Kid Soldiers

When I joined Human Rights Watch more than two decades ago, I quickly became involved with a global campaign to stop the use of child soldiers. Today marks 20 years since 1 of the campaign’s key accomplishments – the adoption of the United Nations treaty banning the use of child soldiers. Since then, 170 countries have ratified the treaty, agreeing not to use children under the age of 18 in direct hostilities and to criminalize the recruitment and use of children by non-state armed groups.

Because of the treaty, governments – including the United States and United Kingdom, which used 17-year-olds in combat – have changed their deployment practices. More than 140,000 child soldiers have been released or demobilized. At least a dozen governments and armed groups have fulfilled formal agreements with the UN to end their use of child soldiers, including Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Sudan, and Uganda. Commanders who once recruited children with impunity have been convicted of war crimes and received long sentences.

Until fairly recently, the progress seemed to be steady and positive. But in the past few years, we’ve seen that progress erode, with worrying surges of child recruitment in countries such as the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia, and Syria. As governments battle armed groups, they have increasingly imprisoned, tortured, and prosecuted former child soldiers, rather than provide them with rehabilitation and reintegration, as the treaty requires.

Instead of celebration, this anniversary calls for us to do more: to investigate and prosecute commanders who recruit underage children, cut off support for the forces and groups that exploit children, negotiate more action plans to end the use of children in war, and to ensure that former child soldiers get the rehabilitation and support they need. Last week the United States State Department named more countries than ever before – 14 – in its latest annual list of governments responsible for the recruitment and use of children as soldiers. Cameroon, Libya, and Nigeria were added this year, joining repeat offenders such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.

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Non-state armed groups are responsible for most child recruitment around the world, but US law – the Child Soldiers Prevention Act – aims to hold governments accountable for their forces’ recruitment or use of children, or support for militias or paramilitaries that recruit or use children. Those on the list are ineligible for key US military assistance programs, unless they receive a waiver from the White House. 

Despite the growth of this year’s list, the report documented some encouraging developments. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, there have been no verified cases of child recruitment by national armed forces for five years, age verification efforts prevented the recruitment of over 140 children last year, and investigations and prosecutions of child recruiters have increased. Government forces, however, continued to collaborate with proxy militias that use children in armed conflict.

In Sudan, the new government has issued command orders against child recruitment, trained more than 5,000 military personnel, and, after reports of child recruitment in May 2019, allowed United Nations verification visits to ensure children were not present.

But in Afghanistan, government forces continue to recruit children with impunity. The use of children by Syrian government forces is commonplace, with no effort to hold recruiters accountable. Iran continues to force or coerce children to fight with militias in Syria, and funds militias using child soldiers in Iraq and Yemen.

The Child Soldiers Prevention Act offers little leverage to influence child soldier use in countries like Syria or Iran, where the US provides no military assistance. And presidents have routinely used their waiver authority to continue military aid to countries still using child soldiers. Last year, for example, waivers allowed Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Mali, and Somalia to receive $17 million in military training and assistance.  

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The State Department should use its diplomatic influence to press all countries on the list to end their involvement in child soldiering. The White House will not make its waiver decisions until September, but it should send a clear message: if you want US military aid, you can’t use children as soldiers.

History is filled with children who have been trained and used for fighting, assigned to support roles such as porters or messengers, used as sex slaves, or recruited for tactical advantage as human shields or for political advantage in propaganda. In 1814, for example, Napoleon conscripted many teenagers for his armies. Thousands of children participated on all sides of the First World War and the Second World War.[Children continued to be used throughout the 20th and early 21st century on every continent, with concentrations in parts of AfricaLatin America, and the Middle East. Only since the turn of the millennium have international efforts begun to limit and reduce the military use of children.

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Don’t be afraid

Current situation

State armed forces

Since the adoption in 2000 of the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict (OPAC) the global trend has been towards restricting armed forces recruitment to adults aged 18 or over, known as the Straight-18 standard,  Most states with armed forces have opted in to OPAC, which also prohibits states that still recruit children from using them in armed conflict.

Nonetheless, Child Soldiers International reported in 2018 that children under the age of 18 were still being recruited and trained for military purposes in 46 countries; of these, most recruit from age 17, fewer than 20 recruit from age 16, and an unknown, smaller number, recruit younger children. States that still rely on children to staff their armed forces include the world’s three most populous countries (ChinaIndia, and the United States) and the most economically powerful (all G7 countries apart from Italy and Japan).[26] The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child and others have called for an end to the recruitment of children by state armed forces, arguing that military training, the military environment, and a binding contract of service are not compatible with children’s rights and jeopardize healthy development during adolescence.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates hired child soldiers from Sudan (especially from Darfur) to fight against Houthis during the Yemeni Civil War (2015–present).

