Child soldiers: kids playing at deadly adults' games

IssueSeptember - November 2001
Feature by Judit Arenas

The stark images of child soldiers in armed conflicts today are shocking: sometimes under 10, dressed in uniforms too large or sportsgear that belongs in a park, armed with high powered weapons that are often bigger than themselves.

Many of these children are often forcibly recruited at gunpoint, but often it is poverty, propaganda and alienation that drives them into armies, paramilitaries and militias. Many join armed groups because of their own experience of abuse at the hands of state authorities or the lack of economic alternatives. In the first-ever survey of this problem —the Child Soldiers Global Report—the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers estimate that at least 300,000 children are actively fighting in 41 countries. Hundreds of thousands more children are recruited into government armed forces, paramilitaries, civil militia and a wide variety of non-state armed groups in more than 87 countries. Millions of other children worldwide receive military training and indoctrination in youth movements and schools. As conflicts have receded in Latin America and the Middle East, the number of children serving as soldiers in these regions has decreased. Nevertheless, new generations of children are at risk in Africa and parts of Asia and the Pacific.

An international issue

More than 120,000 children, some no more than seven or eight years old are currently fighting in armed conflicts in Angola, Burundi, Congo-Brazzaville, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Sudan and Uganda. Some of these children have been recruited from across their borders: in 2000, Namibian children were reportedly recruited by Angolan forces in the border region; Ugandan and Rwandan armed forces recruited children to militias they have backed in the DRC's civil war; Kenyan street-children have reportedly been recruited by Burundi Hutu militias active in the same conflict; Rwandan forces recruited children in neighbouring countries to fight in both the DRC and Burundi. In Asia and the Pacific, the worst affected countries are Sri Lanka, Burma and Afghanistan. Burma has one of the highest numbers of child soldiers in the world, both within governmental armed forces and non- governmental armed groups. The Taleban that controls much of Afghanistan's territory continues to recruit young men trained and indoctrinated in Islamic schools or madrasas in neighbouring Pakistan. The Northern Alliance is also reported to have stepped up recruitment of children as its military situation deteriorates. Although the incidence of child soldiering has reduced and conflicts receded across Latin America, in some countries children continue to fight in internal conflicts or be forcibly recruited into government armed forces. The country most affected by this problem is Colombia where over 14,000 Colombian children have been fighting with guerrilla groups and paramilitaries. Large numbers of children are serving in the Paraguayan armed forces and problems are reported in Mexico.

Government and opposition forces

In the past two decades the Middle East and North Africa have witnessed some of the worst and most egregious cases of the exploitation of children as soldiers. Today, while the situation is vastly improved, children under 18 across the region continue to serve with government and opposition armed forces or to be subject to various forms of militarisation in their communities and schools. In Iraq, thousands of children aged 10 to 15 participate in the Ashbal Saddam (Saddam Lion Cubs) and receive training in the use of small arms, hand-to-hand combat and infantry tactics. Various Kurdish armed groups in northern Iraq, Iran and Turkey have reportedly used children as young as ten. Opposition groups in Algeria and tribal groups in Yemen have also used child soldiers. Children have participated in several European conflicts in recent years, mostly with armed opposition groups but sometimes with government-aligned paramilitaries or official armies. Children have spied, conveyed messages, carried weapons and ammunition, and, inevitably, killed and been killed in Bosnia- Herzegovina, Chechnya, Nagorno-Karabakh, south-east Turkey, Kosovo and Macedonia. There are disturbing reports about the attachment of young orphans and street children as young as nine, to military units and camps in Russia. Contrary to popular belief this problem is not restricted to the developing world. In industrialised countries, economic and social change has made enlistment levels more difficult to sustain and placed downwards pressures on recruitment age. More than half of all member states of the Organisation for Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) accept under-18's into their forces. Britain is the only European country to routinely send 17-year-olds into combat, even though they are not allowed under national legislation to drink, vote in elections or even join the police force. The USA has acknowledged that 17-year-old soldiers served in US military operations in the Gulf War, Somalia and Bosnia.

“Alternative service”

While many children are active combatants and employed as soldiers on a daily basis, many others are used as spies and porters, and to lay and clear landmines. In Burma, civilians—including children as young as 10—are forced to porter for the military and even used as human shields and minesweepers. In 1999 the International Labour Organisation reported that children had been forced to sweep roads with tree branches or brooms to detect or detonate mines. The widespread availability of small arms has meant that even the smallest child, when he or she can carry a weapon, can be turned into an effective killer. A former child soldier from Burundi stated: “We spent sleepless nights watching for the enemy. My first role was to carry a torch for grown-up rebels. Later I was shown how to use hand grenades. Barely within a month I was carrying an AK47 rifle or even a G3.” When not actively engaged in combat, children can often be seen manning checkpoints or performing other “behind the scenes” tasks. In Afghanistan, young students from religious schools in Pakistan perform military service with the Taleban, policing urban centres and checkpoints to free more experienced fighters for the front line. Others, such as 15-year-old Stevica from the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, perform domestic tasks: “I prepare the weapons, I write reports from the field and I cook. I work for the Serb Tigers. There are 100 of us from Macedonia but we are all Serbs.” When children are used as soldiers, all children in a conflict zone are often suspected and targeted by the warring parties. On 15 August 2000, a Colombian Army unit near Pueblo Rico, Antoquia, mistook a party of schoolchildren out on a picnic for a guerrilla unit and opened fire, killing six children aged between 6 and 10 and wounding six others.

