Children, Conflicts and the Military

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  • by Anup Shah
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"To kill the big rats, you have to kill the little rats."

This was broadcast by a Rwanda radio during the genocide in 1994, where some 300,000 children were said to be killed. (Cited from the UNICEF State of the World's Children 1996 report, section on Children in War)

"In the past decade, an estimated two million children have been killed in armed conflict. Three times as many have been permanently disabled or seriously injured."

The Invisible Soldiers: Child Combatants, Defense Monitor Brief, Center for Defense Information, Volume XXVI, Number 4, July 1997

Another aspect of military activities around the world which often goes unmentioned, is the use of children in the military and the effects military conflicts have. The easily available small arms make it easier for children to use weapons. In some countries, children as young as 10 have been recruited into a conflict. In many places children grow up knowing only violence as their parents inflict their anger from conflicts onto their children.

An often overlooked problem is also regarding the demobilization and reintegration into society of these children, who are often severely traumatized, after a conflict has ended -- especially when that society may be the very same one where these young children may have been forced to fight and kill.

The UN had been trying to get the Security Council to publicly condemn any military that uses children in any way for a conflict.

According to UNICEF: Recent developments in warfare have significantly heightened the dangers for children. During the last decade, it is estimated (and these figures, while specific, are necessarily orders of magnitude) that child victims have included:

  • 2 million killed;
  • 4-5 million disabled;
  • 12 million left homeless;
  • more than 1 million orphaned or separated from their parents;
  • some 10 million psychologically traumatized.

There are an estimated 120,000 child soldiers in Africa. This is nearly half the total of 300,000 around the world. In April 1999, there was a meeting in Maputo, Mozambique where a declaration to stop the use of child soldiers was made. Almost all the required number of countries to put it into effect have ratified it with the hope that it would be one more step to reduce and eventually eliminate the use of children as soldiers in Africa.

The International Labor Organization (ILO), in its 1999 Conference, proposed a Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention. While it had almost been adopted it failed to disallow the use of children in armed conflicts. This was because Australia, Austria, Belgium, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Luxembourg, Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, San Marino, Sweden, Turkey, United Kingdom and the United States were all opposed to the notion which would have prevented children under 18 from being involved in what Amnesty International describe as the most hazardous and exploitative forms of child labor.

However, at the beginning of 2000, after what Human Rights Watch termed as "the first time the United States has ever agreed to change its practices in order to support a human rights standard", a new accord was achieved banning the use of child combatants. It took over six years of negotiations, but governments agreed on a treaty establishing eighteen as the minimum age for participating in armed conflicts. The US has usually opposed eighteen as the minimum age, because it has routinely deployed seventeen year-olds to the fields of conflict.

But other countries still employ children in their military. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child has some additional optional protocols, such as the the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the involvement of children in armed conflicts.

  • The Protocol also clarifies that 18 years is the minimum age for direct participation in hostilities, for compulsory recruitment and for any recruitment by non-governmental armed groups.
  • However, many nations, including wealthy and powerful countries such as UK have contentious issues when it comes to such additional protocols, especially in terms of the use of child combatants.
  • For example as Amnesty International reported, the United Kingdom in June 2003, "formally ratified an important child rights treaty - pledging to try to avoid deploying its under-age soldiers into active combat - but then also undermined the treaty's purpose by reserving wide discretion to use young people in battle." In addition, Amnesty also noted that No other European country apart from the UK deploys under-18s. The Convention defines a child to be anyone under the age of 18 unless national laws indicate otherwise. In the UK's case, the age of 18 is the age to vote, and as Amnesty International states in another article this implies children in the UK are old enough to kill but too young to vote.

A report from the International Coalition to Stop the use of Child Soldiers, released June 2001, mentions that overall, the situation has improved in areas such as Latin America, the Balkans, and the Middle East in recent years, conflict levels have typically decreased (though not ended), while children are at risk in Africa and parts of Asia and the Pacific.

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  • by Anup Shah
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