Non-state armed groups

These include non-state armed Paramilitary organisations, using children such as militiasinsurgentsterrorist organizationsguerrilla movements, ideologically or religiously-driven groups, armed liberation movements, and other types of quasi-military organisation. In 2017 the United Nations identified 14 countries where children were widely used by such groups: Afghanistan, Colombia,Central African RepublicDemocratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Mali, Myanmar, Nigeria, Philippines, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.

Not all armed groups use children and approximately 60 have entered agreements to reduce or end the practice since 1999 For example, by 2017, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the Philippines had released nearly 2,000 children from its ranks,  and in 2016, the FARC-EP guerrilla movement in Colombia agreed to stop recruiting children. Other countries have seen the reverse trend, particularly Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria and Syria, where Islamist militants and groups opposing them have intensified their recruitment, training, and use of children.

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Move on!

Global estimate

In 2003 P. W. Singer of the Brookings Institution estimated that child soldiers participate in about three-quarters of ongoing conflicts.  In the same year the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) estimated that most of these children were aged over 15, although some were younger.

Today, due to the widespread military use of children in areas where armed conflict and insecurity prevent access by UN officials and other third parties, it is difficult to estimate how many children are affected.  In 2017 Child Soldiers International estimated that several tens of thousands of children, possibly more than 100,000, were in state- and non-state military organisations around the world, and in 2018 the organisation reported that children were being used to participate in at least 18 armed conflicts.

Rationale for the use of children

Despite children’s physical and psychological underdevelopment relative to adults, there are many reasons why state- and non-state military organisations seek them out. Cited examples include:

  • Peter W. Singer has suggested that the global proliferation of light automatic weapons, which children can easily handle, has made the use of children as direct combatants more viable.
  • Roméo Dallaire has pointed to the role of overpopulation in making children a cheap and accessible resource for military organisations.
  • Roger Rosenblatt has suggested that children are more willing than adults to fight for non-monetary incentives such as religion, honour, prestige, revenge and duty.
  • Several commentators, including Bernd Beber, Christopher Blattman, Dave Grossman, Michael Wessels, and McGurk and colleagues, have argued that since children are more obedient and malleable than adults, they are easier to control, deceive and indoctrinate.
  • David Gee and Rachel Taylor have found that in the UK, the army finds it easier to attract child recruits starting from age 16 than adults from age 18, particularly those from poorer backgrounds.
  • Some leaders of armed groups have claimed that children, despite their underdevelopment, bring their own qualities as combatants to a fighting unit, often being remarkably fearless, agile and hardy.

While some children are forcibly recruited, deceived, or bribed into joining military organisations, others join of their own volition. There are many reasons for this. In a 2004 study of children in military organisations around the world, Rachel Brett and Irma Specht pointed to a complex of factors that incentivise enlisting, particularly:

  • Background poverty including a lack of civilian education or employment opportunities
  • The cultural normalization of war
  • Seeking new friends
  • Revenge (for example, after seeing friends and relatives killed)
  • Expectations that a “warrior” role provides a rite of passage to maturity

The following testimony from a child recruited by the Cambodian armed forces in the 1990s is typical of many children’s motivations for joining up:

I joined because my parents lacked food and I had no school… I was worried about mines but what can we do—it’s an order [to go to the front line]. Once somebody stepped on a mine in front of me—he was wounded and died… I was with the radio at the time, about 60 metres away. I was sitting in my hammock and saw him die… I see young children in every unit… I’m sure I’ll be a soldier for at least a couple of more years. If I stop being a soldier I won’t have a job to do because I don’t have any skills. I don’t know what I’ll do…

Impact on children

Further information: Impact of war on childrenSee also: Recruit training

The scale of the impact on children was first acknowledged by the international community in a major report commissioned by the UN General AssemblyImpact of Armed Conflict on Children (1996), which was produced by the human rights expert Graça Machel. The report was particularly concerned with the use of younger children, presenting evidence that many thousands of children were being killed, maimed, and psychiatrically injured around the world every year.

Since the Machel Report further research has shown that child recruits who survive armed conflict face a markedly elevated risk of debilitating psychiatric illness, poor literacy and numeracy, and behavioural problems. Research in Palestine and Uganda, for example, has found that more than half of former child soldiers showed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder and nearly nine in ten in Uganda screened positive for depressed mood. Researchers in Palestine also found that children exposed to high levels of violence in armed conflict were substantially more likely than other children to exhibit aggression and anti-social behaviour. The combined impact of these effects typically includes a high risk of poverty and lasting unemployment in adulthood.

