The Invisible Soldiers:
Child Combatants

The Defense Monitor, Center for Defense Information, July 1997


Throughout human history war has been a constant fact of life. Yet while we accept its seeming inevitability we have struggled, fitfully and imperfectly, to manage and limit its scope and effects. While not all rules are universally accepted or complied with, during the past few centuries humanity has managed to agree on certain rules of warfare. One of them is that unarmed civilians, generally regarded as innocents, should not become targets of the hostile parties. And almost everyone would agree that children, the most innocent of all, should be shielded from the effects of war. Sadly, this "rule of innocents" has been increasingly ignored over the past several decades as civilians are more affected by war and targeted by various factions. In recent decades the proportion of war victims who are civilians has leapt dramatically from 5 percent to over 90 percent.

Worst of all, children are increasingly being used as combatants. In most of the armed conflicts currently raging in the world significant numbers of children under 18 years of age are active combat participants. In many countries these child soldiers are under 15, the current minimum age for participation in hostilities and recruitment into armed forces as stipulated in Article 38 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

According to the most recent annual human rights report of the US. State Department, "an estimated quarter of a million children, even as young as age 6, have been conscripted to serve as soldiers in dozens of armed conflicts around the world, some with armed insurgencies, such as the Khmer Rouge, the Shining Path of Peru, and Palestinian groups in Lebanon, and some in regular armies, such as those of Cambodia, Uganda, Angola, and Sudan."

This phenomenon of child soldiers is both new and horrifying. It violates the universal rule that children simply have no part in warfare. It also shows the alarming state of morals around the world. This was noted in an important study released by the United Nations last year. The report "Impact of Armed Conflict on Children," noted, that "more and more of the world is being sucked into a space in which children are slaughtered, raped, and maimed; a space in which children are exploited as soldiers; a space in which children are starved and exposed to extreme brutality. Such unregulated terror and violence speak of deliberate victimization. There are new further depths to which humanity can sink"

Yet in spite of this and other reports the issue of child soldiers is still largely an invisible one. A recent study by the Swedish group Radda Barnen (Save the Children) concludes that those who employ children as soldiers deny their existence. No record is kept of their numbers or ages and ages are falsified. Many are not part of the formally claimed strength of the forces or groups to which they are attached, but they are unacknowledged members.

They are invisible because most spend their time in remote conflict zones away from both public view and media scrutiny. They are invisible because they simply vanish. They never return from the battlefield because they are killed or, having been injured, are tragically abandoned. Lastly, those in their early teens are invisible because they are less obviously children. And in a larger sense, perhaps this is the greatest tragedy. Individually they all grow older. The very fact that the soldier survives means the child disappears. The child in the soldier becomes invisible, locked inside an adult" soldier or an "adult" former soldier.

Involving children as soldiers has been made easier by the proliferation of inexpensive light weapons. As recently as a generation ago battlefield weapons were still heavy and bulky, generally limiting children's participation to support roles. But modern guns are so light that children can easily use them and so simple that they can be stripped and reassembled by a child of 10. The unrestrained international arms trade in conventional arms has made assault rifles such as the AK-47 cheap and widely available. The poorest communities now have access to weapons capable of transforming any local conflict into bloody slaughter.


According to the UN report (also known as the Graca Machel report after the former First Lady of Mozambique who prepared it) governments and rebel armies around the world have recruited tens of thousands of children during the past 30 years. Most are adolescents, but many of the child soldiers are 10 years of age or younger. While the majority are boys, girls are also present as combatants.


Recruiting Child Soldiers

Child soldiers are usually recruited because not enough adults are available or willing to become soldiers. They are recruited in many different ways. Some are conscripted, others are press-ganged or kidnapped, and still others are forced to join armed groups to defend their families. Although there are distinct recruitment categories, in reality the areas of overlap are more striking than the differences.

Armed conflict itself contributes to the increasing number of child soldiers. War disrupts normal economic and social conditions and causes educational opportunities to shrink or disappear. Under these circumstances, recruits tend to get younger and younger. Afghanistan, where approximately 90 percent of children are now thought to have no access to schooling, is a case in point. The proportion of soldiers who are children is believed to have risen in recent years from roughly 30 to at least 45 per cent.

Agencies such as UNICEF estimate that more than 200,000 children have been recruited into armies over the past decade. Some of them as young as seven or eight are equipped with fully automatic assault weapons. Governments in a few countries can legally conscript children under 18 but even where a legal minimum age is set, the law is not necessarily a safeguard for those who are underage. Countries with weak administrative systems do not conscript systematically from a register. Often those forcibly recruited or volunteering are encouraged or forced to state that they are 18 in order to ensure apparent conformity with national legislation or international norms.

