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Invisible Soldiers: Child Combatants||
Weekly Defense Monitor| Volume 4,
human history war has been a constant fact of life. Yet while we
accept its seeming inevitability we have struggled, fitfully and
imperfectly, to manage and limit its scope and effects. While not
all rules are universally accepted or complied with, during the past
few centuries humanity has managed to agree on certain rules of
warfare. One of them is that unarmed civilians, generally regarded
as innocents, should not become targets of the hostile parties. And
almost everyone would agree that children, the most innocent of all,
should be shielded from the effects of war.
Sadly, this "rule of innocents" has been increasingly ignored
over the past several decades as civilians are more affected by war
and targeted by various factions. In recent decades the proportion
of war victims who are civilians has leapt dramatically from 5
percent to over 90 percent.
Worst of all, children are increasingly being used as combatants.
In most of the armed conflicts currently raging in the world
significant numbers of children under 18 years of age are active
combat participants. In many countries these child soldiers are
under 15 - the current minimum age for participation in hostilities
and recruitment into armed forces as stipulated in Article 38 of the
Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).
According to the most recent annual human rights report of the
U.S. State Department, "an estimated quarter of a million children,
even as young as age 5, have been conscripted to serve as soldiers
in dozens of armed conflicts around the world, some with armed
insurgencies, such as the Khmer Rouge, the Shining Path of Peru, and
Palestinian groups in Lebanon, and some in regular armies, such as
those of Cambodia, Uganda, Angola, and Sudan."
This phenomenon of child soldiers is both new and horrifying. It
violates the universal rule that children simply have no part in
warfare. It also shows the alarming state of morals around the
world. This was noted in an important study released by the United
Nations last year. The report "Impact of Armed Conflict on
Children," noted, that "more and more of the world is being sucked
into a space in which children are slaughtered, raped, and maimed; a
space in which children are exploited as soldiers; a space in which
children are starved and exposed to extreme brutality. Such
unregulated terror and violence speak of deliberate victimization.
There are few further depths to which humanity can sink."
Yet in spite of this and other reports the issue of child
soldiers is still largely an invisible one. A recent study by the
Swedish group Rädda Barnen (Save the Children) concludes this is
because those who employ children as soldiers deny their existence.
No record is kept of their numbers or ages and ages are falsified.
Many are not part of the formally claimed strength of the forces or
groups to which they are attached but are unacknowledged members.
They are invisible because most spend their
time in remote conflict zones away from both public view and media
scrutiny. They are invisible because they simply vanish: they never
return from the battlefield because they are killed or, having been
injured, are tragically abandoned. Lastly, those in their early
teens are invisible because they are less obviously children. And in
a larger sense, perhaps this is the greatest tragedy. Individually
they all grow older. The very fact that the solider survives, means
the child disappears. The child in the soldier becomes invisible,
locked inside an "adult" soldier or an "adult" former soldier.
Involving children as soldiers has been made easier by the
proliferation of inexpensive light weapons. As recently as a
generation ago battlefield weapons were still heavy and bulky,
generally limiting children's participation to support roles. But
modern guns are so light that children can easily use them and so
simple that they can be stripped and reassembled by a child of 10.
The unrestrained international arms trade in conventional arms has
made assault rifles such as the AK-47 cheap and widely available.
The poorest communities now have access to weapons capable of
transforming any local conflict into bloody slaughter.
According to the UN report (also known as the Gracel Macha report
after the former First Lady of Mozambique who prepared it) during
the past 30 years governments and rebel armies around the world have
recruited tens of thousands of children. Most are adolescents, but
many of the child soldiers are 10 years of age or younger. While the
majority are boys, girls are also present as combatants.
Child soldiers are usually recruited because not enough adults
are available or willing to become soldiers. They are recruited in
many different ways. Some are conscripted, others are press-ganged
or kidnapped, and still others are forced to join armed groups to
defend their families. Although there are distinct recruitment
categories, in reality the areas of overlap are more striking than
Armed conflict itself contributes to the increasing number of
child soldiers. War disrupts normal economic and social conditions
and causes educational opportunities to shrink or disappear. Under
these circumstances, recruits tend to get younger and younger.
