Conflict Beyond Their Years
Children in Armed Forces

Conflict Beyond Their Years

How more could be done to prevent children in armed forces?

Children remain children until they reach the age of 18 and because of spending an insufficient amount of years on the planet they are unable to make maturely responsible decisions, especially the one's which may involve risk or potentially harming themselves and others. This is the core of the argument to why under 18-year-olds, who are essentially still children, should not be allowed to be recruited into establishments where they will be inevitably forced to make such decisions and be put at physical and psychiatric risk, namely the police force and the army.

It comes as little surprise that the UN, with its dedication to the welfare of children, would endorse any decision to ban children from being able to join forces, which effectively trains them to kill. It can therefore be considered as a huge achievement when Afghanistan recently announced a prohibition of under-age police recruitment, a decision that was met with applause from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). Although there is a law in Afghanistan that requires recruits into establishments involved in armed conflict to be over 18, there was evidence of under-age recruits and an executive order from the Interior Ministry has banned these youngsters from entering the police and stipulates that all under-age recruits to be demobilized immediately, reintegrated into society and disciplinary action taken against recruiters.

Whilst any decisions and actions, which advocate the safety and well being of others, particularly children has to be seen as an achievement, huge mountains are still to be climbed if the world is to eradicate exploiting children in participating in armed conflict. In a press release, UNAMA said although it welcomed the order it, "hopes the Minister of Defense will follow with a similar decree to prevent the recruitment of children into the Afghan National Army."

What is the likelihood of such declarations being met and forces which continue to exploit 'child soldiers' being influenced by the UN's appeals and place a prohibition on such unethical acts? Or are children a too valuable tool in armies across the globe for political advantage to be disbanded from the military and thwarted from becoming soldiers until they reach 18?

Myanmar is a good case study as it has one of the highest numbers of children in both governmental and non-governmental armies in the world, it is one of the few countries remaining whose government continues to systematically use children, some as young as 11, in armed conflict. Although determining the degree to which children are exploited for military gain and subjected to violations and physical or psychiatric damage in Myanmar is difficult as the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) has imposed access restrictions on UN agencies. Despite these restrictions, which have arguably been imposed to prevent the UN from witnessing any neglect to child soldiers, some local and international NGOs have gained access into areas of conflict, and have reported many incidents of the imprisonment and abuse of child soldiers. Although we know that violations are occurring against children in armed forces in Myanmar, the UN is unable to "access and verify" such violations, let alone implement any grounding which prevents children from being recruited by the SPDC and other non-state armed groups into armed combat. In this sense, the UN is having little influence in abolishing policies that allow children to be involved in armed conflict in Myanmar.

Many governments, like Myanmar, despite announcing that they are against involving under-18s into armed conflict, continue to exploit young children for political gain and the use of children working in such circumstances remains widespread. Whilst the less 'sympathetic' may argue that recruiting youngsters into the police force and the army encourages a sense of public service, a sense of personal direction, discipline, comradeship and challenge, the most brutal consequences of such 'child labor' leads to children being used as spies, messengers and sexual slaves and being used for political advantage either in propaganda or as human shields.

In 1989 the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child declared: "State parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure that persons who have not attained the age of 15 years to not take a direct part in hostilities." This proclamation however ignored minors who are over the age of 15 but under the age of 18, and in 2002 an Optional Protocol was implemented by the Convention which stipulates that its State Parties, "Shall take all feasible measures to ensure that persons below the age of 18 do not take direct part in hostilities and that they are not compulsory recruited into their armed forces."

In order for the UN's convention to have greater effect and control over the situation and bring a greater likelihood of countries like Afghanistan stretching its prohibition of under-age police recruitment to the army, the Protocol should instead of stipulating that under 18s should not be 'compulsory' recruited into armed forces, but these children should be prohibited from joining, even if they volunteer. It is interesting that it is mostly people who come from severely disadvantaged backgrounds who are recruited into the armed forces. These disadvantaged children will often have little other options and view joining the army as their 'only option' and therefore willingly volunteer to be employed by armed forces, a far cry from the Convention's demands to prohibit 'compulsory recruitment'.

Whilst different countries have diverse laws regarding employing under-18s in such establishments, China for example accepts volunteers including girls at the age of 17, Japan claims not to recruit anybody below 18, the UK remains the only country in the EU to recruit 16-year-olds into the forces. If the UN stipulated a complete prohibition on all under-18s joining any armed forces, including as volunteers, then governments would be more likely to ban the unethical practice of children being involved in conflicts, which are well beyond their comprehension, maturity and years.

Gabrielle Pickard

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