In armed conflict people are always faced with a cruel and harsh reality that unfortunately does not hold back from often actively involving children. Especially Armed Non-State Actors (ANSAs) actively recruit young children under the age of 18, for the purpose of serving as soldiers in their group.
According to the non-binding Paris Principles on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict of 2007, (2.1) a child associated with an armed force or group is defined as “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. It does not only refer to a child who is taking or has taken a direct part in hostilities.”
International Humanitarian Law (IHL) includes various documents that prescribe the prohibition of child recruitment. For instance, the Additional Protocols (AP) to the Geneva Conventions clearly state that the recruitment of children under the age of 15 into armed forces is prohibited (AP I article 77(2), AP II article 4(3)(c)). Moreover, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) also includes the same prohibitive rule (UNCRC article 38) and due to it being the most ratified international treaty by all 193 UN-members, it enjoys customary IHL status (Bosch & Easthrope, 2012, p. 8). However, these international treaties and conventions can only be signed and ratified by states, since they can be the only parties and legitimate entities to such legal documents. Thus, situations in which children are being recruited as combatants by armed non-state actors are significantly more difficult to monitor and regulate, since such groups are not directly bound by the above-mentioned provisions.
Driving factors to join ANSA
Though it may seem obvious that the use of children in armed conflict is an awful and reproachable tactic, the truth is, that ANSAs correlate many advantages to the use of youngsters in their armed forces with a successful fighting strategy. They consider them as “less demanding soldiers than adults, ‘economically efficient’, cheaper to sustain, more impressionable, easier to indoctrinate, and when drugged act with irrational fearlessness.” (Bosch & Easthrope, 2012, p. 5). Moreover, children are able to fulfil a variety of important and supportive jobs as a soldier in an ANSA group such as serving as a spy, a human shield or a lookout for enemy activities.
In addition, the children themselves often see the joining of an armed group as their only way forward. Multiple factors have been established that seem to drive children into ANSAs. Some of them include family and/or community pressure, joining to take shelter from poverty and unemployment at home, girls taking shelter from forced marriage or even genuine political motivation. As a result, scholars have raised the problem of ‘voluntary’ recruitment, an excuse many armed groups use to exculpate themselves from the recruitment of children. The most prominent case in that regard is the one concerning Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, a militia leader of the Union des Patriotes Congolais (UPC) in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), who in 2012 was found guilty by the International Criminal Court (ICC) of having enlisted children under the age of 15 as soldiers for his militant organization. Though he insisted on the ‘voluntary’ joining of the children, most testimonials of child soldiers spoke about how they were abducted from school in order to take part in the armed operations of the militia. The driving factors paired with the latter example illustrate how the term ‘voluntary’ should be used with utmost caution in the context of child soldiers. The psychological aspect is a key factor that should not be ignored: on the one hand, concerning the children that feel they ‘have to’ join an armed group and on the other hand, concerning the armed group that takes advantage of the easy psychological manipulation of children. Thus, there are many groups that purposefully employ children.
Key problems for ANSAs compliance
Nevertheless, there are ANSAs that would be willing to make an effort in order to reduce or even eradicate the recruitment of child soldiers for their groups. However, they face various obstacles in that regard. First of all, many armed groups simply lack the needed legal knowledge to know that the use of children aged under 18 or 15 years is regarded as unlawful. Furthermore, one of the most recurring problems is the lack of efficient age verification when recruiting a potential child soldier. In war-torn regions, documentation like birth certificates is quasi non-existent and as a result, children without identification are more vulnerable to being (accidentally) recruited under-age by armed groups.
Both these important problems could be rectified by providing ANSAs with intensive legal training and training regarding the efficient investigation of a person’s age when written proof of age is lacking.
Although the task of bringing awareness to the ANSAs’ morally ambiguous tactic of recruiting children is a complicated undertaking, some international efforts have emerged. The most prominent and successful initiative was started by the humanitarian NGO Geneva Call in 2010: The Deed of Commitment. By agreeing to this Deed, ANSAs commit to prohibiting the use of children as fighters in conflict. Despite the Deeds of Commitment having no binding force in International Law at the current moment, Geneva Call has found ways to motivate ANSAs’ compliance with negotiated Deeds (Hafen, 2016, p. 899). This NGO has worked out concrete ways of supporting the education of ANSAs by, for instance, planning training workshops, providing educational material and helping to disseminate newly agreed policies throughout the whole group. Through its successful work on including ANSAs in the effective banning of landmines, Geneva Call had established a vast network of communication with non-state actors all across the world. This advantageous position helped the NGO when it decided to create a Deed of Commitment for the banning of child soldiers. It was able to use these established personal connections to set up a dialogue with the ANSAs in order to understand their perspectives on the matter and in turn promote awareness on the actual harms implicated in the practice (Somer, 2012, p. 108).
After an ANSA has signed such a Deed, Geneva Call is instrumental in supporting the group with its implementation and its monitoring. The observation of compliance is either done by providing the groups with a self-monitoring framework or by employing an own monitoring mechanism by obtaining information from third parties (Hafen, 2016, p. 1019).
The Deed of Commitment has yielded some positive results in the past years, such as the successful dissemination of banning child soldiers within the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) in Myanmar or the Alliance des patriotes pour un Congo libre et souverain (APCLS) in the DRC. However, many ANSAs still employ children as fighters today, as is for example the case in Syria’s People’s Protection Unit (YPG). Thus, Geneva Call should especially improve its monitoring mechanisms and expand its network in order to reach more non-state actors. Moreover, communication with fragmented groups has to be deepened as it is important for a group as a whole to follow the road towards a child soldiers ban. Furthermore, it is of utter importance for other NGOs and the international community in general, to actively support the work of Geneva Call. Only treating ANSAs with coercive measures does not yield long-term effective results. A more constructive way of communicating and educating those groups needs to be employed in order to affect change.
The most recent decision (May 2021) of the ICC in the Ongwen case showed that there are serious repercussions when a long-standing, brutal militia such as the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) tactically employs child soldiers. Nonetheless, it also showed that this phenomenon is a vicious circle: Ongwen was himself captured as a child to fight in the LRA and then went on to become a perpetrator as well. This circle needs to be broken in order for those children to have a proper chance at a trauma-free life.
Bosch, S., & Easthorpe, J. (2012). Africa’s toy soldiers, non-state armed groups, and ‘voluntary’ recruitment. African Security Review, 21(2), 4-19.
De Vise-Lewis, E., Schwarz S., & Mupenda, B. (2017). Tug-of-war: Children in armed groups in DRC. Amsterdam, London: War Child and Child Frontiers Ltd. Retrieved from https://www.warchild.org.uk/sites/default/files/link-files/tug-of war_children_in_armed_groups_in_drc_english.pdf
Hafen, S. (2016). Incentivizing armed non-state actors to comply with the law: Protecting children in times of armed conflict. Brigham Young University Law Review, 2016(3), 989-1042.
Somer, J. (2012). Engaging Armed Non-State Actors to protect children from the effects of armed conflict: When the stick doesn’t cut the mustard. Journal of Human Rights Practice 4(1), 106–127.