According to the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of a Child, any person who has not yet reached the age of 15 years and partakes in an armed conflict is defined as a “child soldier”. Sadly, this criterion is simply ignored by many. In 2002, an optional UN protocol came into effect; it declared that State Parties should take all “feasible measures to ensure that persons below the age of 18 do not take a direct part in hostilities and that they are not compulsorily recruited into their armed forces".
When Executive Outcomes (EO) was operating in Sierra Leone in 1996, we tried very hard to get members of the media to give coverage to the child-soldiers fighting in that conflict. Sadly, this did not interest them as they were apparently more concerned at finding reasons to get EO out of that country so that the rebels could continue with their orgy of violence. We also appealed to the UN on this issue but they seemingly did not understand their own conventions and protocols on children. The men, however, continued to do what they could to get the children out of the firing-line and help the process of rehabilitating them. These efforts applied to both government and rebel forces. For this, EO was given a certificate of appreciation by the Sierra Leone organisation “Children Associated with the War”.
But, the use of children in war is nothing new. Indeed, children have been soldiers and casualties in most, if not all wars. Modern media reporting, however, makes it easier to highlight their plight on television and in the printed media. But, these children that have been robbed of their innocence are not a phenomenon unique to Africa.
The vast majority of these children are forcibly acting as “trigger-men” and “cannon-fodder” after being brutally inducted into war by torture, rape, threats, murder, and so forth. They are given real guns and told to kill whoever stands in their paths. As an example, in Sierra Leone, boys were forced to rape their mothers or sisters before killing their parents. There is no clear chance to escape and any attempt at escaping is met with extreme violence, torture and even death.
Once inducted into their life of murder and mayhem, they are easily influenced by their “leaders” and peers. Killing becomes a way of life. However, when they are in the opposite trenches trying to kill those who wish to stop them, they become valid battlefield targets – and often lose life and limb without understanding the reason for their being there. Those that survive, suffer enormous emotional trauma.
Estimates are that approximately between 250 000 and 300 000 children are currently serving as soldiers, actively engaged in conflict, across the world. They act not only as soldiers but also as spies, porters, sexual distractions, messengers and so forth. Some of these children are used to lead the assaults against government forces and even to act as suicide bombers. And it is not only boys who are forced into the world of warcraft.
But rebel forces are, however, not the only ones to use children to bolster their forces. Several governments are equally guilty of recruiting children – or coercing them – into their forces. This desire to swell the number of men under arms points directly to a flawed strategy of winning any conflict.
Actively participating in armed conflict as soldiers not only traumatises the children, it also violates their very rights as children. Robbed of their youth and forced to kill, main or torture, they are devoid of any moral compass. Their education is killing - or to be killed. They have no schools, homes, medical facilities and so on. In fact, all they have is a gun and ammunition. In using these weapons of war, many of these child soldiers commit horrific atrocities, effectively making them war criminals. But, international law restricts their punishment as they remain children.
This problem can manifest itself in a serious manner at the end of hostilities as these child-soldiers have the ability and the means to enter into a life of serious organised crime. With their only real education being that power comes through the gun, where will it end?
Added on 24 February 2009: David Isenberg sent me this interesting copy of a thesis document submitted to the University of Victoria. Thank you, David.