Think Again: Child Soldiers

What human rights activists never tell you about young killers.

Child Soldiering Is a Human Rights Issue. MUSTAFA ABDI/AFP/Getty Images Exploited and dangerous: Child soldiers are more than just a moral hazard.

Child Soldiering Is a Human Rights Issue. MUSTAFA ABDI/AFP/Getty Images Exploited and dangerous: Child soldiers are more than just a moral hazard.

It’s 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 World.

Who 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 two decades.

Most Child Soldiers Are African Boys.

Not 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 Militaries.

Only 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 forces.

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 Is Working.

You wish. The 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 agreement.

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.

The 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.

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