Afghanistan where approximately 90 percent of children are now
thought to have no access to schooling, is a case in point. The
proportion of soldiers who are children is believed to have risen in
recent years from roughly 30 to at least 45 per cent.
Agencies such as UNICEF estimate that more than 200,000 children
have been recruited into armies over the past decade. Some of them
as young as seven or eight are equipped with fully automatic assault
weapons. Governments in a few countries can legally conscript
children under 18 but even where a legal minimum age is set, the law
is not necessarily a safeguard for those who are underage. Countries
with weak administrative systems do not conscript systematically
from a register. Often those forcibly recruited or volunteering are
encouraged or forced to state that they are 18 in order to ensure
apparent conformity with national legislation or international
Many times however, age is a matter of complete indifference to
recruiters. A study on Afghanistan noted, "Many children whose age
has been mentioned clearly in their national ID cards as less than
18 years were taken to [a] special military commission where the
military officers amended their age to meet the criteria of military
service. In this way they were sending children aged less than 14
years to the armed forces."
The very high proportion of children in the armed forces of El
Salvador during the 1980- 1992 civil war suggests this was a routine
occurrence. Of the approximately 60,000 personnel in the Salvadoran
military ex-soldiers estimate that about 80%, 48,000, were under 18
years of age.
Quite often child "recruits" are arbitrarily seized from the
streets or even from schools and orphanages. Press gang tactics were
prevalent in Ethiopia in the 1980s when armed militias, police, or
army cadres would roam the streets picking up anyone they
encountered. Children from the poorer sectors of society are
particularly vulnerable to this tactic. On the other hand, in Burma,
whole groups of children from 15 to 17 years old have been
surrounded in their schools and forcibly conscripted. Children are
also recruited from refugee camps and forced to join armed
opposition groups in their country of origin or the armed forces of
the country providing asylum.
In addition to being forcibly recruited, children also
voluntarily present themselves for service. It is misleading,
however, to consider this "voluntary." They may be driven by
cultural, social, political or--more often--economic pressures.
Hunger and poverty often drive parents to offer their children for
service. In some cases, armies pay a minor wage directly to the
family. Children themselves may volunteer if they believe that this
is the only way to guarantee regular meals, clothing or medical
attention. Some parents encourage their daughters to become soldiers
if their marriage prospects are poor.
Too often, parents may even see material advantages in having
their children's involved and are reluctant to forego the benefits
that child combatants obtain for their families. According to one
study done in Sierra Leone, "many mothers have remarked on the joy
of seeing their ten-year-old dressed in a brand new military attire
carrying an AK-47. For some families the looted property that child
soldiers brought home further convinced them of the need to send
more children to the war front to augment scarce income."
In fact, it is probable that the vast majority of young soldiers
are not forced or coerced into participating in conflict. But they
remain subject to many subtle manipulations and pressures that are
more difficult to eliminate than forced recruitment. Children's
subjective understanding of reality is influenced by their social
milieu and developmental processes. Other influences in their
lives--their parents, families, peer groups, schools, religious
communities and other community institutions--might exert pressures
or send messages that lead children to participate in hostilities.
Some are persuaded to join by propaganda and religious fervor. For
example, the marching chant of a column of 15,000 Iranian children
on their way to the front during the war with Iraq was "Come on,
come on, plunge on. Those who step on mines will go to paradise." It
is said those children were sent across minefields ahead of more
valuable, trained adult soldiers.
Sometimes, the structural conditions in a country induce children
to become soldiers. Many children have personally experienced or
witnessed extremes of physical violence, including summary
executions, death squad killings, disappearances, torture, arrest or
detention, sexual abuse, bombings, forced displacement, destruction
of home or property, and massacres. Revenge can be a particularly
strong motivation to "join up."
