The existence of child soldiers has not been reported on much of late, but has been raised by the US State Department in its 2020 Trafficking in Persons Report, and by the UN in its report on human rights violations in Yemen (the UN report”).
The use of children as soldiers is commonplace. The UN in 2016 reported that: An upsurge in global conflicts and brutal war tactics continues to make children extremely vulnerable to recruitment and use by armed groups to work as porters, messengers, and cooks, and also in armed conflict as combatants and in sexual slavery, causing the children lifelong trauma.
The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court classifies the recruitment of children into fighting forces as a war crime and a crime against humanity. The International Labour Organization’s Convention No. 182 defines child soldiering as one of the worst forms of child labour. The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child outlaws child soldiering, and the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child established 18 as the minimum age for children’s participation in hostilities.
In the UK You must be at least 16 years old to join the Army as a soldier. You can start your application when you’re 15 years and 7 months.
In Australia, you can join the Army at 17 but can start your application earlier if you wish.
As mentioned in the UK sixteen-year-olds are allowed to join the Army, but under the terms of the UN Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, known as the ‘child soldiers treaty’, the UK does not send under-18s to warzones although there have been incidences where it has happened.
The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as being every human being below the age of 18 years. This, arguably, begs the question is the west in some cases sending mixed messages by recruiting 16 and 17 year olds to their armed forces?
The argument is that the armed forces offer young people exemplary career opportunities and that may be so in the UK and Australia. The reality in the likes of Somalia is very different.
In those parts of the world where the UN conventions and protocols are not so readily respected, children can be illegally abducted and forced to join up. Or, it may be that due to the impact of conflict on their communities, children join ‘voluntarily’ (often under pressure from family or members of the group) in order to secure food, to escape an abusive relationship, for revenge if many of their family members have been killed or for safety and money.
As well as live combat, the role of a child soldier can include working as a spy, planting landmines, performing domestic duties and delivering messages. Child soldiers are highly vulnerable to abuse with reports of sexual exploitation, and being used as human shields on the front line of fighting. If they manage to escape, former child soldiers often live in fear of retaliation against themselves or their families.
Turning to the UN report, it calls on the Security Council to refer alleged actions by all parties in the conflict, including the Houthis rebels and Saudi Arabia, to the International Criminal Court for possible war crimes prosecutions.
The UN report also urges the Security Council to expand sanctions against individuals involved in the conflict and to establish a criminal investigations body.
The UN report authors said there were “reasonable grounds” to believe that the Yemeni government and the Iran-backed Houthis, along with the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, were responsible for a range of rights violations, including unlawful deaths, disappearances and imprisonment, along with sexual violence and the use of child soldiers.
If the UK and Australia for argument’s sake lifted the minimum age for joining the armed forces to 18 it would unlikely make any difference to the plight of child soldiers in countries where conventions and protocols are not respected.
The UN report calls for:
[the parties to the conflict to]Cease and prevent the recruitment and use of children in the armed conflict; further, ensure the demobilization and effective disarmament of boys and girls recruited or used in hostilities, and the release of those captured; implement effective programmes for their rehabilitation, physical and psychological recovery, and reintegration into society.
All decent and same people would agree with that call, but is it worth the paper it is written on?
The tragic reality is that the child soldiers have rights written on paper but no means to enforce them. The UN report recognises that “No right exists without a remedy” yet calls on the warring parties who recruit child soldiers and exploit them in the worst possible way to do the decent thing.
The challenge for the UN and the international community is to enable the child soldiers to have the means of access to the remedy. There can be no means of access to justice if the child is dependent on the warring parties viz his/her abuser.
In relation to Yemen, the UN report calls for “the creation of a special tribunal such as a “hybrid tribunal” to prosecute cases of those most responsible” for the various atrocities. That may be right and proper but how does that look from a child soldier’s perspective?
Maybe, the UN and the international community when asking itself what should be done when children’s rights are abused should ask children? If they do, maybe, answers and solutions will be found that do provide a remedy…
Situation of human rights in Yemen, including violations and abuses since September 2014 https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/HRBodies/HRCouncil/GEE-Yemen/2020-09-09-report.pdf
“Whether and how a Yemeni boy or girl was recruited depended on which party to the conflict controlled a child’s home territory and on his/her age, gender and economic status. Across all verified cases, poverty and hunger were powerful push factors, rendering children vulnerable to monetary incentives and manipulation by recruiters and peers.”