“I would like to say to other child soldiers…please do not lose your childhood as well as your future.” -Abdi, former child soldier from Somalia.

There are an estimated three hundred thousand child soldiers around the world. Thousands of children 15 years of age and much younger are recruited every year in countries where contemporary conflicts are uprooting them from their childhood. The considerable numbers of child soldiers make one pause to think that the world is being sucked into a desolate moral vacuum, an endless void where children are now exploited as armed fighters. Angola recruits children at 17 and Uganda at 13 years of age as volunteers. The situation is urgent.

Child soldiers are considered to be all children under 18 according to Article 1 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. In reality, child soldiers are children young enough to lift a rifle. In 1998 alone, there were 35 major armed conflicts where children were used as soldiers. Violent conflict has always made victims of non-combatants, but now, more and more, the combatants are children.

Contemporary armed conflicts have increased the risks for children because of the proliferation of inexpensive light weapons, such as the Russian-made AK-47 or the American M-16 assault rifles, which are easy for children to carry and use. An AK-47, for example, can be easily assembled by a 10-year old boy. The international arms trade is largely unrestricted making assault rifles cheap and widely available in the poorest communities. In the Sub-Saharan area, for example, an AK-47 can be purchased for as little as six dollars on the streets. It is often suggested that too much money is spent for defense in both the developed and developing countries of the world, and that some of that money might instead be used to relieve hunger and to promote children’s survival and development. But, worldwide, many national budgets stay sharply skewed in favor of defense year after year. If security means the protection of our most precious assets, child survival should be high on the agenda of all defense departments. Why isn’t it? Perhaps in reality, the operational function of defense establishments is not so much to maintain the security of the country as a whole but to assure that the powerful remain in power. Rather than serving all their citizens’ interests, defense budgets serve the survival of the rich, not the children or the poor.

How are child soldiers recruited?

Governments in a few countries legally conscript children under 18. In the UK, teenagers who are 16 can enlist in the military for a three-to five-year-tour-of-duty. In the US, a 17-year-old can enlist in the Marines. In both countries these young soldiers can be sent to war zones.

Even where the legal minimum age is set at 18, the law is not necessarily a safeguard. Child soldiers may be kidnapped or forced by adults to join an army. Others may be forced to join armed groups to defend their families and villages.

Once recruited as soldiers, children are treated as adults. Children often serve as porters, carrying heavy loads such as ammunition or injured soldiers. Children are extensively used also as lookouts, messengers, and for common household and routine maintenance duties such as cleaning and assembling artillery. In Ugandan armies, children can volunteer at 13. They are forced to hunt for wild fruits and vegetables, loot food from gardens, plunder granaries, and perform guard duty.

Most of the children in armies come from conditions of poverty. These conditions may drive parents to offer their children for service or sell them into slavery. Children are also recruited in areas where there is a high level of illiteracy among their families and a strong prevalence of violence and ignorance in their communities. Most child soldiers, for example, never go to school throughout their childhood.

The enslavement of children into guerrilla groups is a serious issue addressed recently by an international labor group. In July 1999, the International Labor Organization (ILO) unanimously adopted Convention No.182 which prohibited and called for immediate action on the elimination of the worst forms of child labor, especially the “forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict.” The United States delegation to the ILO had opposed efforts to include a broad prohibition on child soldiers. Although trade unions and many governments supported a total ban on the participation of children in armed conflict, strong US pressure on the delegates to the ILO Convention resulted in the adoption of a much narrower, general prohibition on “forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflicts.”

Physical, Psychological and Economic Harm

Uncertain food supply and nonexistent health care are the worst economic consequences that wars bring into the reality of children on a daily basis. During the 1990s, an estimated two million children were killed in armed conflicts. Countless others have been seriously injured or have been forced to witness or take part in horrifying acts of violence. The shock, trauma, or Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTS) is generally not professionally treated immediately, if ever.

Conflicts hurt children physically and psychologically. Children suffer the consequences of armed conflicts on their bodies because of the effects of maiming, torture, sexual violence or the multiple deprivations of war that expose them to hunger or disease. The psycho-social impacts of violence on children are as severe as physical wounds. Children respond to the stress of armed conflict with increased anxiety, developmental delays, sleep disturbance and nightmares, lack of appetite, withdrawn behavior, learning difficulties, and aggressive behavior.

International law — The Geneva Conventions

Humanitarian law focuses on situations of armed conflicts. Human rights law establishes rights that every individual should enjoy at all times, during both peace and war, such as the right to life, liberty and security.

The international humanitarian law of armed conflict is reflected in four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and two 1977 Protocols. The Fourth Geneva Convention, relative to the protection of civilian persons in time of war, is one of the main sources of protection for children. It prohibits not only murder, torture or mutilation of civilians, but also any other measures of brutality whether applied by civilian or military agents.

