The Phenomenon of Child Soldiers: Their Recruitment and Rehabilitation
According to the Paris Principles on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict (2007), a child soldier is any person below 18 years of age who has been recruited or used by an armed group in any role e.g., combatants, cooks, porters, or for sexual purposes.1“The Paris Principles on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict (2007).” UNICEF, https://www.unicef.org/mali/media/1561/file/ParisPrinciples.pdf While some children are abducted for service, others may voluntarily join to escape poverty, for defence purposes, to avenge or for any other reason. Between 2005 and 2020, more than 93,000 children were recorded as having been recruited for armed conflict.2“Children recruited by armed forces or armed groups.” UNICEF, https://www.unicef.org/protection/children-recruited-by-armed-forces In reality, the number is likely much higher. Child Soldiers International shared in 2018 that children under the age of 18 were still being used for military purposes in 46 states.3“Child Soldiers World Index reveals shocking scale of child recruitment around the world – World.” ReliefWeb, 21 February 2018, https://reliefweb.int/report/world/child-soldiers-world-index-reveals-shocking-scale-child-recruitment-around-world For example, Saudi Arabia and the UAE employed Sudanese child soldiers to fight their wars against the Houthis in Yemen.4“Saudi Arabia hired Sudanese children to fight the war in Yemen – NYT.” TRT World, 29 December 2018, https://www.trtworld.com/middle-east/saudi-arabia-hired-sudanese-children-to-fight-war-in-yemen-nyt-22921 This article discusses the regulation of child soldiers under international law, a feminist perspective on the matter, rehabilitation and prevention strategies, and possible obstacles to these strategies.
The Regulation of Child Soldiers under International Law
International law prohibits the recruitment of child soldiers under various provisions. The 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child obliges governments to take ‘all feasible measures’ to prevent children under 15 from direct participation in fighting.5“Convention on the Rights of the Child text.” UNICEF, https://www.unicef.org/child-rights-convention/convention-text Additional Protocols I and II of Geneva Convention 1977 also proscribe the recruitment and use of children in hostilities.6“Protocols I and II additional to the Geneva Conventions – ICRC.” International Committee of the Red Cross, 1 January 2009, https://www.icrc.org/en/doc/resources/documents/misc/additional-protocols-1977.htm These laws apply to conflicts in both national and international contexts. Under the Rome Statute and international humanitarian law, conscripting or enlisting children below fifteen years of age amounts to a war crime.7“Child soldiers, How does law protect in war?” https://casebook.icrc.org/glossary/child-soldiers The Statute of the International Criminal Court categorises “using children to participate actively in hostilities” as a war crime in both international and non-international conflicts.8“Customary IHL – Practice Relating to Rule 137. Participation of Child Soldiers in Hostilities.” ICRC databases on international humanitarian law, https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/customary-ihl/eng/docs/v2_rul_rule137 The words “participate” and “using” cover both direct participation in combat and also ancillary services to the military such as spying and sabotage. However, it would not extend to activities independant to fighting such as food deliveries to an airbase.9McDonald, Avril. “Direct Participation in Hostilities under International Humanitarian Law.” International Committee of the Red Cross, https://www.icrc.org/en/doc/assets/files/other/direct_participation_in_hostilities-sept_2003.pdf
Notably, the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child is the only regional treaty in the world which directly deals with the issue of child soldiers. Its Article 22 clearly prohibits its members from recruiting child soldiers, and asks States to ensure that they do not take part in armed hostilities.10“African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child”, African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, https://www.achpr.org/public/Document/file/English/achpr_instr_charterchild_eng.pdf The absence of other regional treaties prohibiting the recruitment of child soldiers is an indication of insufficient acknowledgement of the problem at regional diplomatic levels. Such treaties could emphasise the norms and ethical expectations among neighbouring states. States could be compelled to ban the use of child soldiers in their jurisdiction to seek legitimacy and validation e.g., arms trade to states employing child soldiers may be blocked by its neighbours in case of violations. Other regions embroiled in deadly conflict i.e, Afghanistan, Iraq, Myanmar, and Syria, could also engage with regional alliances to regulate recruitment of children in their countries.
