ISSUE 23
Autumn 1998
Peace Matters index ONLINE contents
Crossing the ness

Remembering the killing fields
First World War Diary
Children and violence
Child soldiers
De-coding the image
Lifting the dead weight of habit

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child soldiers


Over 300,000 children under the age of 18 are currently taking part in wars around the world. Hundreds of thousands more are lawfully enrolled in governmental armed forces but despite a growing campaign to increase the age of recruitment the British Government, amongst others, continues to resist this change

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Semiautomatic rifles light enough to be used and simple enough to be stripped and reassembled by a child of 10. A single pull of the trigger is enough to release a steady stream of bullets

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

some fear youngsters from deprived areas or backgrounds could effectively be forced into a life in uniform - a form of economic press-ganging.

A number of factors have led to a steady increase in the use of children as soldiers. First, technological developments and the proliferation of weapons, especially small arms, have made semiautomatic rifles light enough to be used and simple enough to be stripped and reassembled by a child of 10. A single pull of the trigger is enough to release a steady stream of bullets. Moreover, these weapons are not expensive. In some countries at war, it may even be cheaper and easier to buy a gun than a book.
Second, the longer the conflict goes on, the more likely children are to be ‘recruited’, as the shortage of manpower, due to increasing casualties and escalation of the conflict, leads to an ever more desperate search for fresh recruits to fill the ranks. When they are not specifically sought out – for example, because they are perceived to make obedient soldiers – underage children may be taken because official recruitment procedures are not followed or because they have no identity papers showing how old (or rather, how young) they are.
Some children volunteer to join up: in order to survive, to prove their manhood, egged on by peers or a culture of violence, or driven by a desire to avenge atrocities committed against their family or community. This is, however, a broad interpretation of the term ‘volunteer’, as brutal circumstance leaves little room for genuine choice. In the case of children who volunteered to join armed opposition forces in their respective countries, research conducted for the UN by the Quaker UN Office in Geneva showed that the majority did so as a result of personal experience of ill-treatment of themselves or their families by government troops. Here, the lesson for governments engaging in internal repression is clear.
Although prevailing international law sets 15 as the minimum age for military recruitment and participation in armed conflict, there is widespread agreement that this age limit is too low and that it must be raised to 18. Although most countries prohibit recruitment and participation of under-18s, some have signalled their intention to continue to recruit 16 and/or 17-year-olds. The United States, for instance, the country most opposed to setting 18 as the minimum age for recruitment and participation, recruits a tiny number of 17-year-olds – less than one-half of one per cent of its armed forces. However, tens of thousands of 17-year-olds technically become members of the armed forces each year in a programme that allows youth to delay beginning military training for weeks or even months.
The United Kingdom, which continues to recruit 16-year-olds on leaving school, actually encourages youth to start the recruitment process while still at school, leaving only the formal enlistment for later. In a bid to swell the ranks of its overstretched and understaffed armed forces, the UK recently embarked on a recruitment drive of under-18s. If a 16-year-old is enrolled – normally for 22 years of service – he or she has the right to ‘buy out’ after three years. The three year period, however, only begins to elapse upon the recruit’s 18th birthday – this is known as the ‘five-year trap’. British soldiers under the age of 18 fought – and died – in both the Falklands conflict and the Gulf War.
In addition to the UK and the US, other countries that recruit under-18s include Australia, Austria, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brazil, Burundi, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Croatia, Cuba, Denmark, El Salvador, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Honduras, India, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Laos, Libya, Luxembourg, Mauritania, Mexico, Namibia, Netherlands, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Norway, Pakistan, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Republic of Korea, South Africa, Spain, Sudan, Uganda and Yugoslavia.

 


‘Jobless youngsters will be urged to join the armed forces as part of the programme which cuts benefit from young people who refuse work or training. The move—the closest any recent government has come to returning to National Service—has already been introduced in trial areas and is expected to be extended nationwide. The Ministry of Defence initiative is an innovative response to a shortfall of 9,500 recruits inherited from the last government. Ministers also believe the move will help increase the recruitment of ethnic minorities, who are massively under-represented in the armed forces. However, it is certain to raise unease among some critics who fear youngsters from deprived areas or backgrounds could effectively be forced into a life in uniform— a form of economic press-ganging.’
Stephen Castle, The Independent on Sunday, May 1998.
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