Further harm is caused when child recruits are detained by armed forces and groups, according to Human Rights Watch. Children are often detained without sufficient food, medical care, or under other inhumane conditions, and some experience physical and sexual torture. Some are captured with their families, or detained due to the activity of one of their family members. Lawyers and relatives are frequently banned from any court hearing.

Other research has found that the enlistment of children, including older children, has a detrimental impact even when they are not used in armed conflict until they reach adulthood. Military academics in the US have characterized military training (at all ages) as “intense indoctrination” in conditions of sustained stress, the primary purpose of which is to establish the unconditional and immediate obedience of recruits.[10] The academic literature has found that adolescents are more vulnerable than adults to a high-stress environment, such as that of initial military training, particularly those from a background of childhood adversity. Enlistment, even before recruits are sent to war, is accompanied by a higher risk of attempted suicide in the US, higher risk of mental disorders in the US and the UK,[ higher risk of alcohol misuse and higher risk of violent behaviour, relative to recruits’ pre-enlistment background. Military settings are also characterised by elevated rates of bullying and sexual harassment.

Military recruitment practices have also been found to exploit the vulnerabilities of children in mid-adolescence. Specifically, evidence from Germany, the UK[ and the US has shown that recruiters disproportionately target children from poorer backgrounds using marketing that omits the risks and restrictions of military life. Some academics have argued that marketing of this kind capitalises on the psychological susceptibility in mid-adolescence to emotionally-driven decision-making.

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International law

Recruitment and use of children

Definition of child

Main articles: Convention on the Rights of the Child and Free Children from War conference

The Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as any person under the age of 18. The Paris Principles define a child associated with an armed force or group as:

…any person below 18 years of age who is or who has been recruited or used by an armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to children, boys and girls, used as fighters, cooks, porters, messengers, spies or for sexual purposes. The document is approved by the United Nations General Assembly. It does not only refer to a child who is taking or has taken a direct part in hostilities.

Children aged under 15

Main articles: Convention on the Rights of the Child and Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court

The Additional Protocols to the 1949 Geneva Conventions (1977, Art. 77.2), the convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (2002) all forbid state armed forces and non-state armed groups from using children under the age of 15 directly in armed conflict (technically “hostilities”). This is now recognised as a war crime.

Children aged under 18

Main article: Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed ConflictFurther information: Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention and African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child

Most states with armed forces are also bound by the higher standards of the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict (OPAC) (2000) and the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (1999), which forbid the compulsory recruitment of those under the age of 18. OPAC also requires governments that still recruit children (from age 16) to “take all feasible measures to ensure that persons below the age of 18 do not take a direct part in hostilities”. In addition, OPAC forbids non-state armed groups from recruiting children under any circumstances, although the legal force of this is uncertain.

The highest standard in the world is set by the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, which forbids state armed forces from recruiting children under the age of 18 under any circumstances. Most African states have ratified the Charter.

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Limitations and loopholes

States that are not a party to OPAC are subject to the lower standards set by Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions, which allows armed forces to use children over the age of fifteen in hostilities, and possibly to use younger children who have volunteered as spotters, observers, and message-carriers:

The Parties to the conflict shall take all feasible measures so that children who have not attained the age of fifteen years do not take a direct part in hostilities and, in particular, they shall refrain from recruiting them into their armed forces. In recruiting among those persons who have attained the age of fifteen years but who have not attained the age of eighteen years, the Parties to the conflict shall endeavor to give priority to those who are oldest.

The International Committee of the Red Cross had proposed that the Parties to the conflict should “take all necessary measures”, which became in the final text, “take all feasible measures”, which is not a total prohibition because feasible is understood as meaning “capable of being done, accomplished or carried out, possible or practicable”. During the negotiations over the clause “take a part in hostilities” the word “direct” was added to it, opening up the possibility that child volunteers could be involved indirectly in hostilities, such as by gathering and transmitting military information, helping in the transportation of arms and munitions, provision of supplies, etc.

However, Article 4.3.c of Protocol II, additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts, adopted in 1977, states “children who have not attained the age of fifteen years shall neither be recruited in the armed forces or groups nor allowed to take part in hostilities”.