In addition, the ILO Convention No. 182 on the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour deems the forced and compulsory recruitment of children in armed conflict as one of the worst forms of child labour.11“Convention C182 – Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182).” ILO, https://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=NORMLEXPUB:12100:0::NO::P12100_ILO_CODE:C182 It says that all ratifying Member States should take speedy and constructive measures to eliminate the recruitment of child soldiers, while setting the age limit at 18. These categorisations are a step ahead into the right direction for the enforcement of the law regarding recruitment and use of child soldiers. In 1998, eight human-rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, banded to form the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers.12“Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers: working to prevent the recruitment and use of children as soldiers” Amnesty International, https://www.amnesty.org/fr/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/act760042003en.pdf
However, while the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict barred non-state armed groups from recruiting individuals under 18, states are nevertheless allowed to enlist volunteers over 15.13“Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict.” OHCHR, https://www.ohchr.org/en/instruments-mechanisms/instruments/optional-protocol-convention-rights-child-involvement-children It is commendable that non-state actors have been included in the Optional Protocol but regretfully, it imposes a moral, as opposed to a legal obligation. This is because non-State actors are not parties to the convention and are unlikely to feel bound by a norm which is different from that imposed on States.
The main contention here between the international humanitarian law and international human rights law regimes respectively, is whether a child can actually by choice join an armed group? Even when children enlist voluntarily and wilfully, they do so under compelling situations. For example, in north-eastern Nigeria, many child soldiers have enlisted with the Civilian Joint Task Force’s (CJTF) armed self-defence groups formed to defend villages from Boko Haram’s fighting members.14“Nigeria’s Child Veterans Are Still Living a Nightmare.” Foreign Policy, 15 August 2019, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/08/15/children-boko-haram-nigeria-borno-cjtf/ The choice these children get is to either fight Boko Haram or be killed by them. Resultantly, many enlist in armed groups for self-defence. Additionally, female children find solace from sexual violence in conflict ridden areas via enlistment into an armed group.15Machel, Graça. “Girl Soldiers.” Air University, https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/Portals/10/ASPJ_French/journals_E/Volume-02_Issue-1/morales_e.pdf Although voluntary enlistment does not always protect them from exploitation nor are they free to leave once enlisted, such military structures can provide a sense of protection from former threats.
Girl Soldiers and the Need for Special Protection
Around 40% of child soldiers are girls who are often used as sex slaves or married to male combatants.16Clifford, Cassandra. “The forgotten girl soldier – World.” ReliefWeb, 4 August 2011, https://reliefweb.int/report/world/forgotten-girl-soldier Plan International and UNICEF, in their study of 37 operative armed forces, have alarmingly found that half the abducted girls were targeted because of their stereotyped submissive nature.17Fore, Henrietta. “Female child soldiers often go unseen but must not be forgotten.” Thomson Reuters Foundation News, 12 February 2021, https://news.trust.org/item/20210211143359-cpm3z These girls carry out support roles like translation, telecommunications, medical assistance, cooking, cleaning, and childcare. Additionally, armed groups in Nigeria and the Lake Chad basin often use abducted girls in suicide attacks with improvised explosive devices.18ibid 17
It is important that girl soldiers are reintegrated taking into account their particular and gendered circumstances. This is because of the stigma from their former association with armed groups. For example, some girl soldiers conceive children often as a result of rape. Thereafter, the return to their communities’ results in ostracization, even from their closest relatives.19Tremblay, Stephanie. “Child Recruitment and Use – Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict.” Children and Armed Conflict, 1 September 2021, https://childrenandarmedconflict.un.org/six-grave-violations/child-soldiers/ Hence, girl soldiers require gender-based violence response services, including specialised medical care and psychosocial support. Even UN Security Council Resolution 1325 highlights three specific issues: “the representation of women at all levels of peace and security governance; the meaningful participation of women in peace and security governance; and the protection of women’s rights and bodies in conflict and post-conflict situations.”20“What is UNSCR 1325?” United States Institute of Peace, https://www.usip.org/gender_peacebuilding/about_UNSCR_1325 In recognition of these obligations, states need to adopt gender-friendly rehabilitation strategies. Some of these are discussed below.
