Children are terribly affected by war and conflict, in an extensive number of damaging ways. They may be forced to flee their homes, face physical harm to either themselves or their loved ones, and miss out on a childhood that many take for granted. When it comes to being robbed of innocence. however, nothing is quite like the recruitment and use of child soldiers, which is an issue that, despite its depravity, is still prevalent in conflict zones across the world.
In 2007 the United Nations Children’s Fund defined a child soldier as “any person below 18 years of age who is, or who has been, recruited or used by an armed force or armed group in any capacity.” These capacities in which children are used vary depending on the groups exploiting them, however, children are often made to cook, carry supplies and ammunition, spy, convey messages, perform guard duties, and fight in the conflict directly, of course. Girls that are taken into military groups are often forced into sexual slavery, or forced to marry fighters.
Disturbingly, the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has seen an increase in the use of children in various roles that were rarely seen before. According to a report by Foreign Policy, children as young as six are frequently kidnapped or recruited and sent to religious and military training camps where they are indoctrinated with ideology and practice beheadings with dummies.
The Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative has reported on children being used on front lines as human shields for ISIS troops and they are being used for blood transfusions for injured fighters. The rise of ISIS has also coincided with an increase in suicide bombings carried out by children.
The use of child soldiers is not limited to the Middle East, however. In fact, the majority of armed groups using child soldiers are found in Africa. A 2015 report by the UN Secretary-General on children in armed conflicts identified fifty-seven different groups that had recruited or used children in conflicts in the past twelve months. Twenty-nine of these groups came from only seven African nations.
Notable groups outlined in the report include, Nigerian terrorist cell Boko Haram, the Somalian group Al-Shabaab, and the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which is present in Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
An important fact, which is not often realized, is that it is not only armed militias that recruit children into their forces. In fact, in 2015, the United States State Department named ten governments that exploit children and use them as combatants, such as Burma, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Nigeria, Rwanda, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen.
Syrian rebel groups supported by the United States and other western countries, in their opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, have also been found to have used children in various roles, most notably as snipers and suicide bombers.
In terms of the exact number of child soldiers worldwide, it is very hard to measure. Best estimations, however, are around 300,000. Major obstacles to the precise measurement are due to the lack of access to affected regions, which is a result of the conflict and the difficulty in figuring out the age of child soldiers without birth certificates.
Irrespective of what the exact figure is, any number of child soldiers is too high, and the effects that being involved in a conflict can have on children are devastating. According to the UN, they are “commonly subject to abuse and most of them witness death, killing, and sexual violence. Many are forced to commit these atrocities and some suffer serious long-term psychological consequences.” With that said, the issue of child soldiers is not one that we can ignore.
Reasons for the use of children in conflicts
The number of reasons as to why children become part of armed groups is quite extensive. It is also necessary to realize that children are not always forced into becoming soldiers and may do so voluntarily. This does not, however, mean that their experiences are any less damaging. The following are a few of the main reasons that children are recruited and used in armed conflicts.
Government’s utilizing all possible resources
In times of war, governments may pull out all the stops when it comes to strengthening their army. In such situations, compulsory conscription may be broadened to include those older or younger than normal conscription age. This may not always be publicized by offending countries, however, and they may take children into their army without openly acknowledging the ages of the people they are recruiting.
Mobilizing resistance against a government
Similar to the government situation, many armed militias will also recruit as many people as possible in order to strengthen their armies, irrespective of age. As long as they can provide some immediate or future benefit, militias may abduct very young children into their forces.
An additional reason for the recruitment of children in these scenarios is the fact that in the relevant countries, many people over eighteen have already been conscripted into the country’s official army. If they are going to be able to fight against this army, a militia must draw troops from who is left. An example of such a militia is the Colombian rebel group FARC.
Children joining themselves
Some children choose to voluntarily join armed groups and participate in conflicts, although it is hard to understand why. Despite it being hard to understand exactly why children would make such a decision, there are a number of things that have been identified as contributing factors.
Children facing hard circumstances may see joining armed groups as a way out. They may only see the upsides at the time, and realize the downsides too late. Children may become soldiers in an attempt to escape poverty, as they are seeking security or protection because they want to defend their communities or their families or because they are seeking revenge against a group that has harmed them or their communities.
Once children are part of these groups, however, they are almost always forced to stay. With the prevalence of drugs and alcohol in many armed groups, children may develop addictions, and may be unable to leave the armed group as a result. According to Refugee Survey Quarterly, these addictions and drug usage can also lead to an increased likelihood of criminal activities, and in some cases war crimes. Another very frequent way of preventing children from leaving armed groups is through physical punishment, as those who try to escape are severely beaten.
What is being done
Introduction of laws
In an effort to prevent the use of children in conflicts and punish those who exploit them, many regulations have been introduced on the international level.
An early regulation came as part of the Geneva Conventions of 1949, which states that parties to a conflict shall take “all feasible measures” to ensure that children under fifteen do not “take a direct part in hostilities.”
The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, which was adopted in 1998 and entered into force in July 2002 also addressed the issue of child soldiers by stating that “Conscripting or enlisting children under the age of fifteen years into the national armed forces or using them to participate actively in hostilities is a war crime.”
Lower down, at a country level, various nations have taken their own individual actions to prevent the recruitment and use of child soldiers. Australia, Belgium, and Germany among others, have introduced domestic laws, which makes anyone, who has been in involved with recruiting or using child soldiers under fifteen years old, criminally liable.
Though, out of any country, the United States has perhaps put the most consideration towards addressing the issue. As well as having domestic laws, which make people associated with child soldier recruitment and use criminally liable, the US has also passed laws making sure that such people are ineligible for immigration status, and they cannot seek asylum.
