Child Soldiering Is a Human Rights Issue.
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Exploited and dangerous: Child soldiers are more than just a moral hazard.
much more than that.
It is also a geostrategic and development issue. Child soldiers are usually
depicted as victims. That's accurate: Exploited, torn from their families,
deprived of their education, and forced into battle, child soldiers are truly
casualties of war.
But they're also assailants. Child soldiers are
cheap and efficient weapons in asymmetric warfare. Accounts from the field tell
of soldiers who are near free to recruit, cheap to feed, and quick to follow
orders. They aptly learn how to employ brutal tactics. The Revolutionary United
Front (RUF), a rebel group operating in Sierra Leone from 1991 to 2002, for
example, was notorious for raping and mutilating the civilian population. It
was often coerced children, and often high or drunk ones, who perpetrated the
acts. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, fighting for independence from Sri
Lanka, relied on children for their suicide bombing missions during their
decades-long campaign. At times, they found that children could much more
easily penetrate targets than their adult counterparts.
Trained and educated in the ways of guerrilla war, many
child combatants grow up in a world where brutality is the norm. The result is
a violent gift that keeps on giving -- today's Taliban leaders reputedly cut
their teeth in the field as child soldiers fighting the Soviets. In addition to
inducing psychological trauma, a violent childhood reduces healthy educational
opportunities, leaving militancy the only viable career path in later years.
War becomes a way of life.
There Are 300,000 Child Soldiers in the
knows? No one
has ever made a serious attempt at surveying the world's child soldier
population. This popularly cited number was touted by members of several child
advocacy groups in the mid-1990s as a way to attract attention to the plight of
child soldiers. But if this figure was ever true, it isn't now. Wars employing
child soldiers, such as those in Angola, Liberia, and Nepal, have ended; the numbers
have surely shrunk to match.
What would be more useful than a global number, however,
would be an individual assessment by country -- through which local and
international policymakers could assess the associated needs and threats.
Having 300,000 child soldiers in a world of 6.8 billion matters far less than
having 15 percent of a particular country's adolescent population engaged in
soldiering. Child soldiers have constituted more than a quarter of all
belligerents in many conflicts, including at least nine in Africa over the last
Most Child Soldiers Are African Boys.
even close. You
can forget about the popular image that the phrase child soldier
evokes: a pre-adolescent African boy, perhaps doped, wielding an AK-47 with
anger burning in his eyes. Many child soldiers are not armed combatants. They
include messengers, porters, spies, and sex slaves. So great is the diversity
of tasks that many advocates now prefer the less punchy but more accurate term,
children associated with fighting forces.
Nor does the gender distinction hold water. Recent
studies estimate that girls represent as high as 40 percent of fighters in some
armed groups. Girls have fought in nearly 40 wars in the last two decades. Like their male counterparts, girls do at times serve as combatants,
just as both genders are recruited for sexual enslavement.
Certainly, child soldiering is a global phenomenon,
not simply an African one. More than 70 military organizations in 19 countries
around the world recruited and used them in armed hostilities between 2004 and
2007. Burma is among the largest users of child soldiers, with the government
and rebel groups recruiting tens of thousands of children between them. In Colombia,
Nepal, and Sri Lanka, child soldiers have taken to the battlefield. In fact,
both Britain and the United States also recruit 17-year-olds, technically still
children, on the grounds that they are not allowed into combat (though both
have admitted to putting under-18s on the front lines in Afghanistan and Iraq).
Australia, Austria, Canada, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and New Zealand all
have similar policies.
Globalization Created Child Soldiering.
Wrong. Child soldiering is often
portrayed as something new -- a product of the post-Cold War flow of cheap guns
and money to the world's most failed states. In fact, child soldiers have been
around for millennia. The Spartans of ancient Greece, for example, relied
heavily on boys as young as seven. Later, the British Navy recruited young lads to
serve as cabin boys and cannon-prepping powder monkeys throughout
the 18th and 19th centuries. Large numbers of children fought on both sides in
the U.S. Civil War.
What has changed is our awareness of child soldiers,
boosted by monitoring, reporting, and even Hollywood spectacle. And this has
coincided with a dramatic change in the perception of childhood, at least in
the industrialized West, where early years are seen as a sacred time reserved
for innocence, learning, and play. The West's view of children as needing
nurture is an outlier in much of the rest of the world, where children are also
an economic resource -- on farms and in households, markets, and factories.
As for the role of the small-arms trade, although an
adolescent brandishing an AK-47 is certainly terrifying, most child soldiers
never touch a weapon. Besides, in many recent wars the old-fashioned machete
was preferred to the gun.
Child Soldiers Are No Match for Western
in conventional combat.
Asymmetrical conflicts, however, are another story. Take suicide bombing, which
child soldiers have carried out in the Palestinian territories, Iraq, Sri
Lanka, and Chechnya. There is little that trained soldiers can do other than guess
that a nearby child is in fact a suicide bomber. In Afghanistan, a 14-year-old
was responsible for the first killing of a NATO soldier -- likely just one of the
estimated 8,000 child soldiers who do or have worked as part of the Taliban's
Face to face with child soldiers in battle, Western
military forces are often befuddled as to what to do. Should they engage,
retreat, surrender, or attempt to disarm? The U.S. Army's war manual, for
example, offers no guidance on rules of engagement. The British Army only recognized
the problem after one of its patrols was captured by child RUF soldiers in
Sierra Leone, having been hesitant to attack the under-15-year-olds. Britain later
used pyrotechnics and loud explosions in that conflict to induce panic among
the ill-trained youngsters, many of whom would simply run away.
Our Current Approach to Ending Child Soldiering
international community primarily deals with child soldiers through deterrence
(prosecuting the adult recruiters) and demobilization (taking away the children's
guns and sending them home). Neither approach goes far enough.
In the first case, prosecutors hope to set an
example for future would-be offenders. But most recruiters think they will not
get caught. Others, knowing that only those who lose the fight get hauled
before international courts, desperately employ child soldiers to avoid defeat. Still others assume they
will be granted amnesty after a cease-fire. The Lord's Resistance Army in
Uganda is a perfect example. Elusive warlord Joseph Kony has employed child
soldiers since the 1990s without
being captured, and Ugandan officials privately admit that they might need
every carrot they can get (including amnesty) to negotiate a successful peace
Sending children home via disarmament,
demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) programs is another favorite method of
post-conflict planners. These programs are meant to get children and adolescents
out of armies and back where they belong -- in schools or in jobs. But here
again, results are mixed. Many organizers make the mistake of excluding girls
from their programs. They often fail to understand the local economy and
therefore train children for the wrong professions. In Liberia, for example,
too many ex-combatants were educated as carpenters and hairdressers. Nor do the
programs target the roots of intergenerational violence that will long outlast
the active fighting. DDR initiatives are often too short term to do much more
than superficial training, as even officials from the U.S. Agency for
International Development will admit.
biggest challenge of all in ending child soldiering lies in the types of
conflicts that employ the young. Children tend to be recruited in brutal,
long-running civil wars, the kind that simmer for years or even decades. Unfortunately,
these wars constitute the main form of armed conflict today. Until they stop, the
recruitment of children never will.