Many times however, age is a matter of complete indifference to recruiters. A study on Afghanistan noted, "Many children whose age had been mentioned clearly in their national ID card as less than 18 years were taken to [a] special military commission where the military officers amended their age to meet the criteria of military service. In this way they were sending children aged less than 14 years to the armed forces."

The very high proportion of children in the armed forces of El Salvador during the 1980-1992 civil war suggests this was a routine occurrence. Of the approximately 60,000 personnel in the Salvadoran military ex-soldiers estimate that about 80%, 48,000, were under 18 years of age. Quite often child "recruits" are arbitrarily seized from the streets or even from schools and orphanages. Press gang tactics were prevalent in Ethiopia in the 19809 when armed militias, police, or army cadres would roam the streets picking up anyone they encountered. Children from the poorer sectors of society are particularly vulnerable to this tactic. On the other hand, in Burma, whole groups of children from 15 to 17 years old have been surrounded in their schools and forcibly conscripted. Children are also recruited from refugee camps and forced to join armed opposition groups in their country of origin or the armed forces of the country providing asylum.

In addition to being forcibly recruited, children also voluntarily present themselves for service. It is misleading, however, to consider this voluntary." They may be driven by cultural, social, political or, more often, economic pressures. Hunger and poverty often drive parents to offer their children for service. In some cases, armies pay a minor wage directly to the family. Children themselves may volunteer if they believe that this is the only way to obtain regular meals, clothing, or medical attention. Some parents encourage their daughters to become soldiers if their marriage prospects are poor.

Too often, parents may even see material advantages in having their children involved and are reluctant to forego the benefits that child combatants obtain for their families. According to one study done in Sierra Leone, "many mothers have remarked on the joy of seeing their ten-year-old dressed in a brand new military attire carrying an AK-47. For some families the looted property that child soldiers brought home further convinced them of the need to send more children to the war front to augment scarce income."

In fact, it is probable that the vast majority of young soldiers are not forced or coerced into participating in conflict. But they remain subject to many subtle manipulations and pressures that are more difficult to eliminate than forced recruitment. Children's subjective understanding of reality is influenced by their social milieu and developmental processes. Other influences in their lives--their parents, families, peer groups, schools, religious communities, and other community institutions-- might exert pressures or send messages that lead children to participate in hostilities. Some are persuaded to join by propaganda and religious fervor. For example, the marching chant of a column of 16,000 Iranian children on their way to the front during the war with Iraq war "Come on, come on, plunge on. Those who step on mines will go to paradise." It is said those children were sent across minefields ahead of more valuable, trained adult soldiers.

Sometimes, the structural conditions in a country induce children to become soldiers. Many children have personally experienced or witnessed extremes of physical violence, including summary executions, death squad killings, disappearances, torture, arrest or detention, sexual abuse, bombings, forced displacement, destruction of home or property, and massacres. Revenge can be a particularly strong motivation to join up."

Children are especially valued in long drawn-out conflicts. Many current disputes have lasted a generation or more--half of those underway in 1993 had been going for more than a decade. Children who have grown up surrounded by violence see this as a permanent way of life. Alone, orphaned, frightened, bored, and frustrated, they will often finally choose to fight. In the Philippines, which has suffered from insurgencies for decades, many children become soldiers as soon as they enter their teens.

Adults too easily forget that the capacity of most children to judge what is in their overall best interest is still largely unformed and uninformed. As such any "decision" to join an armed group that appeals to such dubious criteria as a child's "right" of free association or freedom of movement should be rejected as a mere pretense by those who would use children for their own gain.


How Child Soldiers Are Used

In late 1996 children below 18 years of age were reportedly participating in 33 ongoing or recently ended conflicts, according to Radda Barnen. In 26 of the conflicts, almost 80 %, the children involved were under 16, the current minimum age limit stipulated in international law for participation in hostilities. The 33 countries in which children are combatants are: Africa: Algeria, Angola, Burundi, Djibouti, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, Sudan, and Uganda; the Americas: Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Peru; Europe: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, United Kingdom / Northern Ireland, Turkey / Kurdistan, and Russian Federation / Chechnya; the Middle East / Persian Gulf: Israel occupied territories, southern Lebanon, Iran, and Iraq / Kurdistan; Asia: Afghanistan, Burma, Cambodia, India / Kashmir, Indonesia / East Timor, Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka, and Tajikistan.

