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Leonardo, Diamonds and Child Soldiers (Part II)

Why have international efforts to end the use of child soldiers been futile?

March 13, 2007

Why have international efforts to end the use of child soldiers been futile?

Although the recruitment and use of child soldiers is a flagrant violation of international law (as codified in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child), it doesn't seem to have much impact on their recruitment.

Child soldiers can be found on every continent of the globe. You can find them in Latin America, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and Asia. They have become an integral part of organized military units, rebel organizations and terrorist groups.

In Afghanistan, Burundi, Chad, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, Chechnya, Sri Lanka and Uganda, you can find children serving as combatants, raiders, porters, cooks and sex slaves.

As Singer's study demonstrates, child participation in armed conflict has become globalized. How many child soldiers there are in the world at any given time is unknown, but the figures tend to hover around 250,000 to 300,000 persons under 18 years old, with one-third of them serving in Africa.

Part of the problem is that much of the recruitment takes place in conflict-affected states that are also poor, fragile and have a very weak governance regime.

Children make particularly attractive recruits to non-state armed forces operating outside the bounds of national and international law because they are a low-cost way to build up their forces. In that way, they are mission-critical to help non-state armies counteract the inherent advantages that governments have in building their military forces.

In addition, child soldiers give these rebel groups a slight advantage in that most government-trained troops are taught not to shoot live ammunition at children. At the same time, weak governments are not above recruiting child soldiers as a means of quickly replenishing their forces. They do so in a pinch because they know that they can get away with it. The international community condemns the practice — but has yet to muster the wherewithal to take any punitive action against it.

In 2002, the International Criminal Court was created at least in part to reverse this trend. It is tasked with punishing those who violate the rules of war and are not punished by their own countries. In particular, the court has jurisdiction over the use of child soldiers, which is declared a war crime.

Although the United States did not join the ICC out of concern that American soldiers might be unfairly targeted for war crimes, 104 other countries did join the organization. With its own budget provided by member states, the ICC is independent of the UN, although the UN Security Council can refer cases to it. The court has four cases pending before it, all of which involve African countries — Sudan, Congo, Uganda and the Central African Republic.

The only warlord that the ICC has in its custody at the moment is the Congolese rebel leader Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, whose trial will begin later this year. He is being prosecuted solely for the forcible enlistment of children younger than age 15.

How these proceedings will affect the use of child soldiers in the future is unclear. When a conflict is still raging, it is difficult to collect information from former child soldiers because neither the court nor the government can guarantee their protection.

In addition, rebel leaders are less likely to release the children from service because to do so is to admit guilt — therefore making themselves susceptible to prosecution.

There is also an issue as to whether the court's efforts to serve justice are inadvertently undermining the prospects for peace and reconciliation. Moreover, when seeking to investigate and put on trial officials in a sitting government, the court's efforts are further complicated by the fact that it must rely on that government to cooperate with the investigation and hand over those officials responsible.

Dia and Beah were both children at war who survived and became peacefully productive citizens. Unfortunately, this is not the case for most former child soldiers. As Singer's study shows, many former child soldiers find themselves physically and psychologically damaged, with no help and no ability to make a living.

Rehabilitation programs like the one Beah went through tend to be woefully under-funded and not part of any peace settlement. So once the conflict is over, many of the former child soldiers end up on the streets, involved in crime — or are recycled as mercenaries in other conflicts.

To reverse the effect of their experience in conflict and to further their rehabilitation, children who have served in armed groups or been victims of armed conflict need help reintegrating into society. What Dia, Beah and Valentino most wanted after having escaped conflict was an education. Through education, they could better process what had happened to them and gain the skills necessary to become productive members of society.

At the moment, however, conflict-affected fragile states are the least likely countries in the world for a child to find a quality education. All three kids had to leave their countries in order to obtain an education.

According to UNESCO, there are 77 million children out of school, and over half of them are in conflict-affected, fragile states. International funding levels for education have gone up in recent years, but the money does not go to countries affected by armed conflict.

Through films, literature, the work of the United Nations and a variety of NGOs, the international community has been made increasingly aware of the fact that, in modern warfare, children are in effect doubly victimized. They become both the targets of armed conflict — and the perpetrators.

To be aware of the problem, however, is not to solve it, even when the solutions are known. As abhorrent as the practice is, children are plentiful, cheap, malleable and expendable tools of war. To end the practice will require sustained commitment, effort, innovation and funding.

Editor’s Note: You can read Part I here.