Just boys with guns?

It is not only “boys with guns”, thousands of girls are used in both frontline and support roles. Many governments and armed groups around the world are increasing the recruitment and functions performed by females in the armed forces, in many cases including girls under the age of 18. In Sri Lanka, young Tamil girls—often orphans—have been systematically recruited by the opposition Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) since the mid-1980s. Dubbed “Birds of Freedom”, many are reportedly trained as suicide bombers because they may not undergo as close a body search as men at checkpoints. Girls are particularly at risk of rape, sexual slavery and abuse, although exploitation of boys for these purposes is also reported. In Uganda, the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has systematically abducted over 10,000 children from their schools, communities and homes to camps in Sudan, forcing them to commit atrocities and become sexual slaves. Children who attempt to escape, resist, cannot keep up or become ill are killed. Concy, a 14-year-old girl abducted by the LRA told how “we were distributed to men and I was given to a man who had just killed his woman. I was not given a gun, but I helped in the abductions and grabbing of food from villages. Girls who refused to become LRA wives were killed in front of us to serve as a warning to the rest of us.”

Risks outside combat

Besides the risk of death or injury in combat, child soldiers suffer disproportionately from the rigours of military life. Younger children collapse under heavy loads; malnutrition, respiratory and skin infections are frequent. Child soldiers may also be at additional risk of drug and alcohol abuse (often used to recruit children or desensitise them for violence). Sayo, a 14-year-old soldier for the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council in Sierra Leone, described how he was forced to take drugs, including having cocaine rubbed into wounds: “When I go to the battle fields, I smoke enough. That's why I become unafraid of everything. When you refuse to take drugs it's called technical sabotage and you are killed.” Harsh training regimes and other forms of ill-treatment often lead to casualties and even deaths among young recruits. In Paraguay, 56 under-18s have died during their military service, six of them in 2000. Héctor Adán Maciel was shot by a fellow conscript after he refused to give him cigarettes. He died due to inadequate medical care as the armed forces argued that intensive care would be too expensive. Maciel was recruited at 16 after the armed forces reportedly falsified his mother's signature on documents giving her consent. Between 1982 and 1999, 92 recruits aged 16 and 17 died during service with the British Army, including four deaths as a result of battle wounds or injuries. Children are often treated brutally and punishments for desertion are severe. “At the camp we were trained to use guns. Those who disobeyed had their ears and fingers cut off. I didn't want to participate in the killing, but they threatened to shoot me if I refused to do it,” Odur Leko a 14-year-old boy abducted by the LRA in Uganda. In Ethiopia, young conscripts claimed that comrades who tried to escape during attacks were shot; others who returned alive after battles were reportedly ill-treated, charged with desertion and even imprisoned in pits in the ground.

Creating an universal standard

The past few years have seen growing international momentum to put an end to this abuse. The international NGO Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers has been at the forefront of this campaign. As a result of this campaign there have been some important developments in the international legal framework on this issue. The 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child had long represented a major breakthrough in the protection of children, but set a weaker standard for those involved in armed conflict. The new Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflicts, adopted by the United Nations on 25 May 2000:

  • prohibits governments and armed groups from using children under the age of 18 in hostilities;
  • bans all compulsory recruitment of under 18s;
  • raises the minimum age and requires strict safeguards for voluntary recruitment;
  • bans all forms of recruitment of under 18s by armed groups. Furthermore, the new International Criminal Court will treat recruitment and use of child soldiers under 15 as a war crime. The ILO, in Convention 182, has defined forced recruitment under 18 as one of the worst forms of child labour. The UN Security Council, the UN General Assembly, the UN Commission on Human Rights, the Organisation for African Unity, the Organisation of American States and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe have all condemned this abuse.

Meeting the challenge

The challenge now is to take these standards into an era of application and accountability. Firstly, all governments must sign and ratify the Optional Protocol, where necessary they must make changes to their national legislation to ensure that under-18s will not be deployed into combat, and preferably that no one under the age of 18 will be recruited into the army, even voluntarily. States should also be using their influence in securing commitments to and compliance with the Optional Protocol from others by making signature, ratification and implementation of the Optional Protocol a precondition for defence cooperation, military training and exchanges, joint military exercises and arms sales. Regional bodies should declare “child soldier free zones” and make compliance with the Optional Protocol a condition for membership and participation in regional groupings. In addition, armed groups should commit themselves to the higher standard of 18 for all forms of recruitment. A mechanism or process that would enable non-state actors to engage with this agenda positively and commit themselves to international standards should be established. Governments also need to create the political and military space for armed groups to surrender or demobilise children in their ranks. Children serving with rebel groups need to be informed, by mediums like radio, that they will receive protection, care and life alternatives. The time has come to hear the voices of those children who have been exploited themselves. As one 15- year-old girl abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda said: “I would like to give you a message. Please do your best to tell the world what is happening to us, the children. So that other children don't have to pass through this violence.”