Countries where children serve in government forces include Burma, Cambodia, Colombia, Guatemala, Peru, and Sudan. Among opposition groups known to use children are the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the PKK in Turkey, the LTTE in Sri Lanka, and the LRA in Uganda. Although public awareness of child soldiers is relatively new, their use in some countries is a long-standing practice. In Cambodia, for example, the existence of child soldiers has been acknowledged for 25 years. Nevertheless, the scale of the problem has been growing substantially in recent years.

Once recruited as soldiers, children generally receive much the same treatment as adults, including often brutal induction ceremonies. The impact of the regular use of physical and emotional abuse involving degradation and humiliation of younger recruits to "indoctrinate" discipline and induce fear of superiors usually results in low self-esteem, guilt feelings, and violent solutions to problems.

Even those who start out in "support" functions cannot escape exposure to the risks and hardships most often associated with combat roles. Children often serve as porters, carrying heavy loads up to 132 pounds. Children who are too weak to carry their loads may be savagely beaten or even shot. Children are also used extensively as messengers and lookouts. While these functions may seem less life-threatening than combat, in fact the use of children in these important roles puts all children under suspicion. In Latin America, government forces reportedly have deliberately killed even the youngest children in peasant communities on the grounds that they, too, could be "dangerous." While both boys and girls might start out in indirect support functions, large numbers are rapidly forced into combat where their inexperience and lack of training leave them particularly exposed. Young children rarely appreciate the perils they face. Many studies report that when shelling starts children get overexcited and forget to take cover. Some commanders deliberately exploit such recklessness in children by giving them drugs or alcohol before using them in human wave attacks.

A former Burmese rebel child combatant recalls that at age 16 his job was to run into no man's land and "grab weapons, watches, wallets and any ammunition from the dead soldiers, and bring it back to the bunkers... This was a difficult job as you could see the enemy and they could easily 'pick you off as you ran out and back again."

The practice of treating children like their adult counterparts can have severe physical effects. Poor and inadequate food and medical care have more serious implications for children, whose bodies are still growing and may be weakened by the exertions of military life. Being less adept at looking after themselves or standing up for their rights children are more prone to die from starvation and preventable diseases contracted in the unhygienic conditions in which they live. If they cannot "keep up" they are routinely killed by their leaders so that they cannot reveal any secrets.

Children serving in government armed forces are often no better off than their counterparts in opposition groups. Children fall under the same military law as the adult soldiers. This means that children can be beaten to death or shot for attempted escape and disobedience. Case studies in Colombia, Ethiopia, Liberia, and Uganda report children being shot for trying to escape recruitment.

The Mozambican resistance group RENAMO consistently and systematically practiced forced recruitment. A deserter, recruited at age 10 explained that "RENAMO does not use many adults to fight because they are not good have more stamina, are better at surviving in the bush, do not complain and follow directions." Young, impressionable children can be turned into the fiercest fighters through brutal indoctrination. A typical RENAMO recruitment practice involved taking a boy soldier back to his village and forcing him to kill someone known to him. The killing takes place in such a way that the community knew that he had killed, thus effectively closing the door to the child ever returning to his village. Such children may develop a dependency relationship with their captors, eventually even coming to identify with their cause.

Although the majority of child soldiers are boys, armed groups also recruit girls, many of whom perform the same functions as boys. Girls may also be forced to provide sexual services. In Uganda, girls who are abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army are "married off" to rebel leaders. If the man dies, the girl is put aside for ritual cleansing and then married off to another rebel. Such abuse, which in some countries is reported to be widespread, inevitably complicates the capacity of girl soldiers to fully reintegrate with their communities. Their families and acquaintances may be unable socially to accept their mistreatment as "wives" or "comforters" of male soldiers. With no alternatives, many girls turn to prostitution to survive.

Not all military commanders, however, share the viewpoint that children are moldable troops with certain particular advantages. Some find they are slowed down due to lack of stamina on the part of children. Others find that child soldiers are still children and often misbehave, requiring precious leadership time to "parent" the offenders. Treatment of captured child soldiers by government forces is often brutal. Many are treated the same as captured adult soldiers. They are considered to be criminals or terrorists and held in military prisons. Many captured child soldiers of both sexes are subjected to abusive interrogation procedures, torture, isolation, rape, and death threats.

Furthermore, the active participation of some children exposes other children to intense pressure, particularly in conflict zones, to join one or another side. Even if they withstand the pressure and avoid recruitment, the suspicion that they are involved makes them prime targets to attack, interrogation, or other harassment.

