Where in some parts of the world, children play, laugh and live as free and innocent souls, in other parts, their vulnerability is exploited and they are forced into acts that defy their right to peace, security and safety. Thousands of children have been killed, disabled or displaced, while many are still missing. According to the United Nations (UN),
“more than 250,000 girls and boys under the age of 18 are fighting in armed conflicts. These young soldiers are part of government forces and armed opposition groups in more than 30 locations worldwide. And while many child soldiers are between the ages of 15 and 18, some are as young as 7 years old” (United Nations WebQuest, 2014).
This short excerpt briefly summarizes the UN’s response to child soldiers.
According to the Child Soldiers Global Report (2004) issued by the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, a child soldier is defined as “any person under 18 years of age who is a member of or attached to the armed forces or an armed group, whether or not there is an armed conflict” (United Nations WebQuest). Both governments and rebel groups utilize children to fight local populations and armies (Achvarina and Reich, 2006, p. 127). Their roles may include, but are not limited to, participating in combat and various military, training and support functions, as well as sexual slavery and forced labour (United Nations WebQuest, 2014). 1
As an international body that seeks to promote human rights, the UN has intervened by developing policies that advocate the protection of children from forced involvement in armed conflict. A few of the measures the UN has adopted are outlined in the table below.
UN Policy and Measures
The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), 1989 Outlines the basic human rights children around the world, which include: “survival, protection from abuse and exploitation, full participation in family, cultural and social life, and development of one’s personality, talents and abilities to their fullest potential” (United Nations WebQuest, 2014).
Article 38 of the CRC states that governments must ensure children under the age of fifteen (15) are not recruited nor have direct part in armed conflict.2
The CRC is the most widely accepted human rights policy around the world; governments assent to enact laws and policies serving the best interests of children (United Nations WebQuest, 2014).3
Military activities include “scouting, spying, sabotage, acting as decoys, couriers or guards” (United Nations WebQuest, 2014).
Children as young as age fifteen can be recruited into a country’s military (United Nations WebQuest, 2014). 3 Only two countries have not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child: the United States and Somalia (United Nations WebQuest, 2014).
The Optional Protocol (OP) of the Convention of the Rights of the Child, 2002
Although the CRC sets minimum age requirements to enlist youth into the military (18 years of age), countries are allowed to recruit youth as young as 15 years old. The Optional Protocol was created to raise minimum age requirements. Measures include “outlawing the mandatory recruitment of anyone under 18 years of age into the military; requiring states to ‘take all feasible measures to ensure’ that people younger than 18 years old ‘do not take an active part in hostilities” (United Nations WebQuest, 2014).
Each country that ratifies the Optional Protocol also has to define the minimum age requirement for children who volunteer to join the armed forces. Countries must ensure that the age of entry is higher than the age limit defined by the CRC, and parents’ permission must be attained prior to recruitment.
The Optional Protocol also applies to non-state agencies, which states that
“armed forces that are not part of a country’s military cannot ‘recruit or use in hostilities’ anyone under 18 years of age” (United Nations WebQuest, 2014).
Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict A branch of the UN that raises awareness and advocates for children involved in armed conflict, particularly amongst political bodies, such as the General Assembly, the Human Rights Council, the Security Council and relevant governments, as well as develops key partnerships within the UN to continue to raise awareness. Some of the work administered by the Office includes “the delivery of comprehensive and long-term reintegration assistance for children, the rights of internally displaced children, as well as the rights of children confronted to justice systems, both as victims and perpetrators” (Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, 2014).
The Office also partners with UN agencies to strengthen release and reintegration efforts of children in conflict zones, and harden sanctions for individuals involved in recruiting child soldiers. Currently, the Office is campaigning for the “Zero Under 18” initiative, which seeks to globally ratify the OP for children involved in armed conflict (Office of the Special
Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict,
2014). In partnership with UNICEF, the “Children, Not Soldiers” campaign seeks to end the use of child soldiers by 2016 (UN News Centre, 2014).
International Day Against the Use of
Also known as Red Hand Day, February 12 marks a “global call-to-action” for world leaders to end the practice of child recruitment into the armed forces (Sambira, 2014).
