Focus on child soldiers

NEWS RELEASES – The term ‘child soldier’ is well-known within international organizations, and attracts each year extensive media attention for the fundamental human rights violations the concept describes. The International Center for Peace and Human Rights (CIPADH) offers a quick retrospective on the phenomenon, first by defining it in legal terms, then by examining the current situation, and finally by zooming in on the conventions and treaties designed to combat the use of child soldiers internationally, and the controversies associated with these efforts.    


The very first convention passed regarding child soldiers dates back to 1990, when the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) ruled that “states Parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure that persons who have not attained the age of fifteen years do not take a direct part in hostilities” (Article 38). Since, this measure has been included in the Rome Statute (Article 8); the International Criminal Court (ICC) today considers the involvement of children in armed conflict a war crime, and it is one of the six great violations condemned by the UN Security council.  

The term ‘child soldier’ was defined by the United Nations in the 2007 Paris Principles on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, and makes reference to an individual below 18 years of age engaged in an armed group, or used for a military purpose. The age or sex of the child varies, and instances of four year old children involved in combat have been recorded in the past. [1] While some are coerced to join – for instance are kidnaped or brain washed-, others sign up in the hopes of escaping poverty and insecurity, or because of a sense of moral duty. [2] Children are believed to be more vulnerable to manipulation and coercion, which explains why they are specifically targeted. Furthermore, there are many recorded instances of sexual abuse, which significantly adds to the weight of violations associated with the use of child soldiers. [3]

Building on this somewhat vague definition, countries have ratified their own legal understandings of the term, which for instance within the US legal system reads:  “the term child soldier means (i) any person under 18 years of age who takes a direct part in hostilities as a member of governmental armed forces; (ii) any person under 18 years of age who has been compulsorily recruited into governmental armed forces; (iii) any person under 15 years of age who has been voluntarily recruited into governmental armed forces; or (iv) any person under 18 years of age who has been recruited or used in hostilities by armed forces distinct from the armed forces of a state; and includes any person described in clauses (ii), (iii), or (iv) who is serving in any capacity, including in a support role such as a cook, porter, messenger, medic, guard, or sex slave.” [4] In this sense, the American law defines the term ‘child soldier’ according to the age of the individual, the group of which they are a part of (governmental or independent), their way of entry (coerced or voluntarily), and their role within the group, taking into account the occurrence of sexual abuse.

Today, the UN has a ‘list of shame’ keeping record of armed forces guilty of recruiting children. Examples of these include the Afghan National Defense, the Talibans, the Lord’s Resistance Army in the Central African Republic, the “Forces Démocratiques de  Libération  du Rwanda” (who are accused of recruiting up to 219 children in 2015 alone, of whom 30% were under 15 years of age when recruited) or the “Groupe d’autodefense des Touaregs Imghad et leurs alliés” in Mali. [5] The reason for the UN’s implication in this issue, that takes form through investigations, the adoption of many resolutions by the Security Council, and the enactment of peace missions, is the human rights and international humanitarian law violations affiliated with the use of child soldiers. Indeed, this type of activity infringes upon many freedoms listed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for instance the right to life, freedom and security (Article 3) or against slavery and servitude (Article 4). Furthermore, research has shown that being a child soldier causes psychological trauma in the aftermath of conflict, implying a continuity of the suffering experienced by children involved with armed groups. [6] Additionally, this seems to be a wide-spread issue that impacts a great number of youths throughout the world. Frank Faulkner, in his work titled Kindergarten Killers: Morality, Murder and the Child Soldier Problem, argues that “child warriors are used in nearly three-fourths of all armed conflicts around the world”. [7]

Despite a seemingly broad-based international consensus, there is much controversy on the subject. To start with, the age of conscription, which was changed from 15 to 18 years old in 2005, has been at the heart of many debates, as the boundaries of age groups are considered to be culturally specific. [8] Furthermore, many scholars have argued that there are discrepancies in international law on the question of children’s involvement in armed conflict, because of the unpreparedness of human rights and humanitarian law to the emergence of this phenomenon. Moreover, different countries have ratified acts aimed to prevent the recruitment of minors in armed forces, which have because of national interests and cultural specificities notoriously contradicted each other. [9]

A recent development illustrating the controversial aspect of international efforts against the use of child soldiers occurred in November 2017, when US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson excluded Iraq, Burma, and Afghanistan from the State Department’s list of countries using child soldiers, despite evidence disagreeing with his decision provided by international organizations, non-governmental organizations, and US embassies. [10] By doing so, Tillerson hindered these three countries’ right to US military assistance, and mainly demonstrated that there is an important lack of international consensus on the question of child soldiers, making it difficult to enact effective peace-keeping efforts. [11] 

Overall, the concept of ‘child soldier’ thus has an established legal definition within different states’ and international organizations’ judicial systems, whose intention it is to combat this peculiar type of human rights violation, and insure children’s safety throughout the world. However, ambiguity over the phenomenon has been noticed by researchers in the field, who condemn the inadequateness of laws in protecting child soldiers. Although evidence pointing to the use of minors in armed combat has become rarer in recent years, the urgency to constitute more inclusive and independent action can be observed.  


By Manon Fabre – Research Assistant at CIPADH



[1] Child Soldiers International. “What are child soldiers?” Retrieved on December 12, 2017 from

[2] IBID

[3] IBID

[4] US Legal. “Child Soldier Law and Legal Definition”. Retrieved on December 12, 2017 from

[5] United Nations. “Children and armed conflict”. Retrieved on December 12, 2017 from

[6] DicksonGõmez, J. (2002). Growing up in guerrilla camp: The longterm impact of being a child soldier in El Salvador's civil war. Ethos, 30(4), 327-356.

[7] Faulkner, F. (2001). Kindergarten killers: Morality, murder and the child soldier problem. Third World Quarterly, 22(4), 491-504.

[8] Ryan, C. (2012). The children of war: child soldiers as victims and participants in the Sudan Civil War (Vol. 37).

[9] Fox, M. J. (2005). Child soldiers and international law: Patchwork gains and conceptual debates. Human Rights Review, 7(1), 27-48.

[10] Human Rights Watch. US Officials Call Out Tillerson on Child Soldiers. Retrieved on December 12, 2017 from

[11] IBID