Whether extensive in time or not, the cumulative involvement of children in the violence of war desensitizes them to suffering. In a number of cases, children have been deliberately exposed to horrific scenes to "harden" their psyches. Such experience makes children more likely to commit violent acts themselves both during and after armed conflicts and may contribute to the difficulty many countries experience in trying to integrate formerly hostile groups into a united society. In many countries such as Afghanistan, Mozambique, Colombia, and Nicaragua, children have been forced to commit atrocities against their own families or communities. In Sri Lanka reports indicate children as young as 10 years are used as assassins.

One Peruvian woman, recruited into the rebel group, "Shining Path," as an 11-year old, witnessed an execution her patrol carried out in a village. "They beat all the people there, old and young, they killed them all, nearly l0 dogs they killed them... I didn't kill anyone, but I saw them killing...the children who were with them killed too... with weapons... they made us drink the blood of people, we took blood from the dead into a bowl and they made us drink .. then when they killed the people they made us eat their liver, their heart, which they took out and sliced and fried. And they made us little ones eat."



Because "child soldier" is a physically transitory status--one can only be a child soldier for a relatively few years--it has been very hard to focus attention on the issue. However the consequences of being a child soldier are real, cumulative, and very far from transitory.

Child soldiers suffer many of the same physical and psychological effects that war brings to noncombatant children. They are separated from their parents and lose their homes. They are exposed to destructive violence, witness death and atrocities, and are often permanently disabled when not killed.


Health care for wounded child soldiers is often problematic. In most countries where child soldiers are found, health care is at best spotty. Sometimes, both government forces and rebel groups leave the wounded on the battlefield. At times the only medicine available is herbal. The most frequent injuries suffered by child soldiers are loss of hearing, blindness, and loss of limbs. In Guatemala the principal cause of death and injury of minors in the army were said to be the explosion of mines placed by guerrillas. This was due to the use of children as advance scouts and as mine detector. Other causes were grenade, rocket, and bomb explosions.


Physical injury carries additional emotional, psychological, economic, and social disadvantages. Loss of sight or hearing are severe obstacles to educational or social development. Loss of limbs may require repeated amputations for those still growing since the bone of the amputated limb grows more than the surrounding tissue. They will also require new prostheses frequently. In addition to the trauma, treatment costs may be too high or the necessary facilities may be unavailable. In Mozambique demobilized child soldiers complain of health problems related to bullets and shrapnel still lodged in their bodies. Many families do not have the resources to pay for operations to remove these objects. In societies with high levels of unemployment, the additional disadvantages from wounds may be too hard to overcome.

Perhaps the most severe long term consequences of children serving as soldiers may be on their moral development. When the fighting ends and children return to society, it is very difficult to place them in the more sedate surroundings of schools or families. Their moral system is dominated by fear of violence from whomever is superior in the hierarchy. Child soldiers find it difficult to disengage from the idea that violence is a legitimate means of achieving one's aims, and find the transition to a nonviolent life-style difficult.

How can they learn from unarmed adults? How can they work? How can they marry and rear children? How can they be expected to be a functioning member of a civil society when their entire formative experience is that society is organized around fear of violence? Under the Convention of the Rights of the Child, every child is entitled to receive such protection and care as is necessary for his or her well-being." States are obliged to "ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child," to protect children from all forms of mental violence or abuse, and to strive to ensure that victims of armed conflict have access to rehabilitative care. But, given the numerous wars around the world and the lack of resources to ameliorate their effects in the countries where they take place, these obligations are honored more in the breach than in actual day-to-day events. The proof of this is that fact that no peace treaty to date has formally recognized the existence of child combatants. As a result, their special needs are rarely if ever taken into account in demobilization programs.

But if simple human decency does not compel governments to care for children, pragmatic considerations of self-interest should. If children who were soldiers are not reintegrated into a post-conflict society, they may well contribute to future conflicts. In this sense protection of children is not just a humanitarian issue but an international security one as well. If nothing else, war avoidance should impel us to help former child combatants make the adjustment back to civilian life. To that end governments must take or assist with appropriate measures that promote children's physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration.

Graca Machel, who conducted the UN study on "Impact of Armed Conflict on Children," recommended that all phases of emergency and reconstruction assistance programs include psychosocial considerations. Program should support healing processes and reestablish a sense of normalcy through daily routines of family and community life, through fostering structured activities such as school, play, and sports, and mobilize community care networks around children. Governments, donors, and relief organizations should prevent the institutionalization of children.


Impact of International Law

The first international regulation dealing with the issue of children in armed conflict, the 1977 Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions, established a minimum age for recruitment. In 1986 international attention was dramatically focused on child soldiers in their modern form when Yoweri Museveni's National Resistance Army fought its way into Kampala, the capital of Uganda.

Observers were stunned to see 4- and 5-year-olds in its ranks.