Children are especially valued in long drawn-out conflicts. Many
current disputes have lasted a generation or more--half of those
underway in 1993 had been going for more than a decade. Children who
have grown up surrounded by violence see this as a permanent way of
life. Alone, orphaned, frightened, bored and frustrated, they will
often finally choose to fight. In the Philippines, which has
suffered from insurgencies for decades, many children become
soldiers as soon as they enter their teens.
Adults too easily forget that the capacity of most children to
judge what is in their overall best interest is still largely
unformed and uninformed. As such any "decision" to join an armed
group that appeals to such dubious criteria as a child's "right" of
free association or freedom of movement should be rejected as a mere
pretense by those who would use children for their own gain.
How Child Soldiers Are
In late 1996 children below 18 years of age were reportedly
participating in 33 ongoing or recently ended conflicts, according
to Rädda Barnen. In 26 of the conflicts, almost 80%, the children
involved were under 15, the current minimum age limit stipulated in
international law for participation in hostilities. The 33 countries
in which children are combatants are:
- In Africa: Algeria, Angola, Burundi,
Djibouti, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa,
Sudan, and Uganda.
- In the Americas: Colombia, Ecuador,
Guatemala, and Peru.
- In Europe: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia,
United Kingdom/Northern Ireland, Turkey/Kurdistan, and Russian
- In the Middle East/Persian Gulf:
Israel/occupied territories, southern Lebanon, Iran, and
- In Asia: Afghanistan, Burma, Cambodia,
India/Kashmir, Indonesia/East Timor, Philippines, Papua New
Guinea, Sri Lanka, and Tajikistan.
Countries where children serve in government forces include
Burma, Cambodia, Colombia, Guatemala, Peru, and Sudan. Among
opposition groups known to use children are the Khmer Rouge in
Cambodia, the PKK in Turkey, the LTTE in Sri Lanka, and the LRA in
Uganda. Although public awareness of child soldiers is relatively
new, their use in some countries is a longstanding practice. In
Cambodia, for example, the existence of child soldiers has been
acknowledged for twenty-five years. Nevertheless, the scale of the
problem has been growing substantially in recent years.
Once recruited as soldiers, children generally receive much the
same treatment as adults, including often brutal induction
ceremonies. The impact of the regular use of physical and emotional
abuse involving degradation and humiliation of younger recruits to
"indoctrinate" discipline and induce fear of superiors usually
results in low self-esteem, guilt feelings, and violent solutions to
Even those who start out in "support" functions cannot escape
exposure to the risks and hardships most often associated with
combat roles. Children often serve as porters, carrying heavy loads
up to 132 pounds. Children who are too weak to carry their loads may
be savagely beaten or even shot. Children are also used extensively
as messengers and lookouts. While these functions may seem less
life-threatening than combat, in fact the use of children in these
important roles puts all children under suspicion. In Latin America,
government forces reportedly have deliberately killed even the
youngest children in peasant communities on the grounds that they,
too, could be "dangerous."
While both boys and girls might start out in indirect support
functions, large numbers are rapidly forced into combat where their
inexperience and lack of training leave them particularly exposed.
Young children rarely appreciate the perils they face. Many studies
report that when shelling starts children get over-excited and
forget to take cover. Some commanders deliberately exploit such
recklessness in children by giving them drugs or alcohol before
using them in human wave attacks.
A former Burmese rebel child combatant recalls that at age
sixteen his job was to run into no man's land and "grab weapons,
watches, wallets and any ammunition from the dead soldiers, and
bring it back to the bunkers... This was a difficult job as you
could see the enemy and they could easily `pick you off' as you ran
out and back again."
The practice of treating children like their adult counterparts
can have severe physical effects. Poor and inadequate food and
medical care have more serious implications for children, whose
bodies are still growing and may be weakened by the exertions of
military life. Being less adept at looking after themselves or
standing up for their rights children are more prone to die from
starvation and preventable diseases contracted in the unhygienic
conditions in which they live. If they cannot "keep up" they are
routinely killed by their leaders so that they cannot reveal any
Children serving in government armed forces are often no better
off than their counterparts in opposition groups. Children fall
under the same military law as the adult soldiers. This means that
children can be beaten to death or shot for attempted escape and
disobedience. Case studies in Colombia, Ethiopia, Liberia, and
Uganda report children being shot for trying to escape recruitment.