Girl Soldiers and the Need for Special Protection
Around 40% of child soldiers are girls who are often used as sex slaves or married to male combatants.21Clifford, Cassandra. “The forgotten girl soldier – World.” ReliefWeb, 4 August 2011, https://reliefweb.int/report/world/forgotten-girl-soldier Plan International and UNICEF, in their study of 37 operative armed forces, have alarmingly found that half the abducted girls were targeted because of their stereotyped submissive nature.22Fore, Henrietta. “Female child soldiers often go unseen but must not be forgotten.” Thomson Reuters Foundation News, 12 February 2021, https://news.trust.org/item/20210211143359-cpm3z These girls carry out support roles like translation, telecommunications, medical assistance, cooking, cleaning, and childcare. Additionally, armed groups operating in Nigeria and the Lake Chad basin regularly make use of abducted girls in suicide attacks via explosives.23ibid 17
It is important that girl soldiers are reintegrated taking into account their particular and gendered circumstances. This is because of the stigma from their former association with armed groups. For example, some girl soldiers conceive children usually as a consequence of rape. Thereafter, the return to their communities’ results in ostracization, even from their nearest family members.24Tremblay, Stephanie. “Child Recruitment and Use – Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict.” Children and Armed Conflict, 1 September 2021, https://childrenandarmedconflict.un.org/six-grave-violations/child-soldiers/ Hence, girl soldiers require specific gender-based violence reintegration services, including specialised medical care and emotional support. More so, the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 also emphasises upon three primary matters: “the representation of women at all levels of peace and security governance; the meaningful participation of women in peace and security governance; and the protection of women’s rights and bodies in conflict and post-conflict situations.”25“What is UNSCR 1325?” United States Institute of Peace, https://www.usip.org/gender_peacebuilding/about_UNSCR_1325 In recognition of these obligations, states need to adopt gender-friendly rehabilitation strategies. Some of these are discussed below.
Rehabilitation and Preventing the Recruitment of Child Soldiers
Disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR) programs aim to bring stability to a region and protect child soldiers after a conflict:26Knight, Mark, and Alpaslan Özerdem. “Guns, Camps and Cash: Disarmament, Demobilization and Reinsertion of Former Combatants in Transitions from War to Peace.” Journal of Peace Research, vol. 41, no. 4, 2004, pp. 499–516. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/4149686
- Disarmament requires that combatants are stripped of their weapons i.e., via a trade-in system, such as weapons for cash.
- Demobilisation includes moving ex-combatants to fitting locations.
- Finally, Child Soldiers International defines reintegration as the process through which children previously linked to armed groups are assisted in a dignified return to normal life.
Some recommendations for successful assimilation of child soldiers are discussed below:
It is important to include children in the decision-making process and integrate their special requests. For this reason, Article 12 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child obligates states to recognise the right of children to proactively participate in planning their reintegration initiatives.27“Convention on the Rights of the Child.” OHCHR, 1 July 2009, https://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/crc/docs/advanceversions/crc-c-gc-12.pdf Fulfilling particular requirements through dialogue is valuable i.e., supplementary programmes for child soldiers engaged in drug abuse or those who have contracted sexually transmitted diseases.28“Child Soldiers: Conflict Prevention and Reconstruction Unit.” World Bank Group, https://web.worldbank.org/archive/website00522/WEB/PDF/CPRNOTES.PDF
Information about the root causes that have led to children’s exploitation can help understand and prevent future instances. For example, Rosenblatt suggests that children are more likely to fight for non-monetary motivations like religion, glory, revenge, and obligation.29Beber, Bernd, and Christopher Blattman. “The Logic of Child Soldiering and Coercion.” International Organization, vol. 67, no. 1, 2013, pp. 65–104. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43282153 In such circumstances, provisions like food security and safe refugee camps can help to prevent the recruitment of child soldiers. Hence, consultation with child soldiers to devise a rehabilitation plan tailored to their needs is the initial step towards their liberation.
