October 20th, 2016
By Andrada Filip – Junior Fellow
“The phenomenon of children used as soldiers is not isolated to one country or continent. Despite international conventions, children continue to fill the ranks of seven state armies and fifty non-state armed groups.”
To frame the issue of child soldiers, one must define when a human being stops being a child and becomes an adult. This presents a conundrum, as different definitions of childhood exist in various cultures. Therefore, states often fail to agree upon an appropriate age for conscription into the armed forces.
A key feature of the new type of warfare that has emerged in the 21st century is that wars are no longer exclusively fought between the armed forces of belligerent states. Various types of insurgent groups take part in these new wars, developing their own war economies and societies along the way. Civilian populations trapped in this new kind of warfare are disproportionately affected, whereby children, often placed in vulnerable positions ̶ especially during conflict, are frequently targeted and subjected to forced conscription. Under such terrible circumstances, being a child soldier becomes a way of life for many. Nevertheless, it is important to note that child soldiers as a phenomenon has been around for centuries. More specifically, child soldiers fought on both sides of the American Civil War and the British Navy frequently recruited young cabin boys during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Initially, the first Additional Protocol to the Geneva Convention sought to clarify how individuals aged between 15 to 18 years of age are to be used in conflict, by stating that belligerents should first prioritise the recruitment of older children. The Convention on the Rights of the Child also states that every human being below the age of 18 is a child.
The Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict represents a commitment that states will protect children which addresses the problem of children in armed conflict and urges states to put an end under the age of 18 from taking part in hostilities and will set the minimum age for conscription at 18. In spite of the obligations imposed under this legal instrument, armed forces in several of the states that have ratified this document, notably Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan, continue to recruit minors without facing any criminal charges. The UN Security Council also adopted a resolution in 1999 to the recruitment and use of child soldiers.
There are no accurate statistics on the actual number of active child soldiers across the world, however estimates put the total at about 250,000. The UN Secretary-General’s report on children in armed conflict from 2016 looks at violations committed against children in 20 conflict situations throughout the year 2015. It identifies 58 parties to conflict that have recruited and used child soldiers, including seven government security forces and 51 non-state armed groups.
In recent years many new tactics have been developed, as protracted conflicts such as the one in Syria or Afghanistan have had a profound impact on children. The report of the UNSG draws attention to the tactic of portraying children as ‘executioners’ or forcing them to become suicide bombers which is currently being used by violent extremist groups.
Hence, military responses against non-state armed groups condoning such terrorist activities raise severe challenges for the protection of children. Traditional military counter-terrorism strategies fail to tackle the root causes of such conflicts as it has no effect on the catalysts of radicalization, such as a lack of good governance, the destruction of legitimate political authorities, and lastly the lack of education and socio-economic opportunities. The recruitment of children through social media is a more recent trend and is highly worrisome, as thanks to improved communication technologies extremist groups can gain easy access to potential recruits and build up a command and supply chain.
Very often children present a series of strategic advantages to extremist groups, as these are generally seen as prime material for their ideological base. On the other hand, when it comes to certain operations the use of children is preferred, since they have more chances to remain undiscovered during security checks thus managing to stage bombing attacks in key civilian areas or near military bases through the detonation of IEDs (improvised explosive devices).
The recruitment and use of children by extremist groups also ensures generational hatred in a particular society and alienation of society and formal national political structures. In the long run, if child soldiers are not successfully reintegrated into society and continue to fall prey to extremist propaganda, such conflicts will fester and will be carried on in societies by particular social groups in a prolonged and sustained manner.
The US adopted the Child Soldiers Prevention Act in 2008, which defines the term child soldier as any child below the age of 18 who has been forcibly conscripted into the armed forces by state or non-state armed groups. Furthermore, any person below the age of 15 who has been voluntarily conscripted into government armed forces is also a child soldier.
The US works closely with the UN and a wide range of NGOs, third country governments, faith-based organizations and private enterprises to punish those responsible for the recruitment of child soldiers and ensure the rehabilitation of former combatants. The US government publishes a yearly list of countries that violate the standards enshrined in the ‘Child Soldier Prevention Act’.
An important cornerstone of US policy on child soldiers is that foreign governments included on that list are not allowed to receive any kind of government assistance. Nevertheless, assistance to a country may be reinstated provided that its government has adopted adequate measures and an action plan to comply with the standards.
The President of the US also has the power to overrule these requirements and provide assistance to a government that recruits child soldiers if this is deemed to be in line with the national interest. In reality there are many examples of this happening. To be more precise, in 2015 under President Obama the US government continued to provide military assistance to five states that were recruiting child soldiers, i.e. the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Somalia and Sudan.
