The Recruitment of Children for Armed Conflicts


Child soldiers are a sad reality of armed conflicts. In the late 1990s, the number of child soldiers was around 250,0001Cohn and Goodwin-Gill, Child Soldiers: The Role of Children in Armed Conflict, 1994., and estimates place the number at the same level even today.2<> Child soldiers present both a moral and ethical challenge as well as a legal one. Over the years, provisions of international law have sought to put an end to the practice of recruitment of children in armed conflicts. However, more than just legal sanctions, it is imperative to address the causes of the issue to bring lasting change.

The following discussion will begin with an examination of the international legal provisions regarding the recruitment of children. It will explore how a child soldier is defined and the laws proscribing their recruitment. Furthermore, the article will explore why recruiting children for an armed conflict is an international issue.3See Rosen, David M. “The Dilemma of Child Soldiers.” Insights on Law and Society, vol. 10, no. 3, Spring 2010, pp. 6. HeinOnline. The discussion will also explore the causes of the recruitment of children in an armed conflict from the side of the recruiters as well as from the point of view of child soldiers. Finally, recommendations will be provided to resolve the issue of recruiting children in armed conflicts.

International Law

International law generally protects children in conflict-ridden areas.4Wessells, Michael G. “Children and Armed Conflict: Introduction and Overview”, Peace and Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 2016, Vol. 22, No. 3, 198 –207 Under different legal instruments, specific protections have also been provided against recruiting children in armed conflicts. To determine how this ban on recruitment operates, dissecting what a child means in the context of an armed conflict is pertinent. The definitions vary according to different laws that have been enacted in international instruments.

Who is a Child?

Most legal understandings define a child as anyone below eighteen.5Hamilton, Vivian E., “Adulthood in Law and Culture” (2016). Faculty Publications. 1824. Article 1 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) defines a child as anyone under the age of eighteen.6Article 1, Convention on the Rights of the Child However, the conception of childhood has varied across different times.7Hamilton (n5) Historically, children have fought alongside adults in different armed conflicts. Andrew Jackson, who became the seventh President of the United States, is hailed as an American hero for his role in the fight against colonial powers.8Rosen (n3). He fought the British at the age of thirteen and was also taken as a prisoner of war. Similarly, Tipu Sultan, a famous Indian hero, fought the British colonials at the age of fifteen.9Ferrao, Ranjana. “Prohibition on the Use of Child Soldiers: How Real.” ISIL Year Book of International Humanitarian and Refugee Law, 9, 2009, pp. 279-299. HeinOnline. However, over time the world has started to reject the concept of children engaging in armed conflicts. The modern consensus on the definition of childhood comes from the above-mentioned Article 1 of CRC, which is one of the most widely ratified treaties on the planet.

The CRC generally provides that children should be afforded adequate protection in armed conflicts.10ibid, Article 38 Specifically, the Convention obliges States to refrain from recruiting children below fifteen to participate in hostilities.11Ibid. Moreover, it also requires the State to take feasible actions to prevent armed groups from recruiting children below fifteen.12Ibid. However, if a military wants to recruit those above fifteen but below eighteen, they must prioritize older people.13Ibid. 

While defining a child as anyone below the age of eighteen, international legal provisions still allow those below this age to be recruited in armed conflicts. For most other purposes, the minimum age of eighteen is used as a criteria for adulthood. The minimum age for voting in most countries around the world is eighteen.14Eva Zeglovits & Julian Aichholzer (2014) Are People More Inclined to Vote at 16 than at 18? Evidence for the First-Time Voting Boost Among 16- to 25-Year-Olds in Austria, Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, 24:3, 351-361, DOI: 10.1080/17457289.2013.872652 While believing that a person is not old enough to vote before they are eighteen, the international community is willing to send the same people to war zones.