Some of the US’s actions have been limited in their effect, however. For example, in 2009, the United States introduced the Child Soldiers Prevention Act. This act restricts certain types of military aid from being provided to countries that exploit child soldiers. The only way to circumvent this restriction is for the president himself to waive it on the basis of national interest.
Despite this act sounding like a valuable step in the right direction, every year since its introduction, the president has chosen to waive the restriction for almost every implicated country, citing the US governments’ national interest. For instance, in 2016, the restrictions were not applied to any countries who use child soldiers, with the exception of Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, all of which were countries that the US had no plan to provide military assistance to anyway.
The current laws also do not cover everything, and there are still important areas that need to be addressed. For example, children who have been exploited through sex or labour trafficking are eligible for special visas to go to the United States, while former child soldiers are not.
United Nations Action Plans
The United Nations has its own strategy for addressing the issue of child soldiers. The basis of the strategy involves getting governments and resistance groups who exploit child soldiers to agree to ‘Action Plans,’ which outline a list of steps to be taken to end child recruitment into armed conflicts. These Action Plans vary between countries, but according to the UN website, common steps include:
-Criminalizing the recruitment and use of children by armed forces
-Issuing a military order to stop and prevent child recruitment
-Investigating and prosecuting those who recruit and use children
-Appointing child protection specialists in security forces
-Releasing all children identified in the ranks of security forces
-Providing regular, unimpeded access to military camps and bases so child protection actors can verify that no children are in the ranks
-Providing reintegration programmes for children
-Strengthening birth registration systems and integrating age-verification mechanisms in recruitment procedures
-Implementing national campaigns to raise awareness and to prevent the recruitment of children
As of November 2016, twenty-seven groups had signed twenty-eight Action Plans. Eleven of these groups were government forces and sixteen were non-State militias. Of those, nine have successfully completed all the steps of their action plans and have been removed from the list.
In addition to the Action Plans, since 2014, the UN has run the ‘Children, Not Soldiers’ campaign. An initiative of UNICEF and the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, this campaign aims to raise support to end government use of children in armed conflicts.
The campaign has met with some success, with all of the targeted countries signing their respective UN Action Plans. Many of these countries have taken further steps in the right direction, such as Afghanistan, which has criminalized the military’s recruitment of children. Nevertheless, there is still much further to go, and some countries, such as South Sudan and Yemen, have put off the implementation of their Action Plans due to conflicts; conflicts which are themselves resulting in the use of child soldiers.
Despite the benefits and necessity of introducing laws against the use of child soldiers, this is for the most part overlooking the human aspect, and preventing the recruitment of future soldiers does not help child soldiers and communities who have already been damaged. What needs to be prioritized, alongside restrictions, are ways of reintegrating former child soldiers back into their communities and into a normal life. This is, however, easier said than done, and even the hopeful UN Action Plans acknowledge just how complex the reintegration of former child soldiers into civilian life can be.
There are three main components of reintegration that all need to be addressed. They are the reunification of the children with their families and communities, psychological support and counseling, and the provision of education and economic opportunities.
There are numerous complications to the reintegration process that may arise, however, with one extreme, yet not entirely uncommon one being if the child has committed war crimes. There is much debate about the proper way to address these situations in order to balance justice with the child’s needs.
Currently, international law does not stop former child soldiers from being punished, however, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child does limit punishment of children so that no one under 18 can receive a death sentence or life imprisonment. Many people involved with the reintegration of child soldiers, however, believe the trial and punishment of former child soldiers is not an effective way to address the issue, and it will only cause rifts in already divided communities.
Additionally, children with drug addictions may need special consideration when it comes to reintegration, especially if they have contracted sexually transmitted diseases. Girls associated with armed groups also face many challenges. They may be treated differently and stigmatized by their family and community for having had extramarital sex or having children. Families may also be unwilling to re-accept their children, both male or female, if they have been a soldier.
Another major issue that reintegration programs face is not a social one, but a logistical one. Actually locating the families of former child soldiers is extremely challenging, and puts a great burden on humanitarian organizations.
Reintegration is also severely limited if the conflict is ongoing, and returning to communities means being in harm’s way and at risk of being re-recruited. Successful reintegration must come with the cessation of the conflicts in the first place, however, this is not something that can be easily achieved. Child soldiers rescued from conflicts are not always safe when they return home, yet short of becoming refugees and seeking asylum elsewhere, there are not normally any other options.
Nevertheless, reintegration has, in numerous circumstances, been shown to be highly beneficial, and many methods of going about it have been utilized in various areas. In Uganda, for example, in order to overcome the stigma attached to child soldiers, cleansing ceremonies have been used to make the child ‘clean’ again and allow them to rejoin their communities.
The provision of education and opportunities has also been very effective, thereby enabling child soldiers to establish a new identity for themselves, and it helps them to look to the future.
Despite the continuing use of children in conflict zones worldwide, the foundation has been laid for effective action. Even if the conflicts themselves are showing no sign of ending, it is still paramount to offer as much protection to vulnerable children as possible.
The UN Action Plans are slowly but steadily making progress, and the fact that countries are legislating in relation to the issue shows there is a spreading recognition of the problem. Nevertheless, more awareness needs to be raised, especially in relation to the United States’ restrictions against countries using child soldiers. Having the pressure of an informed population pushing for more action against the use of child soldiers, the President will be less likely to consistently waive the restraints.
In terms of reintegration programs themselves, they need to be promoted, and a widespread sense of understanding needs to come about. People must realise that these children are for the most part victims of their circumstances, and we should do everything we can, not to stigmatise and criminalise them, but to help them return to their previous lives and experience a childhood that everyone should be entitled to.
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