Despite the widespread recognition of the need to protect civilians by the international law, this problem remains relevant. The overview of modern wars shows that children compose the category that is regarded as one of the main victims of armed conflicts. In their studies, various authors search for adequate solutions, in particular, against violence, considering the problem of protecting children from different perspectives.
However, the number of conflicts, in which children play an active role both as direct combatants and as indirect participants increases. The use of child soldiers is detected in Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Uganda, the Philippines, Sudan, and other countries. In this connection, the thorough analysis of the problem, its causes, and legal foundations seem to provide essential insights on the current situation, thus contributing to the further research and resolution of the issue.
The evidence shows that children and adolescents under 16 years of age participate in armed conflicts in many regions of the world. There is quite reliable information provided by the UN Children’s Fund about the presence in some places of 10-12-year-old soldiers, both boys and girls (Drumbl, 2012). Over the past decade, two million children have died in various hot spots around the world, and another six million have been seriously injured or disabled.
The most difficult situation is in the countries of Central and West Africa, where every tenth child is a member of one or the other armed group. Today, only in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, more than half of the personnel of all military formations (30 thousand people) are minors.
The similar situation can be noted in relation to Uganda where children received weapons from adult leaders become the central figures in the center of the country’s murders and violence. The continuous standoff between the Lord’s Resistance Army and the government forced 1.6 million Ugandans (half of them were children) to seek shelter from incessant attacks and killings in refugee camps. The attacks on unprotected civilian objects continue, and most of them are committed by young militants, who are much younger than their victims.
The most disturbing aspect of the feud in Uganda is the fact that this is a war of children against children as almost 70 percent of the participants of Lord’s Resistance Army are teenagers, and some of them are only eight years old (Drumbl, 2012).
Children are captured during numerous raids on defenseless villages subjected to savage treatment, and then they are forced to commit outrages against the same kidnapped ones, even their own brothers and sisters. Those who attempt to run away are usually killed. Since the beginning of the mutiny in the 1980s, about 30 thousand children have encountered such a fate. In this regard, it becomes critical to understand the incentives to use children as soldiers.
Reasons for Using Underage Troops in Armed Conflicts
In fact, the most of the recruited children come from poor families. In this connection, Drumbl (2012) suggests that one of the reasons for a large number of cases of child soldiers is that, as a rule, armed conflicts arise stage in undeveloped countries where the level of poverty is too high at present. Consequently, children do not have access to adequate upbringing and education, so they are easily susceptible to immoral suggestion or deception by adults. In addition, children do not have the opportunity to eat normally, and sometimes they are pushed to participate in the armed conflict as soldiers as this allows them feeding not only themselves but also their families.
To understand the phenomenon of underage troops, Drumbl (2012) refers to the fact that children in situations of armed conflicts become the most vulnerable category of the civilian population in relation to their recruitment and use in hostilities because of their economic and social status as well as gender. In other words, children are especially easy victims for recruiters and subject to manipulation in conditions of poverty or discrimination (Eck, 2014).
In countries with a low standard of living, war destroys the economic and social foundations of society, thus plunging plenty of families into poverty. As a result, children are recruited into armed forces or factions to provide themselves with basic means of livelihood as this gives them a guarantee of regular food, clothing, and protection (Mosendz, 2014). Also, armed conflicts make a disastrous effect on the education system – when schools are closed, children have almost no chances to receive education.
Another reason for this phenomenon is associated with the psychological factor. For example, in Cambodia, children have been involved in armed conflicts since 1953. They are excellent soldiers, courageous and obedient, they do not ask unnecessary questions and are easily suppressed and punished. These children perceive war as a game, losing the notion of the value of human life and becoming the effective and disciplined combatants even in the most dangerous tasks.
In recruiting work with adolescents and children, some psychological methods are actively used. For instance, they may be obliged to take a direct part in raids against their native villages, after which they are explained that now they will never be able to return there (Eck, 2014).
At the same time, the use of young militants is economically profitable. Thus, the International Labor Organization reports that, for example, in Central Africa, 94 percent of underage “warriors” do not receive any monetary compensation at all (Eck, 2014). It should also be noted that the mass participation of children in hostilities became possible by the appearance of lightweight and easy-to-use weapons, which undoubtedly contributed to the use of children in wars.
Combating the Phenomenon of Child Soldiers
There are many public organizations in the world, the direct task of which is to protect children and address the challenge of child soldiers. The UN Children’s Fund, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, which includes Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Jesuit Refugee Service, and so on can be noted. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the world referred to the rights of the child, and, consequently, the League of Nations adopted the Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1924.