During the drafting of the CRC, countries including the UK, USA, and France opposed raising the minimum age for recruitment to eighteen; the most vocal opposition came from the USA.15Brett, Rachel. “Child Soldiers: Law, Politics and Practice.” International Journal of Children’s Rights, vol. 4, no. 2, 1996, pp. 117. HeinOnline. The opposition from the USA came due to their usage of child soldiers during armed conflicts. As of 1997, there were 2,880 children below eighteen serving in the American armed forces.16Becker, Jo. “If US opposes child labor – why not child soldiers?” Human Rights Watch. <> Even though the USA is one of the few countries that has not ratified the convention, it still played its part in reducing the minimum age for recruiting a person.17Brett (n15)

Eleven years after the CRC came into existence, an Optional Protocol was enacted to the Convention, which raised the minimum age for recruiting a child to the armed forces to eighteen.18Optional Protocol To The Convention On The Rights Of The Child On The Involvement Of Children In Armed Conflict While several countries have ratified the Optional Protocol, it does not enjoy the kind of consensus the CRC holds.

Hence, the widely accepted age for recruiting people to participate in direct hostilities in an armed conflict is fifteen years, even if they are legally a child until the age of eighteen. At the same time, recruitment in the armed forces for children under the age of fifteen is prohibited. By putting the minimum age for engaging in hostilities as fifteen, the international legal provisions have carved out a loophole that allows for children between the ages of 15 and 18 to participate in armed conflicts.

Other Laws Prohibiting the Recruitment of Children in Armed Conflict

There are a variety of other international laws that protect children from being recruited to take part in hostilities during an armed conflict. Firstly, under the Rome Statute it is a war crime to put children under fifteen into a fighting force during an armed conflict.19Roque, H. Harry L. Jr. “The Criminal Nature of Recruitment of Child Soldiers under International Humanitarian Law.” Asia-Pacific Yearbook of International Humanitarian Law, 1, 2005, pp. 119. HeinOnline. Moreover, Article 77 of Additional Protocol I to the Geneva Conventions, which applies to international armed conflicts, provides that countries should not allow people below the age of fifteen to engage in hostilities during an armed conflict.20Thadani, Karmanye, and Shubham Saket. “Child-Soldiers: Their Recruitment, How They Are Treated and Position in International Law.” GNLU Journal of Law Development and Politics, vol. 2, no. 1, June 2010, pp. 121. HeinOnline. This provision takes a similar stance to the CRC regarding children between the ages of fifteen and eighteen; those who are older need to be preferred during the recruitment. Furthermore, Article 4(3)(c) of Additional Protocol II addresses the recruitment of children in a non-international armed conflict and keeps the minimum age for recruitment at fifteen for such conflicts.21Ibid. This applies to both the government armed forces and non-governmental armed forces.

Additionally, the International Labor Organization terms participation of children under eighteen in an armed conflict as the worst form of labor and prohibits it.22Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182) Lastly, some regional human rights treaties also prohibit recruiting child soldiers.23African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child defines a child as anyone below the age of eighteen.24Ibid. The Charter states that the states who are a party to the instrument need to make every effort to ensure that no one below the age of eighteen takes part in armed hostilities.25ibid, Article 22(2)

Issues with the Recruitment of Child Soldiers

Despite many international legal provisions prohibiting the recruitment of child soldiers, armed groups around the world continue to recruit children to fight in armed conflicts.26Cohen and Goodwin (n1) This is an issue primarily because the conception of childhood that society holds means that there is a general belief that children need special protection. This is evident by the fact that many international provisions separately talk about the need to protect children. Moreover, as mentioned earlier, the Convention on the Rights of the Child is one of the most widely ratified treaties in the world. There is a general belief that children should acquire education and live their lives in peace. This conception presents two moral issues that make it difficult for militaries to engage with children in armed conflicts.

Moral Dilemma for Soldiers

A moral dilemma emerges when a soldier is faced with a child carrying weapons because of the moral and legal considerations of viewing a child as an innocent victim of the war instead of a combatant.27“When is it OK to shoot a child soldier?” The Americas 2017. The Economist. <> accessed July 18 2022 A similar dilemma led to the death and capturing of several British peacekeeping troops in Sierra Leone in 2000.28Ibid. Even those who choose to kill armed children are reported to have suffered long-term psychological damage.29Ibid. The moral dilemma of killing a child makes engaging in an armed conflict a challenge.

