The recruitment and use of children is a trigger to list parties to armed conflict in the annexes of the annual report of the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict.
Tens of thousands of children are recruited and used as soldiers in armed conflicts around the world.
There are many ways for children to become associated with armed forces and groups. Some children are abducted and beaten into submission, others join military groups to escape poverty, to defend their communities, out of a feeling of revenge or for other reasons.
Combat and support roles
In many conflicts children take direct part in combat. However, their role is not limited to fighting. Many girls and boys are also used in support functions that also entail great risk and hardship.
Their tasks can vary, from combatants to cooks, spies, messengers and even sex slaves. Moreover, the use of children for acts of terror, including as suicide bombers, has emerged as a phenomenon of modern warfare. Each year, the UN receives reports of children as young as 8 or 9 years old associated with armed groups.
No matter their role, child soldiers are exposed to acute levels of violence – as witnesses, direct victims and as forced participants. Some are injured and have to live with disabilities for the rest of their lives.
Girls are also recruited and used by armed forces and groups. They have vulnerabilities unique to their gender and place in society and suffer specific consequences including, but not limited to, rape and sexual violence, pregnancy and pregnancy-related complications, stigma and rejection by families and communities.
Definition of a child soldier
A child associated with an armed force or armed group refers to any person below 18 years of age who is, or who has been, recruited or used by an armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to children, boys and girls, used as fighters, cooks, porters, spies or for sexual purposes.
(Source: Paris Principles on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict 2007)
A long healing process
Regardless of how children are recruited and of their roles, child soldiers are victims, whose participation in conflict bears serious implications for their physical and emotional well-being. They are commonly subject to abuse and most of them witness death, killing, and sexual violence. Many are forced to commit violent acts and some suffer serious long-term psychological consequences. The reintegration of these children into civilian life is an essential part of the work to help child soldiers rebuild their lives.
Within the UN system, UNICEF is in charge of the reintegration of former child soldiers and their first priority is to prepare them for a return to civilian life. Psychosocial support, education and/or training are important aspects of reintegration programmes. Attempting to reunite children with their families and communities are also essential, but sensitization and reconciliation efforts are sometimes necessary before a child is welcomed back at home.
The reintegration of former child soldiers is a long process, which needs extensive support from the international community. By helping children deeply affected by conflict, we contribute to building a peaceful future for their country.
Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict
In 2000, the UN General Assembly adopted the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict to protect children from recruitment and use in hostilities.
The Optional protocol is a commitment that:
- States will not recruit children under the age of 18 to send them to the battlefield.
- States will not conscript soldiers below the age of 18.
- States should take all possible measures to prevent such recruitment –including legislation to prohibit and criminalize the recruitment of children under 18 and involve them in hostilities.
- States will demobilize anyone under 18 conscripted or used in hostilities and will provide physical, psychological recovery services and help their social reintegration.
- Armed groups distinct from the armed forces of a country should not, under any circumstances, recruit or use in hostilities anyone under 18.
The Protocol entered into force in 2002 and has now been ratified by a majority of the world’s countries.
Prohibition under International Law
Human rights law declares 18 as the minimum legal age for recruitment and use of children in hostilities. Recruiting and using children under the age of 15 as soldiers is prohibited under international humanitarian law – treaty and custom – and is defined as a war crime by the International Criminal Court. Parties to conflict that recruit and use children are listed by the Secretary-General in the annexes of his annual report on children and armed conflict.
In 2014, with UNICEF, the Special Representative launched the campaign “Children, Not Soldiers” to bring about a global consensus that child soldiers should not be used in conflict. The campaign was designed to generate momentum, political will and international support to turn the page once and for all on the recruitment of children by national security forces in conflict situations.
The campaign received immediate support from Member States, UN, NGO partners, regional organizations and the general public. The UN Security Council and General Assembly welcomed “Children, Not Soldiers” and requested regular updates through the Special Representative’s reporting.
At the time of the launch, the countries concerned by the campaign were: Afghanistan, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Myanmar, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Yemen. Representatives from each of these countries attended the launch event and expressed their full support to reach the objectives of “Children, Not Soldiers”.
The campaign ended at the end of 2016, but the consensus envisioned is now a reality and thousands of child soldiers have been released and reintegrated with the assistance of UNICEF, peacekeeping and political missions, and other UN and NGO partners on the ground. All Governments concerned by the Campaign are engaged in an Action Plan process with the United Nations. Chad and the Democratic Republic of the Congo put in place all necessary measures to end and prevent the recruitment of children in their armed forces and are no longer listed.
National campaigns to promote the objectives of “Children, Not Soldiers” have been launched in most countries concerned and beyond.