Background on Child Soldiers

While there is no precise definition, generally speaking, a child soldier any person under the age of 18 who is a member of an armed force or political group (government or otherwise). These young combatants participate in all aspects of contemporary warfare. They wield AK-47s and M-16s on the front lines of combat, serve as human mine detectors, participate in suicide missions, carry supplies, and act as spies, messengers or lookouts. Some are even recruited as sexual slaves.

Physically vulnerable and easily intimidated, children typically make obedient soldiers. Many are abducted or recruited by force, and often compelled to follow orders under threat of death. Others join armed groups out of desperation. As society breaks down during conflict, leaving children no access to school, driving them from their homes, or separating them from family members, many children perceive armed groups as their best chance for survival. Others seek escape from poverty or join military forces to avenge family members who have been killed. Many girls have reported enlisting to escape domestic servitude, violence and sexual abuse.

Unfortunately, for various reasons, it’s impossible to give a global figure for the number of child soldiers at any one time. Military commanders frequently conceal children or deny access to observers. Armed groups frequently operate in dangerous, inaccessible zones to which observers do not have access and many children perform support roles and are therefore not visible in military operations.

Unfortunately child soldiers exist in all regions of the world and in almost every country where there is armed conflict. The problem is most critical in Africa, where children as young as nine have been involved in armed conflicts. Children are also used as soldiers in various Asian countries and in parts of Latin America, Europe and the Middle East.

Development towards a ban on child soldiers

In recent years, progress has been made in developing an international legal and policy framework for protecting children from involvement in armed conflict. An increasing number of governments have "ratified" or agreed to become legally bound by a series of international laws banning the use of child soldiers in armed conflict.

The statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), established in 1998, provides for the prosecution and punishment of those found guilty of recruiting children under the age of 15 for use in hostilities. In 2004 the ICC announced that it was initiating investigations into crimes committed in the course of armed conflict in Northern Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where thousands of child soldiers are still being used.

The ICC's first prosecution came in 2006 when Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, the leader of a militia group based in the northeast of the DRC, was transferred to The Hague. He is charged with forcibly recruiting boys and girls under the age of 15 to fight with his militia from July 2002 to the end of 2003. His trial started in January 2009, but was released by the ICC in 2010 because prosecutors refused to give his defense lawyers the name of a person connected with the case.

In 2000, the United Nations adopted an Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict. The protocol prohibits the forced recruitment of children under the age of 18 or their use in hostilities. To date, it has been ratified by more than 110 countries.

On April of 2007, the Child Soldier Prevention Act of 2007 was introduced. This bill restricts U.S. military assistance to governments that are implicated in supporting the recruitment or use of children in government armed forces or government-allied armed groups as a means to help end this practice. The bill also urges the United States to expand its efforts to help remove and rehabilitate children from armed forces and groups around the world and work with the international community to bring to justice armed oppositional groups that have kidnapped children for use as soldiers.

Human Rights Watch
Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers
Amnesty International
Child Soldiers Global Report
International Labor Organization