In addition to being the most valuable resource, children may also be the most vulnerable—particularly in an armed conflict. Children may be victims of attacks, recruited to participate in hostilities, or trafficked for sex or labor. Children may lose access to healthcare and education; they may be forced to flee their home or leave their family. International humanitarian law aims to protect children, as much as possible, from these negative effects of armed conflict.
But actions speak louder than words. An estimated 250,000 children serve as child soldiers in armed conflicts around the world—some forcibly recruited, others volunteering out of necessity or fear. Despite laws denouncing the use of child soldiers, children continue to be used by state and non-state forces in armed conflict—in violation of international humanitarian law, human rights law, and international criminal law.
Islamic State actively conscripts children as “Cubs of the Islamic State,” where kids are taught to use AK-47s, behead people, and operate checkpoints. Conversely, the Kurdish forces opposing the Islamic State use children to guard military bases and fight on the battlefield. Child soldiers are also on the front lines by both pro-Russia and pro-Kiev groups in Ukraine as well as by both rebel and government forces in South Sudan. Guerilla groups in Colombia recruit children to spy and plant bombs.
Importantly, “child soldiers” does not just refer to children armed with automatic weapons; it includes all children associated with armed forces or armed groups, for example, children being used as support for the armed forces or groups by cooking, scouting, or engaging in sexual slavery.
Under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a child is any “human being below the age of eighteen years.” But war does not spare children. That is probably why, under international humanitarian law, the minimum age for recruitment into the armed forces is slightly lower. Both Additional Protocol I and Additional Protocol II only prohibit recruitment of children under the age of fifteen during international and non-international armed conflicts.
Interestingly, international human rights law also recognizes this and the Convention on the Rights of the Child echoes the age limit set out in the Additional Protocols. The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, however, encourages state armed forces to avoid recruiting individuals under the age of eighteen and outright prohibits non-state armed groups from recruiting or using in hostilities anyone under the age of eighteen. Moreover, conscription or enlistment of children under fifteen years old remains a war crime according to the Rome Statute.
Eliminating the use of child soldiers in armed conflict requires more than pointing to a rule book; it requires preventing recruitment of child soldiers and rehabilitating and reintegrating former child soldiers. Along those lines, the Afghan parliament approved a draft law to ban the recruitment of children in national security institutions, the Burmese Army discharged 80 youth from service (for a total of 200 children this year), and the United Nations-African Union Hybrid Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) launched its own campaign to end recruitment and reintegrate child soldiers in the region.
Criminal prosecution is another mechanism to deter those that recruit and use child soldiers. The Appeals Chamber for the Special Court for Sierra Leone upheld the conviction of Charles Taylor for using child soldiers in Sierra Leone and the International Criminal Court just upheld Thomas Lubanga Dyilo’s conviction for using child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Although children have historically been involved in armed conflict, we now recognize that a child should be raised “in the spirit of peace, dignity, tolerance, freedom, equality and solidarity.” For this reason, international humanitarian law and human rights regimes aim to protect children today from the effects of armed conflict by eliminating their participation in hostilities. Enforcement of this international legal regime, however, is the responsibility of the global community—the United Nations, domestic and international judicial bodies, state governments, non-state armed groups, non-governmental organizations, and even individuals committed to ensuring children remain our hope for the future.