawn to armed groups if they have experienced human rights violations or other forms of violence, “governments and societies that fail to prioritize the promotion and protection of children’s rights – economic, social and cultural, as well as civil and political – share responsibility for driving children into the ranks of armed groups”, says the Coalition report. Understanding these deep-seated drivers of child involvement in conflict will be essential in devising a plan to protect them, and punish those who do not.

For more, visit IRIN’s in-depth on child soldiers



Theme (s): Children, Conflict, Governance, Human Rights, Refugees/IDPs,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]