Another problem arises due to using children as human shields in armed conflicts. A child might not necessarily be engaged in active hostilities, but they might be used in an armed conflict as protection for the older soldiers.30Faulkner, Frank. “Kindergarten Killers: Morality, Murder and the Child Soldier Problem.” Third World Quarterly, vol. 22, no. 4, 2001, pp. 491–504. JSTOR, Accessed 18 Jul. 2022. How does a soldier differentiate between who is an active part of hostilities and who is not? This raises several legal and ethical issues for combatants making fighting all the harder in war zones where children below fifteen are actively recruited to combat.

Holding Children Accountable for War Crimes

Child soldiers might be involved in a variety of war crimes. This would especially be true for those who have joined the conflict voluntarily. However, it would be difficult to prosecute them for their war crimes after the cessation of violence due to varying age limits for criminal accountability. There is no example of a child being prosecuted for war crimes.31Rosen (n3) pp 08 The civil war in Sierra Leone saw various child soldiers committing atrocities. When the United Nations established a tribunal to bring the perpetrators of war crimes to justice, they had to face the conundrum of whether to put child soldiers on trial or not.32Ibid. The UN decided that children above the age of fifteen but below eighteen could be tried but would not be imprisoned even if they were convicted.33Ibid. However, after pressure from various human rights groups, it was decided that only those above the age of eighteen would be put on trial for war crimes.34Ibid.

Causes of Recruitment of Child Soldiers

Having discussed the legal framework regarding child soldiers and established why it is such a prominent issue, it is essential to ponder why there is such widespread recruitment of children in armed forces. The causes can be divided into two different categories. Firstly, I will explore why armed groups recruit children instead of adults then I will analyse why children would want to join armed groups to participate in hostilities voluntarily.

Why do Armed Groups Recruit Children?

After the end of World War II, the trend of armed conflicts changed. Over the years, armed conflicts are increasingly occurring within the borders with various non-state actors involved.35Ferrao, Ranjana. “Prohibition on the Use of Child Soldiers: How Real.” ISIL YearBook of International Humanitarian and Refugee Law, 9, 2009, pp. 280. HeinOnline. In such situations, child soldiers give tactical advantages to an armed group.36ibid pp 281 Children are generally easier to lead and prone to following orders better than the adults.37Happold, Matthew. (2006). The Age of Criminal Responsibility in International Criminal Law. 10.1007/978-90-6704-425-7_5. Also, due to the lack of moral and mental development, children can be easily persuaded to carry out atrocities that an adult might not be willing to undertake.38Ibid. Children are also more easily brainwashed into committing acts like suicide bombing.39Fraser, Andrew. “Martyrdom’s Children: The Tragedy of Child Suicide Bombers in Afghanistan”. Canadian Military Journal. Vol. 17, No. 3, Summer 2017. pp 40-52 Hence, child soldiers provide various advantages to armed groups that they might not get from adult soldiers.

Moreover, due to technological advancements, weapons are easier to use.40Happold (n37) People with minimal training can easily handle such firearms; this makes it easier for armed groups to hire children. Recruiting children is also much cheaper since most are recruited forcefully after being trafficked.41Ibid pp 282 Armed groups would only need to feed the children and not have to bear further expenses.

Why do Children Join Armed Groups?

There are a plethora of reasons why children might want to join armed groups. Some of these reasons are forced upon them, while other reasons are intrinsic motivations of a child to join an armed group to engage in hostilities.

To begin with, a significant reason a child might want to join an armed group to fight is hunger brought by the devastations of the war. In war-torn areas, people might have very little to eat, and by joining an armed group, a child would at least be assured that they would be well-fed.42Somasundaram, Daya. “Child Soldiers: Understanding The Context.” BMJ: British Medical Journal, vol. 324, no. 7348, 2002, pp. 1268–71. JSTOR, Accessed 19 Jul. 2022. In Afghanistan, children as young as eleven years old join the military to avoid dying of hunger.43Kona, Swapna. Child Soldiers in Afghanistan. Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, 2007. JSTOR, Accessed 19 Jul. 2022. The acute lack of resources to survive is a massive pull factor for the children towards the armed groups.

