Child Soldiers & International Law

Child Soldiers
By John Still

A recent Channel 4 documentary shed a new and damning light on the conflict in Sri Lanka between government forces and the Tamil Tigers in 2009. Among the many accusations made is the use of child soldiers by the Tamil Tigers. Although this is banned under International Humanitarian Law (IHL) it seems to be tragically synonymous with many conflicts throughout the world, despite the growing body of laws prohibiting such action. At the turn of the millennium, the UN reported that 36 countries were involved in conflict which utilise child soldiers. Seventeen of those conflicts saw the sovereign state itself employing children to fight. This trend has not subsided since the report was published. 

When coalition forces entered Iraq in both 1991 and 2003, they were faced with resistance from Saddam Hussein’s “lion cubs”, children from an after school club promoted by the Iraqi dictator to receive military training, political indoctrination and engage in the torture of animals. Similarly, the Taliban employ child soldiers against ISAF forces currently in Afghanistan, either as suicide bombers, spies or regular combatants. Similar incidents have been reported in Libya; Muammar Gaddafi stands accused of using children to help conduct the siege of rebel held Misrata in April 2011.

It is clear that employing children to fight gives rebel or government forces significant advantages. Psychologically, children are easier to manipulate, scare or bully into committing acts of extreme violence while they often do not ask for food, shelter, payment or rest in return. In times of great stress, children are more likely to look to the leader of a group as a source of security, and can become fiercely protective over him/her. They can be more easily programmed into feeling little fear or revulsion for their actions and so are often used to commit heinous atrocities, such as the amputation of civilians’ limbs by child soldiers from the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone.

While some are kidnapped or forced into military service, many join of their own volition, easily seduced by the glamour of violence, tales of war and the promise of adventure. Another complication is the fact that many Western military men and women will hesitate over killing a child, such as the British forces who refused to fire on RUF child soldiers in 2000 and were surrounded and captured as a result.

Often recruited from areas with high birth rates and low life expectancies, such as in sub-Saharan Africa, many child recruits are orphans with few other economic opportunities. The promise of loot, pillage and payment are often powerful incentives to join armed groups. Areas with high birth rates also mean that faction leaders can easily replace casualties. Life as a soldier may even be safer than life as a civilian in conflicts based on ethnicity or tribal affiliation, leading many parents to force their children into armed groups, where at least they will be armed and more able to defend themselves.

Such advantages have led to a systemic preference for using children in armed conflict. The Western response could be described as hysterical condemnation, which – while understandable – is also unhelpful. The difficulty in IHL starts when attempting to define a child: in 1997 UNICEF stated that a child was any person under 18, only to be contradicted by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 1998 which stated that the age limit was 15. While this lack of consensus is damaging in legal terms (also leaving the UK open to the charge of employing child soldiers, when between 2003 and 2005 fifteen 17 year olds were sent to Iraq) it overlooks the fact that the Western concept of a child is inapplicable in many areas where children are involved in conflict.

In parts of Mozambique and Angola, both countries stand accused of using child soldiers in their protracted civil wars. In these regions, the journey from childhood to adulthood is taken through rituals, ceremonies or rites of passage. An individual may be a child until he or she is able to work, meaning that some are deemed adults sooner than others, depending on the speed of their physical development. In such nations, the divide between child and adult is not as inflexible as it is in the West. A person may be a child at home, but in times of harvest or war they are considered adults.

Issuing inflexible, inappropriate and poorly understood prohibitions on the use of children in armed conflict is unlikely to have the desired effect, especially when the laws fail to measure up against local beliefs and attitudes toward rising insecurity. It is the nature of international law that it must issue blanket qualifications for certain issues, but as the trend of using children in conflict continues, it is perhaps time to take a different approach.

Working with national and regional agencies to design more culturally-specific laws would offer some help in stopping children from becoming involved in armed conflict. Although even these laws are likely to be violated by local armed groups who will naturally seek an advantage over the enemy, they stand more chance of deterring would-be recruiters than the current laws. On the part of local governments and NGOs, more can be done to rehabilitate former child soldiers, while giving them a platform to speak openly and honestly about their experiences as combatants, thus preventing future recruitment of other children like them.


John Still is an undergraduate in War Studies at King's College London, and an editorial intern at The Heptagon Post. His research interests include South Asian politics and security, with an emphasis on Afghanistan and Pakistan.


21 July 2011