Although slow, the world finally reacted. In the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child, adopted in 1989, the bearing of arms in battle is proscribed below age 15. Also in 1989 the UN General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the most rapidly and widely adopted human rights treaty in history. There are one hundred ninety signatories to the convention. The United States signed the CRC on February 16, 1995, but it has not ratified it. The only other country which has not ratified it is Somalia, which currently has no internationally recognized government.

Article 38 of the Treaty states, in part, that "Parties shall refrain from recruiting any person who has not attained the age of 15 years into their armed forces. In recruiting among those persons who have attained the age of 15 years but who have not attained the age of 18 years, States Parties shall endeavor to give priority to the oldest."

This language suggests that a compromise (not a very good one) was required. It is well known that at the time of the drafting of the Convention, the question of the minimum age of recruitment into the armed forces caused much controversy. Many wished to see the minimum age at 18 years in line with the general age of majority stated in Article 1 of the Conventions. In fact, Article 38 is the only provision in the Treaty which specifies that an age lower than 18 is acceptable.

Another questionable compromise is that Article 38 requires States to take all feasible measures to prevent the child's direct participation only in hostilities. This emphasis on "direct participation" actually lowers the standard of protection afforded by other international humanitarian laws, such as Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions. The United States bears significant responsibility for this situation because at the time Article 38 was being drafted the U.S. delegate opposed using language which would make this as strong as other humanitarian law. He asserted that adopting the higher standard might even oblige an invaded United States to renounce self-defense! The inanity of this assertion is immediately obvious when one considers that the United States itself requires parental consent for volunteers under 18 to serve in the armed forces and does not assign those under 18 to combat duty.

In December 1995 the Council of the Delegates of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement adopted a plan of action which included the commitment to promote the principle of nonrecruitment and nonparticipation in armed conflict of children under the age of 18 years. The work involved in drafting this plan led to a resolution supporting the drafting of an optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

To date, a basic agreement among states seems to have been reached on raising to 18 the minimum age for participation in hostilities, for compulsory recruitment (conscription) into government armed forces, and for any kind of recruitment into nongovernmental (opposition) armed groups.

These arguments seem to be moving the question of the minimum age for voluntary recruitment as a major topic of debate. One result of the campaign to adopt the optional protocol is that of six countries which, in the beginning of 1996 took the position that 16 should be the minimum age for voluntary military recruitment, four had changed the position by mid-October. Most states now support 17 or 18 as the minimum age for voluntary recruitment. The only states now openly supporting 16 years are Bangladesh and Pakistan.

On January 20-31, 1997, the UN Working Group on the optional protocol met in Geneva. Unfortunately, the session ended in disagreement and stunned surprise. Contrary to what it indicated last year the United States said it would not accept 18 years as the minimum age for participation in hostilities. Many had hoped that the working group would be able to agree on a final draft optional protocol which could be submitted to the UN Commission on Human Rights and the General Assembly later this year. But when the United States unexpectedly declared it would not accept a higher age limit than 17 for "direct" participation in hostilities, the Group decided that it would be impossible to reach an agreement this year. All 60 other countries, including European Union member states, Russia, China, and India, accepted 18 as the minimum age for participation in hostilities. The US. position appears to be mainly dictated by the Pentagon, which sees an age limit of 17 as convenient, rather than by morality or social and humanitarian concerns.

The working group will probably meet again in January 1998 to finalize the draft protocol, with or without U.S. participation.

Clearly, the obvious action which governments can and should take is to outlaw the recruitment of children in all government armed forces, including militias and civil defense forces, and to introduce effective check and recruitment procedures. In reality of course this restriction will not be effective unless it is accompanied by a ban on all forms of forced recruitment. To that end, governments should work to finalize and adopt the draft protocol to the CRC. Governments also must ensure that all children are registered at birth and receive documentation of age.

Armed groups seeking to overthrow governments that recruit child soldiers, are not, of course, bound by international law. But other governments can bring some pressure on such groups by becoming parties to relevant international humanitarian law conventions and actively insisting that these conventions apply also to internal armed conflicts, thus making such groups accountable under humanitarian law. Finally, governments must take one other obvious and very important step. They must all join t to regulate the flow of automatic weapons and other small arms which are light and simple enough for children to use with devastating consequences, both for the children and the peace of the world.


1) International law should recognize 18 years as the minimum age for recruitment (compulsory or voluntary) into any kind of armed forces and armed groups and for any kind of participation in hostilities.

2) All governments and armed opposition groups who currently have persons under 18 years of age should be urged to demobilize them immediately.

3) The United States should ratify the CRC and adopt a protocol making 18 years the minimum age for participation in hostilities.

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