The Invisible Soldiers:
The Defense Monitor, Center for Defense Information,
Throughout 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 US. State Department, "an estimated quarter of a million
children, even as young as age 6, 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 new 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 Radda Barnen (Save the Children) concludes that
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 they are unacknowledged
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 soldier survives means
the child disappears. The child in the soldier becomes invisible,
locked inside an adult" soldier or an "adult" former
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 Graca Machel
report after the former First Lady of Mozambique who prepared
it) governments and rebel armies around the world have recruited
tens of thousands of children during the past 30 years. 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
Recruiting Child Soldiers
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 the differences.
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 had been mentioned clearly in their national ID card
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
19809 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 obtain 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 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
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 16,000
Iranian children on their way to the front during the war with
Iraq war "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 Used
In late 1996 children below 18 years of age were reportedly
participating in 33 ongoing or recently ended conflicts, according
to Radda Barnen. In 26 of the conflicts, almost 80 %, the children
involved were under 16, the current minimum age limit stipulated
in international law for participation in hostilities. The 33
countries in which children are combatants are: Africa: Algeria,
Angola, Burundi, Djibouti, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia,
South Africa, Sudan, and Uganda; the Americas: Colombia, Ecuador,
Guatemala, and Peru; Europe: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia,
United Kingdom / Northern Ireland, Turkey / Kurdistan, and Russian
Federation / Chechnya; the Middle East / Persian Gulf: Israel
occupied territories, southern Lebanon, Iran, and Iraq / Kurdistan;
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 long-standing practice. In Cambodia,
for example, the existence of child soldiers has been acknowledged
for 25 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 problems.
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 overexcited 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
16 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 secrets.
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. 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 to survive.
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 offenders. 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 assassins.
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 l0 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 transitory.
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 cause of death and injury of
minors in the army were said to be the explosion of mines placed
by guerrillas. This was due to the use of children as advance
scouts and as mine detector. 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 nonviolent
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,
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.
Graca Machel, who conducted the UN study on "Impact of
Armed Conflict on Children," recommended that all phases
of emergency and reconstruction assistance programs include psychosocial
considerations. Program 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 community care networks around
children. Governments, donors, and relief organizations should
prevent the institutionalization of children.
Impact of International Law
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 4- and 5-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.
There are one hundred ninety signatories to the convention. The
United States signed the CRC on February 16, 1995, but it has
not ratified it. The only other country which has not ratified
it is 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 endeavor
to give priority to the oldest."
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 that 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 18 to serve in the armed forces and does not assign those
under 18 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 nonrecruitment and
nonparticipation 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 nongovernmental
(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 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 the 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
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 US. 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
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 humanitarian
law. Finally, governments must take one other obvious and very
important step. They must all join t 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.
1) 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
2) All governments and armed opposition groups who currently
have persons under 18 years of age should be urged to demobilize
3) The United States should ratify the CRC and adopt a protocol
making 18 years the minimum age for participation in hostilities.
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