The Mozambican resistance group RENAMO consistently and
systematically practiced forced recruitment. A deserter, recruited
at age 10 explained that `RENAMO does not use many adults to fight
because they are not good fighters...kids have more stamina, are
better at surviving in the bush, do not complain and follow
directions." Young, impressionable children can be turned into the
fiercest fighters through brutal indoctrination. A typical RENAMO
recruitment practice involved taking a boy soldier back to his
village and forcing him to kill someone known to him. The killing
takes place in such a way that the community knew that he had
killed, thus effectively closing the door to the child ever
returning to his village. Such children may develop a dependency
relationship with their captors, eventually even coming to identify
with their cause.
Although the majority of child soldiers are boys, armed groups
also recruit girls, many of whom perform the same functions as boys.
Girls may also be forced to provide sexual services. In Uganda,
girls who are abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army are "married
off" to rebel leaders. If the man dies, the girl is put aside for
ritual cleansing and then married off to another rebel. Such abuse,
which in some countries is reported to be widespread, inevitably
complicates the capacity of girl soldiers to fully reintegrate with
their communities as their families and acquaintances may be unable
socially to accept their mistreatment as "wives" or "comforters" of
male soldiers. With no alternatives, many girls turn to prostitution
Not all military commanders, however, share the viewpoint that
children are moldable troops with certain particular advantages.
Some find they are slowed down due to lack of stamina on the part of
children. Others find that child soldiers are still children and
often misbehave, requiring precious leadership time to "parent" the
Treatment of captured child soldiers by government forces is
often brutal. Many are treated the same as captured adult soldiers:
they are considered to be criminals or terrorists and held in
military prisons. Many captured child soldiers of both sexes are
subjected to abusive interrogation procedures, torture, isolation,
rape, and death threats.
Furthermore, the active participation of some children exposes
other children to intense pressure, particularly in conflict zones,
to join one or another side. Even if they withstand the pressure and
avoid recruitment, the suspicion that they are involved makes them
prime targets to attack, interrogation, or other harassment.
Whether extensive in time or not, the cumulative involvement of
children in the violence of war desensitizes them to suffering. In a
number of cases, children have been deliberately exposed to horrific
scenes to "harden" their psyches. Such experience makes children
more likely to commit violent acts themselves both during and after
armed conflicts and may contribute to the difficulty many countries
experience in trying to integrate formerly hostile groups into a
united society. In many countries such as Afghanistan, Mozambique,
Colombia and Nicaragua, children have been forced to commit
atrocities against their own families or communities. In Sri Lanka
reports indicate children as young as 10 years are used as
One Peruvian woman, recruited into the rebel group, "Shining
Path," as an 11-year old, witnessed an execution her patrol carried
out in a village. "They beat all the people there, old and young,
they killed them all, nearly 10 people...like dogs they killed
them... I didn't kill anyone, but I saw them killing...the children
who were with them killed too... with weapons... they made us drink
the blood of people, we took blood from the dead into a bowl and
they made us drink .. then when they killed the people they made us
eat their liver, their heart, which they took out and sliced and
fried.. And they made us little ones eat."
Because "child soldier" is a physically transitory status--one
can only be a child soldier for a relatively few years--it has been
very hard to focus attention on the issue. However the consequences
of being a child soldier are real, cumulative, and very far from
Child soldiers suffer many of the same physical and psychological
effects that war brings to noncombatant children. They are separated
from their parents and lose their homes. They are exposed to
destructive violence, witness death and atrocities, and are often
permanently disabled when not killed.
Health care for wounded child soldiers is often problematic. In
most countries where child soldiers are found, health care is at
best spotty. Sometimes, both government forces and rebel groups
leave the wounded on the battlefield. At times the only medicine
available is herbal. The most frequent injuries suffered by child
soldiers are loss of hearing, blindness, and loss of limbs. In
Guatemala the principal causes of death and injury of minors in the
army were said to be the explosion of mines placed by guerillas.
