Human Rights and International Law (19): Child Soldiers and the Rights of the Child

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horror / human rights and international law / law / war

[This post is by guest-writer Line Løvåsen].

In 1989, the Convention on the Rights of the Child became the first legally binding international convention to affirm human rights for all children. (Although the other, older human rights treaties and declarations of course didn’t exclude children). The Convention has the highest ratification rates of all major Human Rights Treaties with signatures from 193 States. Only the US and Somalia have yet to give their backing.

The ratification of the CRC was a monumental moment in the fight for children’s rights. With the adoption of the Convention, these rights were no longer an option–they became an obligation under international law. Two Optional Protocols, seeking to strengthen the rights set out in the Convention, were adopted in 2000.

The importance of the rights of children is obvious: our solidarity should be first and foremost with the most vulnerable. Children are more likely to be victims and therefore deserve and require our special care and concern. Their capacities and voices need strengthening. They don’t have the power, education and knowledge to fight for their rights themselves.

Child soldiers

This posts examines a particularly horrendous type of violation of children’s rights: the phenomenon of child soldiers. Here’s an overview of the participation of children and adolescents in armed conflict:

Countries with Child Soldiers fighting in current and recent conflicts (g = government forces, p = paramilitaries, o = armed opposition groups) Africa: Algeria (p,o), Angola (g,o), Burundi (g,o), Chad (g), Congo-Brazzaville (g,o), Congo-Kinshasa (g,o), Eritrea (g,o), Ethiopia (g), Liberia (g,o), Rwanda (g,o), Sierra Leone (g,p,o), Somalia (g,p,o), Sudan (g,p,o), Uganda (g,o) Asia: Afghanistan (g,p,o), India (p,o), Indonesia (p,o), Myanmar (g,o), Nepal (o), Pakistan (o), Philippines (o), Solomon Islands (o), Sri Lanka (o), East Timor (p,o), Tajikistan (o), Papua New Guinea (o), Uzbekistan (o) Middle East: Iran (g,o), Iraq (g,o), Israel/Palestine (g,o), Lebanon (o) Latin America: Colombia (p,o), Mexico (p,o), Peru (o) Europe: Russian Federation (o), Turkey (o), Yugoslavia (p,o). From the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers

In spite of the universal condemnation and prohibition on the use of children as soldiers (see for example articles 6 and 19 of the CRC), children as young as 8 continue to be enrolled in many armed forces and militant groups around the world. (There’s a map here).

Why are there child soldiers?

What drives this? Why are children recruited for warfare? First of all, the proliferation of inexpensive, lightweight weapons has made it easier to use children as soldiers. These small arms are lethal and easy to hide, transport and use with little training. (More data on the arms trade here).

Children are also relatively easy to abduct, subjugate, and manipulate. They are more impressionable and vulnerable to indoctrination, they learn skills and tasks quickly, are fast and agile on a battlefield, more willing than adults to take risks and are seen as more loyal and less threatening to adult leadership. Moreover, it is easier for children to slip through enemy lines unnoticed, making them effective spies and bomb carriers. Children are typically viewed as cheap and expendable labor; they require less food and no payment. In addition, using child soldiers can present a moral dilemma to enemies: should they kill children?


Child soldiers are separated from their families, forced to flee their homes and schools, and in many cases, killed, maimed, sexually abused or otherwise exploited. Needless to say this has a devastating impact on their physical and mental wellbeing for the rest of their lives. They are usually forced to live under harsh conditions with insufficient food and little or no access to healthcare or education. They are almost always treated brutally, subjected to beatings and humiliating treatment. Punishments for mistakes or desertion are often very severe. They are forced to engage in hazardous activities such as laying and clearing mines or explosives, using weapons, playing the role of spies, bomb carriers, sentries and human shields.

Girl soldiers are particularly at risk of rape, sexual harassment, abuse and sexually transmitted diseases. They may give birth during their time with combatants and their children are exposed to the same dangers.

Child soldiers suffer enormous emotional, physical, developmental, social and spiritual harm.

Recruitment methods

Patterns of recruitment of children vary according to the context. Although recruitment of children by governments has been less systematic, there are reports of ad-hoc and/or forcible recruitment by groups with the acquiescence of governments such as the previous administration of the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) in Somalia.

In some instances the commanders approach the children directly and use scare tactics or entice them with money. They may also glorify freedom fighters, use gifts such as bicycles or false promises of overseas scholarships to bring the child under the control of the armed group, leaving the parents without any say. In some countries children have been told that killing the enemy is part of the Jihad, and if they die in the effort they will go to heaven. Previously recruited children are also used to recruit other children. If children resist, they are either killed, forced to participate in an assassination or put at the front line with the objective of breaking their will.

What makes children join armed forces? It’s likely to be a mix of desperation, poverty, dysfunctional schools systems, situations of extreme and traumatizing violence, the desire to take control of events, the protection offered by being at the shooting end of a gun, and peer-group pressure.

As much as we should advocate to dissuade forces from using children, the most certain way of preventing the recruitment of children is to stop civil or international conflict from occurring. As explained by a mother of three children who did not join the armed forces or groups, in Monrovia, Liberia:

If these people had not brought war, children would not have joined the fighting forces…


More on child soldiers. Other posts on human rights and international law. More about children’s rights.


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  4. Jennifer says

    Thank you for this blog, it was really clear and it helped me a lot!

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