Furthermore, in partnership with governments and NGOs, the UN works to provide release, reintegration and healing/therapeutic programming for children involved in armed conflict. As of recent (August 2014), according to the UN Country Taskforce on Monitoring and Reporting (CTFMR) on grave violations against children, 91 children and young adults were released from Myanmar’s Tatmadaw armed forces and were reunited with their families “after several years of separation” (UN News Centre, 2014). These young people will receive schooling and programming to help address the trauma they endured as soldiers. The taskforce, in conjunction with other UN agencies and NGOs, seeks “to break the ties between children and the forces,” by naming and shaming of groups recruiting child soldiers and implementing a scheduled action plan for the release and reintegration of children in conflict areas (Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, 2014). Since the action plan was signed in June 2012, approximately “364 children and young people have been released,” (UN New Centre, 2014).
However, amongst these policies and initiatives, children are still recruited and forced into armed conflict. In the Secretary-General’s annual report on Children and Armed Conflict, 23 countries were identified as committing grave violations against children (Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, 2014). These violations may include one or more of the following: killing and maiming, child recruitment, sexual violence attacks on schools and/or hospitals, denial of humanitarian access and the abduction of children (Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, 2014). In February 2014, the Office of the Special Representative for Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict and UNICEF reported that children are still actively recruited and used as soldiers by both government and opposition forces in South Sudan, while the numbers of the use of child soldiers continues to rise in the Central African Republic and Syria (Sambira, 2014).
There is a great deal of work that still needs to be done, including, perhaps, an aggressive approach by the UN to intervening and working with international partners to search and rescue children in conflict areas. Furthermore, (continuing) to hold countries accountable and implementing strict(er) sanctions for those who fail in their efforts to prevent and demobilize child conscription, may perhaps better support the goal in ending the use of child soldiers. According to the NGO Kindernothilfe, the following recommendations have been made to ensure the use of child soldiers is eliminated around the world: increased global pressure from NGOs (and political leaders) for the “immediate demobilisation of child soldiers;” the UNSecurity Council ensures world governments implement and abide by the Optional Protocol; groups recruiting children are prosecuted by the International Criminal Court; dialogue is promoted between governments and rebel forces and release and rehabilitation measures are included in peace agreements (2014). Increased international pressure can also be enhanced at the local level in nations worldwide; NGOs, non-profit charitable groups and local citizens can advocate to their governments for enhanced demobilization and accountability efforts. It is perhaps through such cohesive and unified efforts, both locally and globally, can the use of child soldiers be eradicated once and for all.
Dhanota, A. (2014). Restoring lost innocence: a brief summary of the UN’s response to child soldiers on http://www.unacto.com/#!our-work/c1dc4.
Achvarina, V. and Reich, S. F. (2006). No place to hide: refugees, displaced persons and the recruitment of child soldiers, International Security, 31(1), 127-164.
Kindernothilfe (2014). Facts and Figures, Retrieved August 8, 2014 from http://en.kindernothilfe.org/Rubrik/Topics/Child+Soldiers/Facts+and+figures.html.
Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict (2014). Retrieved August 8, 2014 from http://childrenandarmedconflict.un.org/.
Sambira, J. (2014). UN publishes key data on recruitment and use of child soldiers, Retrieved August 8, 2014 from http://www.unmultimedia.org/radio/english/2014/02/un-publisheskey-data-on-recruitment-and-use-of-child-soldiers/#.U-kdoWPE6So.
UN News Centre (2014). Myanmar: UN welcomes release of child soldiers, commitment to get them educated, Retrieved August 8, 2014 from http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=48394#.U-jir2PE6So.
United Nations WebQuest (2014). Child soldiers: a webquest, Retrieved August 8, 2014 from http://cyberschoolbus.un.org/childsoldiers/webquest/index.asp.
 As of date, “114 countries have ratified the Optional Protocol. Of the 193 countries that have ratified the CRC, 78 of them have not ratified the OP (33 of them have signed, but not ratified it). The US is the only country to ratify the OP and NOT the CRC” (United Nations WebQuest, 2014).
 There are some countries that define “feasible measures” independent of what the Optional Protocol states, such the United Stated and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (United Nations WebQuest, 2014).
 The Security Council launched a Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism (MRM) to “systematically monitor, document and report” on the grave violations committed against children in conflict situations around the world. Based on reports and reviews from MRM, recommendations on improved child protection in conflict zones are made by the Security Council Working Group on Children and Armed Forces (Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, 2014).
 This number includes the 91 children released from Tatmadaw (UN News Centre, 2014).