The EU is another international actor which seeks to address the problem of child soldiers. To this effect, the Council of the European Union adopted a set of guidelines dealing with children in armed conflict in 2004; these have been updated in 2007 and the Council’s Human Rights Working Group is responsible for their implementation and follow-up. Regular monitoring, reporting and assessments represent the basic tools for identifying situations in which EU action may be required.
An Implementation Strategy on Guidelines for Children and Armed Conflict was adopted in 2006 and reviewed in 2010. Generally speaking, the 2007 EU Guidelines are in line with the existing body of knowledge on this issue, hence no fundamentally innovative policy options have been taken into consideration.
The EU’s work in the field of children affected by armed conflict is based on the premise that it is beneficial to protect child soldiers, but also the broader category of children affected by armed conflict. According to a mapping all EU-funded projects dealing with children and armed conflict, approximately 300 million EUR have been allocated throughout the period 2008-2012; however, not all projects addressed this issue specifically. When it comes to addressing impunity for severe violations against children EU funding is highly limited. According to research carried out for the aforementioned mapping document, the topic of children and armed conflict is barely, if ever explicitly linked to projects. Projects seeking to strengthen accountability for offenders of sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo represent an exception.
The mapping listed only one project in the Philippines whose objective was to increase access to justice for children affected by armed conflict.
Overall, the EU is undertaking serious efforts to tackle the problem of child soldiers; yet, there is a considerable imbalance in which countries receive assistance. Moreover, interventions at the country level lack comprehensiveness and a clear focus addressing the violations and adversities suffered by children in armed conflict.
The UN, which is considered to be the most impactful international diplomatic forum, is also doing its share in fighting the scourge of child soldiers.
The UNSC established a working group on children in armed conflict in 2005, which subsequently broadened its mandate to include the following six grave violations: killing and maiming of children; recruitment or use of children as soldiers; sexual violence against children; attacks against schools and hospitals; denial of humanitarian access for children; and abduction of children.
The UNSG also appointed a Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict in 2012 who seeks to advance the implementation of the existing legal framework and strengthen protection mechanisms.
The UN also recognizes the importance of overseeing the international trade in arms, as it looks to prevent parties responsible for conscripting children receiving any supply.
A landmark Arms Trade Treaty that regulates the international trade in conventional arms –from small arms to battle tanks, combat aircraft and warships ̶ entered into force in 2014. The treaty was ratified by 83 states; however, some are notably missing from the signatories list: USA, Turkey, Israel, Canada, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.
Lastly, the UNSR for Children and Armed Conflict launched a campaign entitled ‘Children not soldiers’ in 2014. When it was launched, the campaign focused on eight national security forces listed for recruitment and use of children. The campaign had broad international support, many of the countries that were singled out for having child soldiers as part of their national security forces have made clear steps in tackling this problem, even if some of these were mere formal announcements and are yet to be implemented and produce any concrete results.
In spite of the efforts undertaken by these three prominent global actors, the recruitment of child soldiers continues to persist and has in some cases been exasperated.
Situation in Syria
According to a report published by the US State Department in 2015, the Syrian army and pro-Assad militias have recruited boys as young as six years old. Very often such children are acting as informants, whereby economic hardships increase their vulnerability to being conscripted, as they are provided with a financial reward for services rendered. For example, in Aleppo children are included in coordinated military operations and are tasked with tracking down armed groups. These children are acting as informants for the Assad regime and are being exposed to retaliation and torture. On the other hand, IS also deploys minors in military operations; however, recruited children are also forced to take part in activities of extreme cruelty, such as the beheading of prisoners.
In order to tackle this problem, a first step would be for the Syrian government to end the forcible conscription of minors by the armed forces and any associated militias. Subsequently, the government would need to set up appropriate protection services for discharged children and launch an investigation to prosecute individuals, including officials, responsible for the continued recruitment and use of child soldiers.
Situation in Yemen
In Yemen the use of child soldiers has become more prevalent after the Houthi expansion in 2014 and the collapse of state institutions. According to US sources, checkpoints in Houthi controlled areas are frequently operated by boys as young as ten. Yemen’s long-standing political and economic crisis has led to the spread of this practice, which, in the meantime gained cultural acceptance. The absence of law enforcement mechanisms and judicial institutions has left the country with almost zero capacity to put an end to the recruitment of these child soldiers. A law adopted in 1991, raised the minimum age for conscripted soldiers to 18. The UN has also launched an action plan to prevent the recruitment of minors into the army, yet both of these initiatives have proven to be inefficient. The situation exacerbated after the Houthis seized the Yemeni government in 2014, as militias have increased the recruitment of child soldiers.