This was due to the use of children as advance scouts and as mine
detectors. Other causes were grenade, rocket, and bomb explosions
Physical injury carries additional emotional, psychological,
economic, and social disadvantages. Loss of sight or hearing are
severe obstacles to educational or social development. Loss of limbs
may require repeated amputations for those still growing since the
bone of the amputated limb grows more than the surrounding tissue.
They will also require new prostheses frequently. In addition to the
trauma, treatment costs may be too high or the necessary facilities
may be unavailable. In Mozambique demobilized child soldiers
complain of health problems related to bullets and shrapnel still
lodged in their bodies. Many families do not have the resources to
pay for operations to remove these objects. In societies with high
levels of unemployment, the additional disadvantages from wounds may
be too hard to overcome.
Perhaps the most severe long-term consequences of children
serving as soldiers may be on their moral development. When the
fighting ends and children return to society, it is very difficult
to place them in the more sedate surroundings of schools or
families. Their moral system is dominated by fear of violence from
whomever is superior in the hierarchy. Child soldiers find it
difficult to disengage from the idea that violence is a legitimate
means of achieving one's aims, and find the transition to a
non-violent lifestyle difficult.
How can they learn from unarmed adults? How can they work? How
can they marry and rear children? How can they be expected to be a
functioning member of a civil society when their entire formative
experience is that society is organized around fear of violence?
Under the Convention of the Rights of the Child
(see below) every child is entitled to receive such "protection and
care as is necessary for his or her well-being." States are obliged
to "ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and
development of the child," to protect children from all forms of
mental violence or abuse, and to strive to ensure that victims of
armed conflict have access to rehabilitative care. But, given the
numerous wars around the world and the lack of resources to
ameliorate their effects in the countries where they take place,
these obligations are honored more in the breach than in actual
day-to-day events. The proof of this is that fact that no peace
treaty to date has formally recognized the existence of child
combatants. As a result, their special needs are rarely if ever
taken into account in demobilization programs.
But if simple human decency does not compel governments to care
for children, pragmatic considerations of self-interest should. If
children who were soldiers are not reintegrated into a post-conflict
society, they may well contribute to future conflicts. In this sense
protection of children is not just a humanitarian issue but an
international security one as well. If nothing else, war avoidance
should impel us to help former child combatants make the adjustment
back to civilian life. To that end governments must take or assist
with appropriate measures that promote children's physical and
psychological recovery and social reintegration.
Ms. Machel, who conducted the UN study on "Impact of Armed
Conflict on Children," recommended that all phases of emergency and
reconstruction assistance programs include psycho-social
considerations. Programs should support healing processes and
reestablish a sense of normalcy through daily routines of family and
community life; through fostering structured activities such as
school, play, and sports; and mobilize the community care network
around children. Governments, donors, and relief organizations
should prevent the institutionalization of children.
Impact of International
The first international regulation dealing with the issue of
children in armed conflict, the 1977 Additional Protocols to the
Geneva Conventions, established a minimum age for recruitment. In
1986 international attention was dramatically focused on child
soldiers in their modern form when Yoweri Museveni's National
Resistance Army fought its way into Kampala, the capital of Uganda.
Observers were stunned to see four- and five-year-olds in its ranks.
Although slow, the world finally reacted. In the UN Declaration
of the Rights of the Child, adopted in 1989, the bearing of arms in
battle is proscribed below age 15. Also in 1989 the UN General
Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC),
the most rapidly and widely adopted human rights treaty in history.
190 States are Parties to the convention. The United States signed
the CRC on February 16, 1995, but it has not ratified it. The only
other countries which have not ratified it are the Cook Islands, and
Somalia, which currently has no internationally recognized
Article 38 of the Treaty states, in part, that "Parties shall
refrain from recruiting any person who has not attained the age of
15 years into their armed forces. In recruiting among those persons
who have attained the age of 15 years but who have not attained the
age of 18 years, States Parties shall endeavour to give priority to
This language suggests that a compromise (not a very good one)
was required. It is well known that at the time of the drafting of
the Convention, the question of the minimum age of recruitment into
the armed forces caused much controversy. Many wished to see the
minimum age at 18 years in line with the general age of majority
stated in Article 1 of the Conventions. In fact, Article 38 is the
only provision in the Treaty which specifies than an age lower than
18 is acceptable.