In 1977, these Geneva Conventions were supplemented by two protocols that unite two main branches of international humanitarian law — the branch concerned with protection of vulnerable groups and the branch regulating the conduct of hostilities. Protocol I requires fighting parties in international armed conflicts to distinguish at all times between combatants and civilians to ensure that the only legal targets of attack are military. Protocol II addresses non-international armed conflicts, that is to say, conflicts inside the borders of a nation. This protocol lists the fundamental rights of all who are not taking an active part in the hostilities, namely, the right to life, liberty and security of person. It also provides that children be given the care and aid they require for a normal childhood, including education and family reunion.

Human rights law establishes rights that every individual should enjoy at all times, during both peace and war. The obligations, which are incumbent upon every nation, are based on the Charter of the United Nations and on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In formal legal terms, the primary responsibility for ensuring human rights rests with nations, since they alone can become contracting parties to the relevant treaties.

Almost 190 states have agreed to the Geneva Conventions, making them the most widely ratified conventions in history. The majority of these states has also agreed to Protocol I and Protocol II. Although the United States has ratified the 1949 Geneva Conventions, it has not ratified the two protocols, objecting to the nature of these protocols.

UN Convention on the Rights of the Child

The Convention on the Rights of the Child focuses on situations of armed conflicts and the impacts on children. It was adopted by the General Assembly in November 1989 as the most comprehensive and specific protection for children worldwide. The Convention recognizes a list of rights that apply during both peacetime and war, such as protection of the family; essential care and assistance; access to health, food and education; and the prohibition of torture, abuse or neglect.

Article 38 is known as the armed conflict article, but with regard to protection from recruitment it has little to offer. While the rest of the Convention is generally applicable to “every human being below the age of 18 years,” Article 38 makes a point of allowing children under 18 to take direct part in hostilities and to be recruited into a nation’s armed forces. It is all the more extraordinary because these restrictions are already embodied in international humanitarian law to which the article refers. Article 39 states that governments “…shall take all appropriate measures to promote physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration of a child victim of…armed conflicts.” These articles, especially Article 38, call upon nations to respect international humanitarian law as a whole. On the other hand, these articles restate their provisions only on the age limits of a child soldier and, in actuality, offer no relief to an increasingly urgent situation. Three hundred thousand child soldiers — even one child soldier — are too many.

The Convention: a commitment or a farce?

In the ten years it took to negotiate the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, many participating nations argued about the age limits. Both the United Arab Emirate and the United States did not want the minimum age for military recruitment to be 18. Currently the US accepts 17-year-olds with parental permission as voluntary recruits into the US Marines. According to the US Defense Department statistics, 17-year-olds make up less than one-half of 1% of all active US troops. The UK, which allows volunteer soldiers at 16 years, joined the US in its opposition. Some UK 16 year olds fought in the Falklands War and 200 were at the front in the Gulf War in 1991. The UK was even less ready than the US to make a compromise by raising the minimum age to 18.

By the conclusion of the negotiations, the US and UK positions prevailed, and Article 38 stated that governments “shall take all feasible measures to ensure that persons who have not attained the age of fifteen years do not take a direct part in hostilities.” The irony is that despite its winning many concessions from others in the negotiations and ultimately achieving its way on Articles 38 and 39, the UK signed and ratified the Convention in 1992, but has ignored its provisions. The United States still has not ratified the Convention.

In a letter made public on December 21, 1998, a broad group of US leaders called on President Clinton to support an international prohibition on the use of child soldiers. The letter, identifying the use of children as soldiers as “one of the most alarming and tragic trends in modern warfare,” was signed by the leaders of forty human rights, religious, peace, humanitarian, child welfare, veterans and professional organizations. Signers of the appeal included Rear Admiral Eugene Carroll Jr., US Navy (retired); Robert Muller, President of the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation; Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell, General Secretary of the National Council of the Churches; Dr. David Pruitt, President of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry; Dr. William Schulz, Executive Director of Amnesty International USA; Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch; Bob Chase, President of the National Education Association; Randall Robinson, President of TransAfrica; Charles Lyons, President of the US Committee for UNICEF.

The debate on age continues and more efforts have been made by other countries. In August 1999, the Nordic Foreign Ministers from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden, signed a declaration against the use of child soldiers. In this declaration the Nordic Foreign Ministers supported an optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child stipulating that anyone under the age of 18 years not be recruited into their armed forces nor allowed to take any part in hostilities. This optional protocol has not yet been added to the Convention.