For this situation to be alleviated, the Yemeni government should increase efforts investigating and prosecuting the recruitment of child soldiers by the armed forces and associated militias. Providing protection and rehabilitation programmes for demobilised children are also essential in reintegrating them into society.
Situation in Afghanistan
The recruitment of child soldiers in Afghanistan saw a twofold increase in 2015 compared to the previous year. The conflict which spans across decades has created a volatile situation which is affecting children in particular. A variety of parties engage in recruitment of child solders, these include national armed forces and the police, various armed groups and predominantly the Taliban. The latter recruit children for combat and suicide attacks, whereby religious schools, so called madrassas, are instrumental in their indoctrination and military training.
The Afghan government has made efforts to tackle this problem, however many gaps and challenges are yet to be addressed. As highlighted by the Special Representative of the UNSG for children and armed conflict after a recent visit, the government should introduce a general prohibition on child recruitment and child use in national law. Furthermore, the dissolution of child protection units within the Afghan police and the implementation of national age assessment guidelines in all relevant departments of the national defence and security forces represent other urgent priorities.
General policy recommendations
States alone, especially states lacking efficient political and administration structures and a functioning criminal justice system, cannot comprehensively address the problem of child soldiers. Hence, national governments should team up with NGOs and international organisations to provide them with the knowledge, expertise and technical assistance needed to establish specialist services that can meet the needs of former child soldiers. Furthermore, in the absence of judicial institutions and law enforcement authorities, the civil society must step in and raise levels of awareness on the cruelty and danger associated with the recruitment of child soldiers. Cruelty, because children should be able to exercise their basic human rights under any circumstances, and in particular the right to live free from violence. Danger, because the recruitment of child soldiers tears apart the social fabric of any country or community. It channels hatred, social alienation and the lack of trust in government structures into a national problem.
Often times, such children tend to be subjected to trauma prior to their recruitment which puts them in an emotionally vulnerable position. Insurgent terrorist groups who wish to use children in order to fill their ranks also present a seductive ideology that gives them the opportunity to embark on a path in life which enables them to attain certain goals. To be more precise, IS has made school attendance compulsory in the areas under its control, in order to closely monitor their education and strictly enforced religious doctrine. As such, children raised in this system are not exposed to an alternative way of life. The early and prolonged exposure to violence ensures their desensitisation, assuring that they are devoid of empathy towards others, especially those outside of their immediate environment.
Educators, moderate religious leaders, doctors and representatives of NGOs can fulfil a meaningful role in the process to preventing recruitment of child soldiers and help discharged fighters adapt and reintegrate in society. It is important to make sure that former child soldiers are not left without any hope, further alienating them from society. Nevertheless, first and foremost the onus is placed on the governments to punish the perpetrators and enforce an adequate legal framework that prohibits this practice and introduces safeguards for victims.
Binding legal instruments need to be introduced on the national, regional and international levels to prohibit grave violations against children, particularly in conflict situations. Functioning judicial institutions are also crucial, as legitimacy and justice are the key ingredients to restore peace and order after prolonged conflicts. Concretely, child-friendly legal provisions and alternatives to detention must be introduced into the justice system to ensure the physical and psychological well-being of children exposed to war and conflict.
 Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts (Protocol I)’, International Committee of the Red Cross, Geneva, 1977, available at: [Link]
 UNSG Report (April 2016), p. 4
 Child soldiers and the EU policy on children and armed conflict, March 2015, Directorate-General for External Policies, Policy Department, European Parliament, p. 13
 Child soldiers and the EU policy on children and armed conflict, March 2015, Directorate-General for External Policies, Policy Department, European Parliament, p. 20
 Ibid., p. 28
 Ibid., p. 28
 US Human Trafficking Report 2015, p. 324
 US Human Trafficking Report 2015, p. 324
 US Human Trafficking Report 2015, p. 324
 US Human Trafficking Report 2015, p. 325
 US Human Trafficking Report 2015, p. 364
 US Human Trafficking Report 2015, p. 365
 UNSG Report (April 2016), p. 5
 UNSG Report (April 2016), p. 7
 Benotman, Noman & Malik, Nikita (2015), The Children of the Islamic State, Quilliam, p. 29
 UNSG Report (April 2016), p. 34