Another questionable compromise is that Article 38 requires
States to take all feasible measures to prevent the child's direct
participation only in hostilities. This emphasis on "direct
participation" actually lowers the standard of protection afforded
by other international humanitarian laws, such as Additional
Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions. The United States bears
significant responsibility for this situation because at the time
Article 38 was being drafted the U.S. delegate opposed using
language which would make this as strong as other humanitarian law.
He asserted that adopting the higher standard might even oblige an
invaded United States to renounce self-defense! The inanity of this
assertion is immediately obvious when one considers that the United
States itself requires parental consent for volunteers under
eighteen to serve in the armed forces and does not assign those
under eighteen to combat duty.
In December 1995 the Council of the Delegates of the Red Cross
and Red Crescent Movement adopted a plan of action which included
the commitment to promote the principle of non-recruitment and
non-participation in armed conflict of children under the age of 18
years. The work involved in drafting this plan led to a resolution
supporting the drafting of an optional protocol to the Convention on
the Rights of the Child.
To date, a basic agreement among states seems to have been
reached on raising to 18 the minimum age for participation in
hostilities, for compulsory recruitment (conscription) into
government armed forces, and for any kind of recruitment into
non-governmental (opposition) armed groups.
These arguments seem to be moving the question of the minimum age
for voluntary recruitment as a major topic of debate. One result of
the campaign to draft and adopt the optional protocol is that of six
countries which, in the beginning of 1996 took the position that 16
should be the minimum age for voluntary military recruitment, four
had changed their position by mid- October. Most states now support
17 or 18 as the minimum age for voluntary recruitment. The only
states now openly supporting 16 years are Bangladesh and Pakistan.
On January 20-31, 1997, the UN Working Group on the optional
protocol met in Geneva. Unfortunately, the session ended in
disagreement and stunned surprise. Contrary to what it indicated
last year the United States said it would not accept 18 years as the
minimum age for participation in hostilities. Many had hoped that
the working group would be able to agree on a final draft optional
protocol which could be submitted to the UN Commission on Human
Rights and the General Assembly later this year. But when the United
States unexpectedly declared it would not accept a higher age limit
than 17 for "direct" participation in hostilities, the Group decided
that it would be impossible to reach an agreement this year. All 60
other countries, including European Union member states, Russia,
China and India, accepted 18 as the minimum age for participation in
hostilities. The U.S. position appears to be mainly dictated by the
Pentagon, which sees an age limit of 17 as convenient, rather than
by morality or social and humanitarian concerns.
The working group will probably meet again in January 1998 to
finalize the draft protocol, with or without U.S. participation.
Clearly, the obvious action which governments can and should take
is to outlaw the recruitment of children in all government armed
forces, including militias and civil defense forces, and to
introduce effective check and recruitment procedures. In reality of
course this restriction will not be effective unless it is
accompanied by a ban on all forms of forced recruitment. To that
end, governments should work to finalize and adopt the draft
protocol to the CRC. Governments also must ensure that all children
are registered at birth and receive documentation of age
Armed groups seeking to overthrow governments that recruit child
soldiers, are not, of course, bound by international law. But other
governments can bring some pressure on such groups by becoming
parties to relevant international humanitarian law conventions and
actively insisting that these conventions apply also to internal
armed conflicts, thus making such groups accountable under
Finally, governments must take one other obvious and very
important step. They must all join to regulate the flow of automatic
weapons and other small arms which are light and simple enough for
children to use with devastating consequences both for the children
and the peace of the world.
- International law should recognize 18 years
as the minimum age for recruitment (compulsory or voluntary) into
any kind of armed forces and armed groups and for any kind of
participation in hostilities.
- All governments and armed opposition groups
who currently have persons under 18 years of age should be urged
to demobilize them immediately.