On August 25, 1999 the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1261 condemning the effects of war on children. The resolution strongly condemns the targeting of children and the recruitment of children in armed conflicts, but it does not call for a total prohibition on any recruitment or participation in armed conflict of children under the age of 18. Following the principles of international law and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court the resolution prohibits only the use of children under the age of 15 in armed conflicts because it is considered a war crime. According to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court “conscripting or enlisting children under the age of 15 into the national armed forces or using them to participate actively in hostilities” is considered a war crime. (Art. 8, XXVI)

Rehabilitation of Child Soldiers: a Step Towards a Better Future

In recent years there have been important international developments in establishing rehabilitation centers for ex-child soldiers. Rehabilitation centers now exist in Africa and Colombia. In Africa there is the Family Home Care Center in Lakka, Sierra Leone directed by COOPI, an Italian NGO, in collaboration with UNICEF and the Family Homes Movement. There is also the Reconstruindo a Esperança (Rebuilding Hope) Center in Maputo, Mozambique where a group of psychiatrists help former child soldiers re-enter mainstream society. In Colombia the Colombian Welfare Institute (ICBF) houses combatant children while awaiting openings in a rehabilitation center.

The use of child soldiers is arguably worst in Africa. It is there, however, that the most progress has been made in raising the age of conscription to 18 and in involving ex-child soldiers in rehabilitation centers. The 1990 African Charter for the Rights and Welfare of the Child prohibits both recruitment and use of children under 18 as soldiers. It has thus far been ratified by only 15 of the 53 African countries members of the Organization of African Unity (OAU). Among the 15 states that have ratified are Angola, Benin, Mozambique, Senegal Togo, and Uganda. Although the Charter came into force on November 20, 1999, Angola and Uganda are still recruiting children under the age of 18. Angola recruits children at 17 and Uganda at 13 years of age as volunteers.

In October 1999 a Conference was held in Berlin on the use of child soldiers in Europe. The conference brought a new hope to the child soldiers issue. Its Berlin Declaration calls for the swift adoption and implementation of new international law prohibiting all participation in armed conflict of children under 18 years of age. However, the declaration was weakened by the refusal of a number of European states to adopt 18 as the minimum age for the participation in armed conflict — notably Austria, France, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and the UK. In addition, the UK intends to continue its policy of recruiting girls and boys at 16 years of age and deploying them at 17.

Despite this, a gleam of hope has started to light the path towards change. The US Congress has already passed a resolution (S.Con.Res.72) introduced by Senator Paul Wellstone (D-MN), which condemns the use of child soldiers, calls for greater support for rehabilitation and reintegration efforts for ex-child soldiers, and urges the US not to block a ban on the participation of children under 18 in the armed forces. The resolution was referred to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on November 10, 1999.

In addition, the UN Secretary-General Special’s Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Olara A. Otunnu, presently serves as advocate for children in armed conflicts and is recognized widely for his catalytic work with the United Nations and NGOs concerned about the child soldiers issue. Otunnu has been an advocate for child soldiers, who recognize in him a source of hope for their future. Otunnu has made an outstanding contribution to the protection and the rehabilitation of children involved in armed conflicts by informing and mobilizing international public opinion. He has made people more aware of the fact that the welfare of children affected by armed conflict is a priority issue for the entire world.

It is uncertain if substantial changes can be made in a short time when the international debates center on legal age rather than on the humanitarian problems that these children have to face; but as Otunnu said in his report to the United Nations General Assembly on October 26, 1999, “hopes have been renewed by the extraordinary things done by ordinary people.” The efforts of these ordinary people, such as you and me, cannot be underestimated.

There are many things that we as citizens can do to make a change and give more hope to solving the problem of child soldiers. These include: Join the US campaign to stop the use of child soldiers, by writing or calling the President, the Secretary of State and the members of Congress on this issue. Support the implementation of the Wellstone Senate Resolution. Cooperate with others in your community to publicize the issue of child soldiers in all media – newspapers, radio talk shows, and TV. Support the adoption of an Arms Trade Code of Conduct that would ban the shipment of conventional weapons to countries violating human rights and where light weapons can be easily purchased on the market by children. An Arms Trade Code of Conduct bill (HR2269) has been introduced by Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney (D-GA). The bill is now held in the House International Relations Committee and the House Armed Services Committee. Support humanitarian organizations, such as Human Rights Watch (HRW), UNICEF, Amnesty International, Free the Children, and Rädda Barnen (Swedish Save the Children), that unhesitatingly struggle to set the minimum age at 18, support the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and advocate demobilizing and reintegrating child soldiers into the community.

The efforts of ordinary people can help renew the culture of peace in all countries. The culture of a country is very important and people who get together and combine their forces can eliminate the sources of violence that are nourished by the availability of light weapons, violence in the entertainment media, and tolerance of domestic violence, and other factors. A global change occurred when ordinary people helped to conduct the campaign to ban landmines, and now it is time to do something to stop the use of child soldiers. Do not let the opportunity slip away to give hope to these children. Believe in the power of one. Even if your voice may seem faint, do not hesitate to let others hear about this serious and urgent matter. You really can create change!

Stefania Capodaglio was the first Ruth Floyd Intern for Human Rights at the foundation’s Santa Barbara headquarters. She is a student at the Catholic University of Milan.