Armed conflict hurts not only combatants, but also civilians and in many cases the most vulnerable among them. A significant and a very disturbing case is that of child soldiers. It is unforgivable that in the 21st century children are not protected from the evils of war and even worse are recruited to become combatants, ending as both victims and perpetrators of war crimes.
It is estimated that there are nearly a quarter of a million child soldiers around the world, and in current conflicts seven governments and 49 non-state groups are engaged in this deplorable practice. Children are recruited in various places of the world, especially in Africa and in the Middle East. As consequence of the protracted turmoil in the MENA region, it witnesses an increase in this phenomenon in countries such as Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen and South Sudan.
The long-term physical and psychological damage to these young people is immeasurable and will most likely stay with them for the rest of their lives. Misusing children under the age of 18 as fighters, suicide bombers, human shields, messengers, spies, slave labour and also sexually exploiting them is inexcusable, as it wrecks the lives of these children and also their societies.
As one would expect, the more underprivileged children in society are, the easiest prey for would-be predators to force them into becoming child soldiers. In most cases children are recruited by force. Most commonly they are abducted following raids on villages and towns, sometimes even in their own schools. From there they are forced onto lorries and then either sent straight into battle or to training camps.
The harrowing accounts by former child soldiers regarding their experiences of the abuse they suffered and inflicted on others, requires a coordinated and integrated response by the international communityYossi Mekelberg
These children can be as young as 10 years old and sometimes even younger. The notion that some of them are joining of their own volition is extremely misleading. Applying the judgement of an adult, who can assess the full risks involved in being a soldier, to a child is utterly spurious.
Moreover, the prevailing perception, especially among male children in these type of situations, induced by interesting parties, is that without enlisting they are easy targets for rival groups and will end up being killed. This creates pressure from the immediate social environment, which is almost impossible to resist. When they are already in the heart of the battle, it is next to impossible for them to leave.
General Dallaire’s trauma
I recently had the great privilege of hosting a talk by General Romeo Dallaire, former force commander of the UN Mission to Rwanda during the 1994 genocide; a genocide that left more than 800,000 people dead, many of which were children. Not being able to prevent this horrendous mass slaughter of the innocent, traumatized him personally, but at the same time made him the driving force behind the UN endorsement of the concept of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P).
R2P puts the onus on states and their governments to protect populations from mass atrocity crimes. When states fail to do so, it is the responsibility of the international community to take timely and appropriate action to defend civilians. For nearly a decade now, he set himself the mission, of eradicating the recruitment and use of child soldiers worldwide, through the development of new strategies and tactics.
Two of the most important pillars of his initiative have been to advance early warning mechanisms when children are at risk of being recruited as soldiers and to educate governments and rebel groups as to the futility of this practice. As a former soldier he tries persuade them that, putting aside the morality of the issue, it is also counterproductive to their own interests. On both fronts this initiative has had a considerable success.
Whatever dubious merits recruiting child soldiers might have, international law has made it crystal clear that the practice is illegal. Moreover, the 2015 UN sustainable goals has reiterated the need to confine using children as combatants to history. International humanitarian law states categorically that the recruitment or use of children under 18 in a conflict is prohibited. It is a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, to which a number of the countries that violate it belong.
World of abuse
The harrowing accounts by former child soldiers regarding their experiences of the abuse they suffered and inflicted on others, requires a coordinated and integrated response by the international community. Child soldiers that escaped hostilities or were released, tell horror stories about the killing in battlefields, murder of child soldiers by their own commanders to ensure total obedience by others, rape and use of children as sex slaves, not to mention many other forms of violence and torture.
There is no single measure to stop children from turning into soldiers. However, self-evidently, as a recent UNICEF report argues, there is a need for the introduction of a range of policies, which would prevent recruitment of children in the first place to military activity. Doing so should take into account that the absence of peace, broken societies, poverty, authoritarian regimes, and even the lack of universal birth registration – all are major contributors to the persistence of the phenomenon of child soldiers.
Furthermore, no peace agreement should ignore the need to demobilize children from the warring sides and sensitively address, without stigma, the rehabilitation and reintegration of them, for their sake and for the sake of their own societies. Bringing to justice those who destroy the childhood of so many must become a priority.
In the debate around child soldiers it is of grave importance to ensure that the education system is protected. Without schools serving as safe havens of normality and physical and psychological support, the phenomenon of child soldiers will persist. After all, children who go to school are the ones who will secure a better future for their societies, not the ones that carry AK-47.
Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.