Like Toy Soldiers: Stopping the scourge of child recruitment

Author: Stefano Saldi

With over 250,000 children involved in armed conflicts around the world, the scourge of recruiting child soldiers today continues to be a harsh reality in several countries, also among national security forces. Children in many countries[1] are used as combatants, messengers, porters, cooks, suicide-bombers and are even forced to have sexual relations. Sometimes, a village may be forced to provide a certain number of children as soldiers in exchange for protection against other gangs or militias; some children are volunteered by their parents due to extreme poverty and hunger at home, lured by false promises of an escape from extreme poverty. Some children become soldiers simply to survive. In war-ravaged lands where schools have been closed, fields destroyed, and relatives arrested or killed, a gun is the assurance of a daily meal and a more attractive alternative to sitting home alone and afraid. For girls, recruitment will often lead to sex slavery: young girls abducted by rebel forces were commonly divided up and allocated to soldiers to serve as their “wives,”[2] often being impregnated on purpose, so that their babies’ organs can be harvested and trafficked in the black market. In most of the cases, however, they are brutally abducted from their homes and unlawfully forced to become soldiers.[3]

As children make up the majority of the population in several conflict-affected countries, there is a constant supply of potential recruits in a self-feeding system. By taking on these children, not only do the recruiters thwart the development of these children but they also stop the development of their own country and society at large.[4] Leila Zerrogui, Special Representative of the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict during the presentation of her annual report at the 28th Session of the Human Rights Council last March, welcomed the progress made since the launch, together with UNICEF, of the “Children, Not Soldiers”[5] campaign in March 2014, which enjoyed a large support across the board, including the endorsement by the Security Council in its Resolution 2143 (2014) but much work remains to be done. Although a consistent body of international humanitarian and human rights law provides special protection for children, the gap between legislation and implementation at the state level remains very large and armed conflicts continue to have a disproportionate impact on children.

Although States bear the primary responsibility to protect their populations, if they are manifestly failing in their duty to protect, the international community has the responsibility to take collective action to protect populations (R2P), initially including forms of leverage (e.g. pressure and sanctions by the UNSC or the African Union) or addressing the ICC. It is imperative that the African Union formulates an adequate comprehensive strategy to deal with this the scourge of child soldiers. An increased role of the African Union would help place greater responsibility on African states and help put pressure on deviant states and armed groups to comply with domestic, regional, and international law. In this context, ensuring accountability for child soldier recruiters becomes essential to deter their forced recruitment. Nowadays, too many perpetrators continue to evade accountability: not only does such impunity deny victims justice and reparations, but it also produces an environment conducive to the continuing perpetration of these crimes. Child recruitment is not inevitable and can be effectively prevented.[6]

As the target date for achieving the Millennium Development Goals draws near, the international community is carrying out discussions on how to shape a sustainable development agenda beyond 2015. Not only is it a moral duty, a matter of governance and sound economics, but an ethical responsibility to protect children from violence. This needs to be adequately reflected in the Post-2015 Development Agenda, as it is cross-cutting poverty eradication, education and development.[7] Furthermore, a universal respect for the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and its Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict should become the minimum common denominator and its ratification should become a priority for those States that have not already done so. Currently, 159 States are Parties to the Convention, 14 are only signatories and 24 still have not undertaken any action on regard.[8]

Finally, one of the consequences of child recruitment that requires special attention concerns how to deal with children who were compelled to commit war crimes. International law does not explicitly prohibit the prosecution of children who commit heinous crimes, including war crimes, but the CRC limits the punishment that a child can receive (Art. 37). As stated by the Paris Principles, children who partook in armed conflict “who are accused of crimes under international law allegedly committed while they were associated with armed forces or armed groups should be considered primarily as victims of offences against international law; not only as perpetrators.” In fact, it has to be kept in mind that in the near totality of cases, children do not choose to join armed forces, but are compelled to by various factors, and thus suffer from the “double trauma” of violence and guilt. When children are lucky enough to survive, a psychological mechanism of hate is inculcated in their hearts, as they have been desensitized to violence at a critical age for their formation and personal development. Even when they are set free or escape, many children are not allowed to go back home to their families and communities because they have been ostracized from them (cultural taboos, feelings of shame, or fear of rejection or punishment). They may have been forced to kill a family member or neighbor; many girls have babies from their time in the rebel groups, which is unacceptable to their communities and families. All have missed out on school. Without an education they have very little future prospects and sometimes return to the next rebel group so they can survive.

Detention might look as the easiest solution but does not seem to be the proper one, and it is definitely not the one that will ensure a long-lasting peace. Reintegration, instead, must be a priority in peace processes. Proper rehabilitation structures must be created in cooperation with community and religious leaders. to ensure that alternatives to brutal detention are available in law and implemented in practice in order to prepare children to return to mainstream society; if detention is unavoidable, it must be ensured that it meets international standards, as this could often lead to arbitrary or unlawful detention, torture, and other forms of ill-treatment, thus constituting a breach of the CRC. It is therefore critical for States to implement demobilization programs that also include proper support that will aid the return to psychological well-being in emotionally distressed child soldiers.

[1] According to UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon’s report to the 68th session of the General Assembly: Item 65, Promotion and protection of the rights of children



[3] Children are not the only victim of child recruitment; their parents, deprived of their loved ones are also to be considered victims.

[4] John Paul II, Address to the General Assembly of the United Nations (2 October 1979),

[5]This campaign seeks to end and prevent the recruitment and use of children by national security forces by 2016 and to fight impunity

[6] Statement delivered by the Holy See at the 24nd Session of the Human Rights Council – Item 3: Children and Armed Conflict, Geneva, 10 September 2013.

[7] As of today, the recruitment and use of child soldiers is only contained in Goal 8.7 “Take immediate and effective measures to secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour, eradicate forced labour, and by 2025 end child labour in all its forms including recruitment and use of child soldiers”, which is extremely generic and thus hard to be properly measured in its implementation. (

[8] Among the 14 signatories are: Central African Republic, Fiji, Gambia, Haiti, Iran, Lebanon, Liberia, Micronesia, Nauru, Pakistan, Solomon Islands, Somalia, Suriname, and Zambia, while Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Brunei Darussalam, Comoros, Cook Islands, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Mauritania, Myanmar, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Samoa, Sao Tome and Principe, South Sudan, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu, United Arab Emirates still have to take action. (