The just treatment of child soldiers should be the primary concern even if they have committed war crimes; The Paris Principles also iterate that children who participate in armed conflict should be considered foremost as victims, even if they are delinquents.30ibid 1 This is because they committed those crimes on the instigation of either their leaders or complex circumstances that led to their recruitment in the first place.31ibid 19
This is magnified through the case of Ongwen, then a 10-year-old boy, who was kidnapped by the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) based in northern Uganda. He was so small in stature and age at the time that reportedly, he was carried by other children to the LRA’s military bases. Through cruelty and manipulation, LRA forced him to become a child soldier. As a result, he was charged by the ICC with 70 counts of war crimes as well as crimes against humanity, including murder, sexual slavery, rape, and torture. Ultimately, the ICC sentenced Dominic Ongwen to 25 years of imprisonment and found him guilty for 61 crimes including war crimes.32Braunschweiger, Amy. “How to Hold a Former Child Soldier Accountable?” Human Rights Watch, 27 January 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/01/27/how-hold-former-child-soldier-accountable
Justifiably, the stigma and resentment within the community against the child soldiers committing war crimes exists. In such circumstances, balancing the child’s needs and community justice is important.33ibid 23 One way could be to integrate the child in a different community from the one they grew up in or impacted the most through their actions.
In addition, the international courts passing judgments against recruitment of child soldiers can set a constructive precedent for other armed groups. For example, a warlord in the DRC Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, was sentenced to 14 years in prison because of his vital role in child soldier recruitment between 2002 and 2003.34Hahn, Julia, and Susan Houlton. “Congolese warlord Lubanga imprisoned | Africa.” DW, 10 July 2012, https://www.dw.com/en/congolese-warlord-lubanga-imprisoned/a-16086380
However, the strength of this judgement’s conviction for deterrence is questionable. The ICC does not have a military force and so, it operates without a self-contained enforcement body.35“The limits of international criminal justice: Lessons from the Ongwen case.” Egmont Institute, 27 January 2015, https://www.egmontinstitute.be/the-limits-of-international-criminal-justice-lessons-from-the-ongwen-case/ This makes the Court massively dependent on state partnerships to execute arrest warrants, provide access to evidence etc.
Furthermore, Achvarina asserts that dictators, when openly condemned by the international community, are more responsive to following international norms regarding the non-recruitment of child soldiers as they aim to secure international legitimacy.36Regilme, Salvador Santino Jr. Fulo and Spoldi, Elisabetta. “Children in Armed Conflict: A Human Rights Crisis in Somalia” Global Jurist, vol. 21, no. 2, 2021, pp. 365-402. https://doi.org/10.1515/gj-2020-0083 For instance, in 2012, the DRC’s government signed a Plan of Action with the United Nations to put a stop to the recruitment and use of children in fighting.37ibid 31 Since then, to implement this plan, the government has taken several steps to prevent re-enlistment.
After exiting from armed groups, the children are taken care of by professionals in structured centres called Guidance and Referral Centres or in Transitional Host Families.38MOUNET, JUSTINE. “6 questions about the issue of child soldiers in DRC – Democratic Republic of the Congo.” ReliefWeb, 10 February 2017, https://reliefweb.int/report/democratic-republic-congo/6-questions-about-issue-child-soldiers-drc Such nurturing intervention instils a feeling of acceptance and smoothens the passage. Hence, engagement on state levels with dictatorships can be an efficient strategy for integration of these states, and their child soldiers.
In order to enhance the success of these measures, child protection agencies and UN peacekeepers require more specialised training regarding Codes of Conduct to ensure that children are protected against abuse. For example, UN troops in Haiti and Sudan during 2004-2007 have been accused of involvement in a “sex ring” and sexual abuse of children.39Dodds, Paisley. “More than 100 UN peacekeepers ran a child sex ring in Haiti. None were ever jailed.” Toronto Star, 12 April 2017, https://www.thestar.com/news/world/2017/04/12/un-peacekeepers-child-sex-ring-left-victims-but-no-arrests.html Due to a relationship of trust and close physical proximity between child soldiers and their assigned protectors, there is a need for comprehensive training aiming to eliminate sexual abuse.
