Soldier Children: Global Human Rights Issues

As long as wars have been fought, children have been victims and participants. They have been among the civilians whose percentage of total casualties rose throughout the twentieth century. According to statistics compiled by the United Nations, civilians comprised 10 percent of all casualties in World War I, 45 percent during World War II, and perhaps 90 percent in the 1980s and 1990s. In the last decade of the twentieth century alone, an estimated 1.5 million children were killed and another four million were injured by warfare, while twelve million became refugees.

Only a fraction of those child casualties were combatants, but the issue of underage soldiers had become an international issue by the end of the twentieth century. An unfortunate truth behind the military use of children is that they make good soldiers. Political scientists have shown that small children, especially, accept war and violence as solutions to conflict more easily than adults or older children. Moreover, they can easily handle lightweight modern weapons; they are easily motivated and natural "joiners," willing to take risks; and they can often infiltrate enemy positions and territory because most adult soldiers are reluctant to fire on children. At the turn of the twenty-first century, an estimated three hundred thousand boys and girls under the age of eighteen were fighting on behalf of governments, opposition forces, or both in Afghanistan, Angola, Burma, Columbia, Iraq, Lebanon, Liberia, Mali, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, the former Yugoslavia, and perhaps two dozen other countries.

Children as Volunteer Soldiers

A few children have always gone to war willingly, out of patriotism, a sense of adventure, or religious conviction. French and German children mounted the Children's Crusade in 1212, which ended in disaster but created a legend that inspired faithful Christians. Children of French soldiers in the Napoleonic era were educated and trained by the national government, often accompanying their fathers on campaign and into the army. Thousands of Northern and Southern children, like ten-year-old John Clem, ran away from home to be drummer boys for American Civil War armies; many ended up carrying guns rather than drums. In countless other countries and colonies boys and girls became men and women before their time to fight invaders, colonists, and oppressors. Late-twentieth-century Burmese children, for instance, were raised on stories of heroes like General Aung San, who helped to liberate the country from Britain and Japan, and of the famous warriors of the nation's diverse ethnic groups. There, and in many other societies, becoming a soldier is a sign of manhood, accompanied by prestige and honor. In the West, a similar romanticization of drummer boys and other underage soldiers and the frequent use of children as patriotic symbols in wartime has for centuries encouraged governments to allow children to enlist.

These "pull" effects are often complemented by an equally strong "push." The grinding poverty in many developing–and war-prone–regions force children to work long, hard hours in fields or shops. Some are ORPHANS with no family to support them; others are refugees with no hope for a stable source of income. They join government or rebel forces because they see their service as a way to improve their lives. For these children, entering the military is not necessarily a matter of leaving behind childhood, but of exchanging different modes of premature adulthood.

Ideology is an important element of voluntary service by underage soldiers. Children, eager to be part of political or social movements in which their parents participate, often gravitate toward popular uprisings, especially if those uprisings offer a chance to exact revenge on enemies. The murders of family members, the ethnic cleansing of cultural groups, and long-time political and economic discrimination all fuel the hatred that can provide important motivations for young soldiers (as they do adult soldiers). Brought up in an environment in which politics, religion, and economic distress are interrelated, thousands of Palestinians in their teens and younger took part in the massive revolt against Israeli occupation that began late in 2000. Scores died and hundreds more were injured in clashes with Israeli forces; some became suicide bombers. While not, strictly speaking, soldiers, these boys and a few girls certainly considered themselves patriots and warriors for their cause. The remarkable story of Johnny and Luther Htoo, the thirteen-year-old twins who between 1999 and 2001 led a band of Karen rebels called God's Army against the government of Myanmar, shows how children can become willing participants in armed conflict. According to the legend that quickly grew around them, the brothers demonstrated mystical powers when they led a successful counterattack during a government raid on their village.

Children Forced into Military Service

Children increasingly became unwilling warriors in the twentieth century, especially in the brutal revolutionary and ethnic struggles that plagued developing countries. Some were conscripted formally into established armies; the Iranian army, for example, drafted tens of thousands of teenaged boys during the bloody Iran–Iraq war of the 1980s. Others were captured and forced into service when their villages were attacked by irregular units fighting inconclusive wars against existing governments. The Lord's Liberation Army, for example, a rebel organization fighting against the Ugandan government, kidnapped over eight thousand children and forced them to be soldiers, menial laborers, and in some cases, sex slaves. Some of the children who "volunteered" for military service had no choice; they joined because recruiters–especially from irregular forces conducting popular rebellions against established governments–threatened their families or threatened to kill the children themselves if they did not join up.

Effects of Military Service on Children

Over and above the dangers of actual combat, the effects on children of military service can be devastating. The rigors of hard marching with heavy packs can deform young spines, the uncertain availability of rations can lead to malnutrition, exposure to all kinds of weather can cause skin diseases and respiratory infections, and taking part in forced or consensual sex with other, often much older, soldiers can lead to pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. The brutal discipline and disregard for human life that characterized many of the rebel units operating outside of formal military channels also took a heavy toll; if a child was unable to continue a march or refused to obey orders, he or she was simply shot on the spot.

The psychological consequences of these experiences can be profound. Child soldiers and victims frequently draw pictures and tell stories haunted by images of death, destruction, and violence. These youngsters, especially those forced into military service, are a kind of "lost generation." Most rebel and other irregular armies in the developing world tend to be rather disorganized forces concerned more with profit and violence than with actually trying to establish governments or defend homelands. Child-development experts believe that among the worst effects of the use of child soldiers are the brutality that they internalize and the disdain for political and moral authorities that they learn. Because they are normally seized and indoctrinated before their moral values are fully formed, children often become thoughtless killers. Ironically, some of the worst atrocities carried out against children are committed by children.

Child Soldiers as a Political and Diplomatic Issue

The use of child soldiers has not gone unchallenged; indeed, much of the media's coverage of children and war confronts the practice directly. It has also become a political issue, with the public outcry against the use of child soldiers led by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), Human Rights Watch, Rädda Barnen (a Swedish organization), the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, and a number of other CHILDREN'S RIGHTS and humanitarian groups. The current standard of fifteen as the minimum age for military service was established by the 1989 UN CONVENTION ONTHE RIGHTS OF THE CHILD. Since then, activists have sought to bring the military service provision into step with the other conditions in the Convention, which recognize as a child anyone under the age of eighteen. Some progress occurred in the late 1990s. The United Nations established a policy refusing to allow soldiers under the age of eighteen to serve in peacekeeping forces, a number of governments raised their minimum age to eighteen, and a more strongly worded document (the "Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict") was developed by the UN. The protocol forbade the use of children under the age of eighteen in nongovernmental armed groups, required states to demobilize child soldiers and reintegrate them into society, and forbade the voluntary recruitment of children under the age of sixteen.

But the basic issue of child soldiers remained unresolved. The wording of the "Optional Protocol" only asks governments to take "all feasible measures" to ensure that children under the age of eighteen are not exposed to combat. The chief opponent of a worldwide minimum age of eighteen is the United States, which allows seventeen year olds to volunteer for its armed forces but promises not to send them into battle. Another ambiguity is the protocol's banning of underage soldiers from "direct participation" in combat–a nearly meaningless condition, since in a typical war of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries the front line and the home front are not clearly distinguished.

See also: Juvenile Justice: International; Violence Against Children; War in the Twentieth Century.


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