Approximately 300,000 children below the age of 18 are being used as active combatants in armed conflicts worldwide. According to The Global Report on Child Soldiers in 2001, as many as 120,000 child soldiers, several as young as 7 and 8 are being used as combatants in sub-Saharan Africa. In Colombia, more than 14,000 children have been recruited for fighting by both the paramilitary as well as guerrilla groups. In the Indonesian provinces of Papua, Kalimantan, and Aceh, sectarian and political militias are using children as combatants.
Recruited by armed rebel groups or government forces, child soldiers are made to work as cooks, guards, porters, and combatants in the front lines. They are also used to clear mines and undertake suicide missions. For instance, in Sri Lanka, the opposition Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) reportedly recruited young Tamil girls for suicide missions.
There is no gender discrimination; both girls and boys are recruited to fight. However, girls are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment, rape, and abuse. The coordinator of the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, Casey Kelso appropriately stated: “… the problem is not decreasing but, with each new conflict, children are at risk of being drawn into the fighting.” Children that should be the hope for the future, unwillingly become the pessimism of the present.
Children are most vulnerable in times of conflict—plagued by poverty, separated from families, orphaned, displaced, or simply living in a combat zone. Armed groups take advantage of the helplessness of these children to coerce or abduct them into an unconceivable world of violence. The Global Report on Child Soldiers 2001 observes that: “Child soldiers are often treated brutally and punishments for mistakes or desertions are severe. In many countries, child soldiers who are captured, escape, or surrender often face ill-treatment, torture, or even death.”
Some of the children join the military as it offers a sense of security and provides food. Or they enlist with armed forces because of their own experience of abuse by government forces. Economic or social alienation also drives children to enlist with armed forces. As for armed rebel groups or government forces, children are easier to condition into obedient combatants. At times, these children are provided with drugs and alcohol. A clear example is Sierra Leone, where according to Human Rights Watch, child soldiers were provided with drugs to “overcome their fear or reluctance to fight.”
UNICEF, in its 1998 report “Children in Conflict: a child rights emergency” puts things in perspective when it states: “Children raised in a climate of aggression, abduction, and fear grow up unaware of what it means to live safely at home with their families, to learn, to play, and socialize easily with their peers. And this generation perpetuates the cycle of violence, carrying its twisted values endlessly forward.” As a result, child soldiers cease to be children, instead trained for combat with no remorse for the lives they take, their innocence lost forever.
One of the factors believed to contribute to this unconscionable practice is the easy access to modern lightweight automatic weapons and production of small arms. In 2001, the UN Conference on “Illicit Trade in Small Arms” noted that: “More than 500 million small arms and light weapons are in circulation around the world—one for about every 12 people.” A point reiterated by UNICEF, access to light weapons and small arms through both legal and illegal means have led children to be the main victims of armed conflict. The weapons’ uncomplicated design makes its easy for children to operate.
Important initiatives have been taken by international organizations such as the European Union, Organization of American States, and Economic Community of West African States to curb the access to small arms. However, many countries like the U.K. continue to be key players in the export of small arms. In 1997, Oxfam introduced “Cut Conflict” campaign that investigated “U.K.’s involvement in the international small arms market and investigated whether the U.K. is fueling conflicts through inadequate control of small arms exports.” It discovered that more than 100 countries had imported small arms from Britain between 1995 and 1997.
There is a growing international consensus to end the use of child soldiers. The International Labor Organization (ILO) recognizes the problem of child soldiers as one of the worst forms of child labor. In 1973, ILO adopted Convention No. 138, which states 18 years as the minimum age for any hazardous work. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989 addressed issues that affected children in general. In 1998, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court recognized the use of children under the age of 15 in armed conflict to constitute as a war crime.
Further, in 1999, ILO adopted Convention No.182 to eradicate the worst forms of child labor. This included “forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict.” For the first time international law recognized and addressed the problem of child soldiers. The dedication of international organizations such as International Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers and the secretary-general’s special representative for children and armed conflict led to the adoption of Resolution 1460 by the United Nations Security Council in January 2002. The resolution affirms “its commitment to address the widespread impact of armed conflict on children.”
True, international law has finally recognized the issue of children in armed conflict. But these have remained empty words on paper and are yet to translate into concrete actions. It is easy to condemn and criticize the recruitment of children in armed conflict but very difficult to truly address the premise of the problem.
It is important to restrict the access to modern lightweight automatic weapons and production of small arms. Governments, international organizations, and the public must exert constant pressure against those governments and armed groups that use children as combatants. Military aid should be eliminated for those governments and armed groups that use child soldiers. There is a need for more development programs that provide children with access to education and find an alternative source of income.
Groups making efforts to ban the use of child soldiers in combat such as The Coalition To Stop The Use of Child Soldiers, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch must be encouraged and supported in their endeavors by the international community. Most importantly, former child soldiers must be provided with the opportunity to start life anew and become part of civil society with counseling and vocational training.
It is not enough to draw up laws; the international community has to have the determination to put those laws into effective action. The 1996 UNICEF report “State of the World’s Children” states: “Children need be the victims of war only if there is no will to prevent it. Experiences in dozens of conflicts confirm that extraordinary actions have been taken and can be taken to protect and provide for children.”
We cannot expect a better world by being indifferent and silent. The United Nations report “Impact of Armed Conflict on Children” puts it perfectly: “… 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 starved and exposed to extreme brutality. Such unregulated terror and violence speak of deliberate victimization. There are few further depths to which humanity can sink.” So, what we do for our children today will dictate what our world will be tomorrow.