Media and public campaigns showcasing the plight of child soldiers can sensitise the public as well as armed groups. This is seen in the case of Media for Social Justice which, in partnership with Amnesty International, curated the book ‘Child Soldiers’.40“Child Soldiers — PROOF: Media for Social Justice | Photojournalism | PROOF.” PROOF: Media for Social Justice, https://proof.org/child-soldiers It features the work of photographers and writers from across the globe, and explores themes like child combatants, demobilisation, and rehabilitation process. It depicts child soldiers in countries like Colombia, Guatemala, El Salvador, Sri Lanka, Burma, Nepal, Afghanistan, Uganda, The Congo, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, Palestine, and Iraq.41ibid 35
Since the campaign ‘Children, Not Soldiers’ was launched in 2014 by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, and UNICEF, many national campaigns were also set up.42Vinet, Fabienne. “Children, Not Soldiers – Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict.” Children and Armed Conflict, https://childrenandarmedconflict.un.org/children-not-soldiers/ As one example, resultantly, over 800 children were released from Myanmar’s army after the Action Plan in 2012.43ibid 37 While the UN can assist future media campaigns, the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child and decisions of the International Criminal court should be disseminated locally to influence national agendas.
In sum, productive rehabilitation requires strategic efforts. Some steps include integration of children in planning the assimilation process, balancing community justice and rights of children accused of war crimes, learning lessons from international court judgments, engagement with and leveraging dictators using child soldiers but seeking legitimacy, special training of protection staff to end sexual abuse of child soldiers, and media campaigns to influence the perpetrators.
Challenges to Rehabilitation
If peace negotiations and demobilisation plans are not synced with the humanitarian frameworks, untimely rehabilitation can be counterproductive.44ibid 23 Appropriate staffing and training, partnerships, and resources must be considered before bringing children to desired locations.45ibid 23 For example, accessible education can be a challenge since child soldiers might have to earn their own income during school hours, they cannot afford school, the building was destroyed, or they may lack identification documentation. In such cases, preliminary documentation may be obtained or created, stipends to cover financial requirements can be provided, or free schooling can be offerred. These considerations should be dominant when progressing rehabiliation.
Another interesting debate is regarding eighteen years as the minimum age for involvement in conflict. In reality, age criteria may be divorced from the true experience of children as soldiers due to cultural expectations of reaching adulthood earlier. Many child soldiers may not know their age and local conceptions of children’s roles may vary. Moreover, some combatants may have surpassed eighteen years of age even if they were recruited as child soldiers.46ibid 23 As a result, they may not be regarded as child soldiers at the time of demobilisation exercise, even if they were similarly deprived of their childhood. Practitioners in El Salvador and Angola have adopted the terms “underage soldier” and “youth combatant” to circumvent such linguistic complexities.47ibid 23 These terms take into account local circumstances and discretion rather than sticking to eighteen as the definite age criteria for qualifying as a child soldier. Hence, there is a need to revisit the age requirement and linguistics of the matter before rehabilitating the children.
In sum, the recruitment of child soldiers has been explicitly prohibited under international law, with children classified as those under the age of eighteen. While child soldiers suffer greatly in a conflict environment, girl child soldiers endure disproportionately more harm due to sexual violence. This article has discussed disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration as modes of rehabilitation, while recognising the dilemma in treatment of child soldiers who engaged in war crimes. Moreover, international court judgments, use of media campaigns, naming and shaming dictators, and family reunification strategies can prove beneficial for rehabilitation. Finally, challenges to rehabilitation have been discussed e.g., financial responsibilities of former child soldiers, intricacies in eighteen as the age criteria and distinct societal expectations of children. We must approach this problem with courage and sensitivity, and understand that child soldiers require compassion and not shunning.
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Mishal Murad completed her LLB from London School of Economics and is currently working as a legal associate in Lahore. Interested in understanding the intersection between law and policy, she launched a UK based start-up for online news source called Global Telegram. You can reach her at [email protected] and view her profile at https://www.linkedin.com/in/