The story of Ahmed, the 8 years old boy fighting in the Syrian civil war, has shocked and saddened the whole world. With both his parents dead in a mortar strike in Salaheddin, Ahmed said that he ended up as a fighter, as he could not foresee any other alternative to the cruel reality surrounding him: no family, no school, and no protection. But Ahmed is not the only child fighting a war or carrying a gun that he cannot even hold in his hands: According to the UN between 250.000 and 300.000 children are in combat throughout the world, primarily in Africa but also in Colombia, Burma, Nepal and Lebanon.
Throughout history children have been used in military campaigns. Starting with the 1970s, international conventions have tried to limit the participation of children in armed conflicts. For example the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 37 proclaimed that "State parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure that persons who have not attained the age of 15 years do not take a direct part in hostilities." Under war, civil unrest, armed conflict and other emergency situations, children and youths are also offered protection under the United Nations Declaration on the Protection of Women and Children in Emergency and Armed Conflict. Nevertheless, children are still being used as soldiers, for example in Rwanda, Uganda, Afghanistan, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.
A child soldier is usually defined as any person who is under 18 years old and has been recruited by an armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to children, boys and girls, used as fighters, cooks, porters, messengers or spies.
The way child soldiers live is very tough and dangerous. They are used as messengers, bearers and spies and they have to behave just as a normal soldier: they learn how to use weapons, how to place explosives. They are victims and at the same time perpetrators, having to kill their relatives or friends if they are required to do so. For example in Afghanistan insurgent groups use children as fighters whereas in Colombia thousands of children fight in Colombia’s irregular armed groups, with the majority of them serving the FARC guerrillas. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, children serve in the government’s armed forces as well as various rebel forces. Iraq is also an example of child soldiers, where Al-Qaeda recruits children to spy, transport military supplies, plan explosive devices and participate in attacks against security forces and civilians. In Darfur over a dozen armed forces use child soldiers, including the Sudanese Armed Forces, pro-government militias and factions of the rebel Sudan Liberation Army, whereas in Yemen government forces have recruited children as young as 14.
The motivations of children fighting wars include many reasons. They do it because they have no other choice but to respect the orders of the violent forces in a specific country, and disobedience is considered betrayal of the country and its interests. Another reason is related to the fact that if children join an army they are given food, shelter, clothing or money. The fact that children from these parts of the world, where violence is a reality of current life, have to choose among kill or being killed is a dramatic outcome of never-ending conflicts. Another reason for children to engage in fighting is to avenge the deaths of family members. The outcomes of participating in these kind of conflicts is that these children will be left with psychological traumas that will prevent them from leaving the fight, and of course will negatively impact their lives, as they would come to drink alcohol, steal, murder, rape and participate in all kinds of violence.
Ending the use of child soldiers by states is possible, but this requires a greater investment in reducing the risks, even before boys and girls are used by the military. Real prevention means that these problems should be addressed starting from the recruitment phase along with a global ban on the military recruitment of any person below the age of 18 years. To assess where and why children are at risk of being used in armed forces of states, and to identify suitable measures to reduce these risks, Child Soldiers International has developed a “Ten-Point Checklist to prevent the involvement of children in hostilities in state armed forces and state-allied armed groups”.
Even though it is the duty of the states to prevent children being involved in fighting, the UN should also try to improve its actual responses to encourage states to eliminate the risk of children used in hostilities. UN bodies, International Non-Governmental Organizations, Associations for the Protection of Human Rights and even civilians can contribute to this process: Firstly by raising awareness towards these issues, and secondly by developing mechanisms and allocating resources to work with states and to assess where risk exists and develop strategies to minimize these risks. Strengthening these processes and mechanisms to achieve maximum impact should remain a high priority.
Photo Credits: Child Soldier 7 by Art-fire via deviantart