The protection of the rights of the child was enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, the International Covenant of 1966, and the Declaration of the Rights of the Child of 1959, the main thesis of which was that humanity is obliged to give the child all the best that it has. This document has had a significant impact on the policies of governments and parliaments around the world.
In 1989, the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child and later the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibits the use of children in armed groups and also regulates the issue of the participation of children in hostilities.
The Protocol stipulates that every possible measure should be taken to ensure that children under the age of 15 do not take the direct part in hostilities. More to the point, it notes that if children under the age of 15 are involved in hostilities and arrested, they continue to receive the special protection provided by this document either they are participants of war or not. In the event of arrest, detention, or internment for reasons related to armed conflict, children should be kept in premises separated from adults.
The additional protocols have greatly developed and supplemented the provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention related to the protection of children. In accordance with Article 38 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the countries accepted the mentioned provisions should respect and enforce the rules of international humanitarian law applicable to them in case of armed conflict related to children (Lasley & Thyne, 2015).
They are expected to take all possible measures to ensure that persons under the age of 15 do not take direct part in hostilities and care of children affected by armed conflict. As a result of discussions regarding the age of the potential troops between western and eastern countries, the age at which children can take part in hostilities was determined at 15 years. However, it was recognized that when recruiting from persons who have reached the age of 15 and those who have not yet reached the age of 18, countries should give preference to the latter. Thus, the Geneva Convention and Protocols are the main documents that provide children with general and special security for the period of armed conflicts regardless of their character and after it, be it international or non-international wars.
One of the topical issues that are not clearly pinpointed in the international legislations is the question of how exactly military and soldiers, in particular, should behave when they encounter armed children. At first glance, the answer to this question seems to be simple – to take away a child’s weapons and take him or her to the agency of the humanitarian mission in the given territory for the further rehabilitation.
However, this is the controversial issue. Derluyn, Vandenhole, Parmentier, and Mels (2015) suggest that it is necessary to “pay more attention to issues of rehabilitation, reintegration and reconciliation, in an integrated and comprehensive way” (p. 10).
The behavior of children with weapons is completely unpredictable, and a large number of cases are known when soldiers died at the hands of some children who were not even six years of age. Such a situation occurs for the simple reason that soldiers are adults who have repeatedly participated in armed conflicts, including hot spots, do not suspect that a defenseless being like a child can do harm or kill them (Lasley & Thyne, 2015). Consequently, without perceiving such children as a source of danger, many of them were killed or maimed.
The reports of the UN Secretary often mention cases of the arrest of children involved in armed activities that are condemned by representatives of the UN. However, it seems that this issue, as noted by Lafayette (2012), cannot be approached unequivocally. Undoubtedly, the responsibility for involving underage troops in participating in armed actions should lie on the persons who involve them in these activities.
Nevertheless, the evidence shows that some minors who have been previously rescued from this provision and rehabilitated in specialized institutions at the UN or other international governmental and non-governmental organizations and received certain skills for life among civilians are subject to repeated recruitment and involvement in participation in armed actions (Lafayette, 2012).
This evokes the question of the legitimacy of these cases. Along with arrest and other measures, it is also necessary to provide guideline for a procedure for working with minors who have been detained, namely, conditions of detention, identifying significant grounds for bringing these children to justice as well as determining appropriate, adequate, and proportionate measures of responsibility.
In the view of the aforementioned causal and legal aspects, it becomes evident that there is a need for a new document focusing on the situation of children in armed conflict, which would include the following provisions: what should be considered a crime conducted by children, what actions on the part of adults regarding children will be considered criminal, what punishment is needed, both for children and adults, and how to ensure rehabilitation and reintegration of children into a normal society.
Such a document is likely to significantly improve the situation with child soldiers worldwide. Until such a document is adopted at the international level, it is necessary to pay attention to the causes of this phenomenon, develop and take measures aimed at stopping and preventing this situation, and monitor how these measures are implemented, so that children would feel that society cares about them and their problems will be resolved.
Derluyn, I., Vandenhole, W., Parmentier, S., & Mels, C. (2015). Victims and/or perpetrators? Towards an interdisciplinary dialogue on child soldiers. BMC International Health and Human Rights, 15(28), 1-13.
Drumbl, M. A. (2012). Reimagining child soldiers in international law and policy. New York: Oxford University Press.
Eck, K. (2014). Coercion in rebel recruitment. Security Studies, 23(2), 364-398.
Lafayette, E. (2012). The prosecution of child soldiers: Balancing accountability with justice. Syracuse Law Review, 63(1), 297-305.
Lasley, T., & Thyne, C. (2015). Secession, legitimacy and the use of child soldiers. Conflict Management and Peace Science, 32(3), 289-308.
Mosendz, P. (2014). Children are not children anymore. The Atlantic. Web.