The use of child soldiers in military conflicts is an issue that has been documented by human rights organizations in countries around the world, Human Rights Watch currently estimates that approximately 300,000 children are currently “serving as soldiers for both rebel groups and government forces in current armed conflicts.”Some are forced to participate under threat, others are kidnapped and many volunteer to receive food and shelter in areas where resources are scarce. Due to children’s emotional vulnerability and immaturity they are often drawn to participate in the most violent actions of militia groups and terrorist organizations. Amnesty International reports that children who participate in conflicts have considerably higher casualty rate than adults and those who survive suffer severe psychological distress and physical injuries but often receive little or no support for rehabilitation once the conflict is over.
The problem is a worldwide one but is most critical in African countries such as Burundi and Rwanda where the conscription age is as low as 15, in Uganda children as young as 13 are reported to have been conscripted with parental consent. In Sri Lanka aid organizations have found that children have been kidnapped specifically to use in terrorist activities, UNICEF reports that the Liberation Tiger of Tamil have kidnapped an estimated 5,666 children for use in militia activities although the true number is likely to be much higher as they estimate only a third of these cases are actually reported to them. In Chechnya boys and girls as young as 11 have fought and children are believed to have taken part in suicide bombings, the current estimates for this region are incomplete due to the ban of media and humanitarian organizations.
In contrast to the international efforts made to assist with the rehabilitation of child soldiers in Africa, Human Rights Watch reports that the US has reportedly subjected children as young as 14 to extraordinary rendition in the global war on terror, contravening the Geneva Convention which would entitle them to an open tribunal to determine their status as civilians or prisoners of war. The US government revealed to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child that approximately 2,500 children have been held in US custody in Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantánamo up until 2008, stating that eight children were held in Guantánamo. They later revised this figure to twelve minors detained including Yassar Talal Al Zahrani who was brought to Guantánamo at the age of sixteen and committed suicide after over half a decade of detention at the age of 21. Reuters has recently reported that new evidence in the case of Omar Khadr, a child combatant who has been held as a prisoner at Camp Delta in Guantánamo Bay since the age of 15, corroborates that torture techniques were used in his interrogation.
The only industrialized nation which has recruited children as young as 16 into military service is the United Kingdom which has deployed minors as young as 17 to fight in armed conflicts. The British Ministry of Defence confirmed to the BBC that fifteen under age soldiers were deployed by Britain to serve in Iraq from June 2003 to July 2005. UNICEF estimates that 6,000 to 7,000 soldiers under the age of 18 are currently serving in the UK armed forces in violation of the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child which it participated in ratifying in 1991 and the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict which was adopted by the UN assembly in 2000 and ratified by Britain in 2003. Contrary to the clearly defined aim of the treaty, the UK Parliament accompanied its ratification with a declaration that under age soldiers may be deployed when there is ‘genuine military need’ and ‘by reason of the nature and urgency of the situation it is not practicable to withdraw such persons before deployment’.
Recent magnetic resonance imaging brain research conducted by the University of Pittsburgh’s Developmental Traumatology Laboratory and Harvard Medical School’s McClean Hospital has established that children exposed to violence exhibit hindered brain development, problems with cognition and impaired memory functioning. In 2009 studies conducted by the Douglas Mental Health University Institute, McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, and the Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences indicate that children exposed to trauma exhibit genetic changes due to the chemical actions of stress response hormones. This research confirms that long term damage can be caused by exposure to violence during the brain’s developmental period and imaging studies recently conducted for the National Institutes of Health show that anatomically significant changes in brain structure continue after age 18, suggesting that human brain development is not complete until our mid twenties. These studies may have implications for further legislation regarding the use of minors in the military.
Rehabilitation of child soldiers is a difficult process, the adjustment to normal life is fraught with the ghosts of their past; they have been the victims and perpetrators of brutality, many have been coerced into participating due to their family or communities ideology or politics, some have been orphans of war who were forced to fight and others join militias to avenge killings they have witnessed during conflicts. Girl soldiers have reportedly joined up to escape enforced marriage, sexual slavery, domestic violence, exploitation and abuse. Most come from impoverished areas and have not had the opportunity to acquire education or job skills which often leaves them with no other alternative.
International efforts such as the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers and Red Hand Day, an annual commemoration held on the 12th of February are helping to raise awareness of the plight of child soldiers and to promote funding for rehabilitation programs that provide them with counselling and job skills that help them reintegrate back into society and lead productive lives.
by Naomi Pattirane
TAKE ACTION: Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers
FURTHER READING: Amnesty International’s campaign for the disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of child soldiers
HRW “Child Soldiers Campaign” Human Rights Watch
IOR 50/002/2000 “Child soldier: Criminals or Victims?” Amnesty International
UNICEF “Child Soliders” UNICEF UK
Jo Becker “U.S.: Despite Releases, Children Still Held at Guantanamo”, Human Rights Watch
Committee on the Rights of the Child, “Monitoring Children’s Rights” Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
Eric Walsh, “U.S. chained wounded teen to door in Guantanamo – medic”, Reuters
BBC, “Under-18s were deployed to Iraq” BBC News Channel
Joint Committee on Human Rights Tenth Report, “Children and Armed Conflict” Parliament Publications
UNICEF “Convention on the Rights of the Child” United Nations
Martin Teicher, “The Neurobiology of Child Abuse” McClean Hospital
Martin H Teicher M.D., “Wounds That Time Won’t Heal: The Neurobiology of Child Abuse” Cerebrum, The Dana Forum on Brain Science
Michael Meaney and Gustavo Turecki, MD, PhD, “Epigenetics: when the environment modifies the genes” Douglas Mental Health University Institute
Cynthia Lee, “Childhood trauma has life-long effect on genes and the brain” McGill Newsroom
Susan Knapp, “Brain Changes Signifigantly After 18” Dartmouth News, Dartmouth College Office of Public Affairs