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Standards for the release and reintegration of children[edit]

Main article: Rehabilitation and reintegration of child soldiers

OPAC requires governments to demobilise children within their jurisdiction who have been recruited or used in hostilities and to provide assistance for their physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration. Under war, civil unrest, armed conflict and other emergency situations, children and youths are also offered protection under the United Nations Declaration on the Protection of Women and Children in Emergency and Armed Conflict. To accommodate the proper disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of former members of armed groups, the United Nations started the Integrated DDR Standards in 2006.

War crimes

Further information: War crime

Opinion is currently divided over whether children should be prosecuted for war crimes.[80] International law does not prohibit the prosecution of children who commit war crimes, but Article 37 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child limits the punishment that a child can receive: “Neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offenses committed by persons below eighteen years of age.”

Example: Sierra Leone

Main article: Special Court for Sierra Leone

In the wake of the Sierra Leone Civil War, the UN mandated the Special Court for Sierra Leone (SCSL) to try former combatants aged 15 and older for breaches of humanitarian law, including war crimes. However, the Paris Principles state that children who participate in armed conflict should be regarded first as victims, even if they may also be perpetrators:

… [those] who are accused of crimes under international law allegedly committed while they were associated with armed forces or armed groups should be considered primarily as victims of offenses against international law; not only as perpetrators. They must be treated by international law in a framework of restorative justice and social rehabilitation, consistent with international law which offers children special protection through numerous agreements and principles.

This principle was reflected in the Court’s statute, which did not rule out prosecution but emphasised the need to rehabilitate and reintegrate former child soldiers. David Crane, the first Chief Prosecutor of the Sierra Leone tribunal, interpreted the statute in favour of prosecuting those who had recruited children, rather than the children themselves, no matter how heinous the crimes they had committed.


Example: Omar Khadr

In the US, prosecutors charged Omar Khadr, a Canadian, for offences they allege he committed in Afghanistan while under the age of 16 and fighting for the Taliban against US forces. These crimes carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment under US law. In 2010, while under torture and duress, Khadr pleaded guilty to murder in violation of the laws of war, attempted murder in violation of the laws of war, conspiracy, two counts of providing material support for terrorism, and spying. The plea was offered as part of a plea bargain, which would see Khadr deported to Canada after one year of imprisonment to serve seven further years there. Omar Khadr remained in Guantanamo Bay and the Canadian government faced international criticism for delaying his repatriation. Khadr was eventually transferred to the Canadian prison system in September 2012 and was freed on bail by a judge in Alberta in May 2015. As of 2016, Khadr was appealing his US conviction as a war criminal.

Before sentencing the Special Representative to the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict wrote to the US military commission at Guantanamo appealing unsuccessfully for Khadr’s release into a rehabilitation program. In her letter she said that Khadr represented the “classic child soldier narrative: recruited by unscrupulous groups to undertake actions at the bidding of adults to fight battles they barely understand”.

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The role of the United Nations


Further information: Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict and Committee on the Rights of the Child

Children’s rights advocates were left frustrated after the final text of the convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) did not prohibit the military recruitment of all children under the age of 18, and they began to call for a new treaty to achieve this goal. As a consequence the newly formed Committee on the Rights of the Child made two recommendations: first, to request a major UN study into the impact of armed conflict on children; and second, to establish a working group of the UN Commission on Human Rights to negotiate a supplementary protocol to the convention. Both proposals were accepted.

Responding to the committee on the Rights of the Child, the UN General Assembly acknowledged “the grievous deterioration in the situation of children in many parts of the world as a result of armed conflicts” and commissioned the human rights expert Graça Machel to conduct a major fact-finding study. The Machel Report, Impact of armed conflict on children, was published in 1996. The report noted:

Clearly one of the most urgent priorities is to remove everyone under 18 years of age from armed forces.

Meanwhile, the UN Commission on Human Rights established a working group to negotiate a treaty to raise standards with regard to the use of children for military purposes. After complex negotiations and a global campaign, the new treaty was agreed in 2000 as the Optional Protocol to the convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict. The treaty prohibits the direct participation of children in armed conflict, but not their recruitment by state armed forces from age 16.

The UN has identified 14 countries where children have been widely used as soldiers. These countries are Afghanistan, Colombia, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Mali, Myanmar, Nigeria, the Philippines, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. The use of child soldiers spans the globe. In an article for the Middle East Institute, the authors Mick Mulroy, Zack Baddorf and Eric Oehlerich, all former military and special operations, state that this issue of child soldiers happens in many locations where the world’s superpowers have deployed their own military forces. Therefore, “those superpowers have a responsibility to help end this practice of child exploitation”.

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