Not just that, children in war-torn areas are often deprived of other necessities of life, including healthcare and education.44Ibid. Most children do not have access to education, sports, or other healthy recreational activities and, therefore, are likely to join an armed group instead of sitting at home not engaging in any activity.45Somasundaram (n42) Hence, war devastations leave them no option but to participate in active hostilities.

Examining why children, themselves, want to engage in armed conflicts is also necessary for better comparison. There are specific intrinsic motivations too for children, which prompt them to take up arms. In some cases, children take up arms to avenge the deaths of their relatives.46Ferrao (n9) pg 287 Aggrieved by the treatment at the hands of state agencies, child soldiers often consider recruitment in armed groups as the most appropriate way forward.47Ibid.

Furthermore, for many child soldiers, their religious or ethnic worldviews are the motivating factors for participating in hostilities.48Jens Christopher Andvig and Scott Gates. “Recruiting Children for Armed Conflict” Ford Institute for Human Security. 2007 At times, these factors can also be exploited by organizations that might use them for propaganda to encourage youngsters to join their ranks. In Pakistan, a rehabilitation center run by the government for child soldiers who were rescued from extremist groups had many children who were religiously motivated to take part in hostilities.49Lakhani, Kalsoom. “Pakistan’s child soldiers” Foreign Policy. 2010 < > accessed July 19 2022 Some boys in the rehabilitation center said they joined the conflict because Pakistan supported the capitalist West in the war on terror, which was un-Islamic.50Ibid. Similarly, there are also ethnic motivations for children to join armed groups. During the civil war in Sri Lanka, several recruits in the infamous “baby brigade” were motivated by ethnic reasons to make a separate homeland for the Tamils.51Ferrao (n9) 282 Religious and ethnic motivations are significant reasons that children take up arms against the State.


It is clear that the international community considers the issue of child soldiers as a problem. Various legal instruments prohibit the recruitment of children to armed conflicts. However, the problem persists, and the international community needs to take stringent legal action to prevent the recruitment of children in the armed conflict.

Firstly, as it has been discussed above, the minimum age for recruitment of children in armed conflict is fifteen even though a child is defined as anyone below the age of eighteen. Hence, despite the abhorrence of the concept of child soldiers, there is a legal loophole that allows for their recruitment. The number of child soldiers has not decreased over the last few decades. The number remains the same. It is clear that the current legal regime prohibiting the recruitment of children in armed conflicts is not working.

It is, therefore, important that the minimum legal age for recruitment of children is raised to eighteen. It will have two significant impacts, one symbolic and the other legal. The symbolic effect of this would be that the international community will make it clear that there is no tolerance for the recruitment of children in armed conflicts. Moreover, this could pave way for legal action towards states and groups that continue to recruit children in armed conflicts.

Secondly, children in conflict zones are vulnerable and can easily be swayed by armed groups to join their ranks. Efforts need to be carried out in active war zones to ensure that the rights of children provided in various international legal instruments are respected.52Kristin Barstad, Preventing the Recruitment of Child Soldiers: The ICRC Approach, Refugee Survey Quarterly, Volume 27, Issue 4, December 2008, Pages 142–149 The special legal protections that are afforded to them by the virtue of various human rights instruments need to be protected.53Ibid. In this the role of the international NGOs is as important as that of state governments. While states might not have access to a lot of conflict zones, international NGOs do.54Ibid. Hence, they need to be empowered and funded to protect children in armed conflicts.


The international community needs to unite in the fight against the menace of child soldiers. The recruitment of children into armed conflicts severely affects them and damages society as well. Some strong measures are necessary to combat this issue. There must be a consensus on the raising of the minimum age for recruitment in an armed conflict. Children below the age of eighteen cannot drive, marry, take part in elections, work in certain employment in most legal jurisdictions but international law still allows them to take part in armed conflict. Hence, it is necessary that these laws are amended. Apart from that, with the provision of education and countering the extremist mindset, a long-term solution to the issue can be achieved.


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Ibrahim Abro

Mohammad Ibrahim Abro is a fifth year student at Lahore University of Management Sciences, pursuing a degree in law. He has keen interests in International law, Post Conflict Justice and Human Rights law.