Child soldiers – a global problem and a war crime

Article, 26.09.2013

According to the UN definition, child soldiers are persons under the age of 18 who participate in an armed conflict either directly or indirectly as members of an armed force or group. Children of both sexes serve not only as combatants but also as cooks, guards, porters or messengers and may be deployed on suicide missions. Girls are often sexually abused or victims of forced marriages.

According to UN data, there are over 300,000 children of both sexes deployed worldwide as child soldiers.

Worldwide more than 50 organisations or groups at present recruit child soldiers. The recruitment and deployment of child soldiers under the age of 15 is a war crime according to the Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court in The Hague (Netherlands).

A global problem
According to UN data, there are over 300,000 children of both sexes deployed worldwide as child soldiers. They are serving in both the armed forces of states and in rebel groups. Although the situation is particularly critical in Africa and Asia, children under 18 are also being recruited in Europe, North, Central and South America as well as in the Middle East. Furthermore, many children are enrolled in armies and militant groups that are at present inactive.

Legal framework and protective measures
Legal age limits for the recruitment and deployment of soldiers in an armed conflict have existed since 1977:

  • Additional Protocols to the four Geneva Conventions (1977):
    The minimum age for recruitment and deployment in war is set at 15 years.
  • UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989):
    The convention sets the minimum age for recruitment and deployment in an armed conflict at 15 years. This is the most ratified of all human-rights treaties, with 193 states committed to its implementation. Only the United States and Somalia have not signed the convention, which has been augmented by three additional protocols. One of these, which came into force on 12 February 2002, is intended to provide greater protection for children in armed conflicts. It sets a minimum age of 18 years for direct participation in warlike conflicts, recruitment into armed groups and obligatory military service.
  • African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (1990):
    This is the only treaty of a regional nature that addresses the subject of child soldiers. It prohibits the participation in combat of persons under the age of 18 and asks the States Parties to desist from recruiting child soldiers.
  • Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (1989):
    The Statute prohibits the deployment of children under the age of 15 in armies and armed groups or in any kind of combat. It also makes the recruitment of soldiers under 15 a war crime.

In 2005, the UN Security Council established a Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism (MRM) to systematically monitor, document and report abuses. It identified six categories of violations, the so-called «Six Grave Violations», as the basis on which to gather evidence:

  • Killing or maiming of children
  • Recruitment or use of children as soldiers
  • Sexual violence against children
  • Attacks against schools or hospitals
  • Denial of humanitarian access to children
  • Abduction of children

The most recent relevant UN report, «Children and armed conflict: Report of the Secretary-General» (May 2013) provides a list of countries that have committed at least one of the six grave violations. The 17 countries and regions listed include Afghanistan, Myanmar, Syria, Sudan and South Sudan.

In Southern Sudan prior to independence some 12,000 children were enrolled in armed groups at the end of the civil war in 2005. Today there are about 1200, but the recruitment of child soldiers continues. According to the UN report on children and armed conflict for 2013, 252 children aged between 14 and 17 had been recruited as child soldiers in the previous year, of which 106 by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).

In 1996, the UN for the first time designated an official for the protection of child soldiers. The current Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict is Leila Zerrougui.

Sudan People’s Liberation Army: from a guerrilla group to a government party

The beginning of the SPLA goes back to 1983 when John Garang, formerly the head of a Sudanese military academy, changed sides and joined a guerrilla group to fight for the independence of the non-Muslim south of the country against the Islamist government in Khartoum. In the civil war of 1983–2005, the government’s Sudan Armed Forces fought against the rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).

On 9 January 2005, the Khartoum government and the SPLA signed a Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), stipulating that after a period of six years the people of the South would decide either to remain with the North or to found an independent state. John Garang subsequently served as Vice President of Sudan. In January 2011, more than 90%of the southern voters opted for independence, and South Sudan was officially constituted as Africa’s 54thnation on 9 July 2011. John Garang was killed in a helicopter crash in 2005.