AustLII Home | Databases | WorldLII | Search | Feedback

ALTA Law Research Series

You are here:  AustLII >> Databases >> ALTA Law Research Series >> 2010 >> [2010] ALRS 10

Database Search | Name Search | Recent Articles | Noteup | LawCite | Author Info | Download | Help

Freeland, Steven --- "How international law deals with child soldiers" [2010] ALRS 10

Last Updated: 16 September 2011

How International Law Deals with Child Soldiers

Professor Steven Freeland, Law School, University of Western Sydney
February 2010

I. Introduction

On 24 November 2009, the trial of two alleged former rebel leaders from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Germain Katanga and Mathieu Chui, commenced in the International Criminal Court (ICC). Both have been charged with various crimes against humanity and war crimes, including sexual slavery and using children under the age of 15 to participate actively in hostilities. The trial of another Congolese rebel leader, Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, is also progressing at the ICC, Lubanga having been charged with war crimes relating to the conscription and enlisting of children under 15 and using them to participate in hostilities.

At the same time, the Special Court of Sierra Leone (SCSL) is also dealing with various issues relating to the use of children as participants in armed conflict. In 2007, three leaders of the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council were each found guilty on 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, which included conscripting or enlisting children under the age of 15 into armed forces or groups, or using them to participate actively in hostilities, as well as enslavement. This marked the first occasion that an international tribunal has definitively ruled on the charge of recruitment of child soldiers into an armed force. The accused in that case were sentenced to 50, 45 and 50 years imprisonment respectively, the SCSL noting that:

‘[c]hildren were forcibly taken away from their families, often fed on drugs and used as child soldiers who were trained to commit other brutal crimes against the civilian population. Those child soldiers who survived the war were robbed of a childhood and most of them lost a chance of an education.’

Of even greater significance, the SCSL is currently trying the former President of Liberia, Charles Taylor, for a number of similar crimes. This action against a former political leader of a country sends a message that no individual can any longer assume to be beyond the reach of justice in relation to crimes against children.

Even though these various judicial proceedings deal with conflicts that have taken place in Africa, it would be a mistake to think this is just an ‘African’ problem. Child Soldiers are used in places as geographically diverse as Columbia, Haiti, the countries of the former Yugoslavia and Sri Lanka. The military regime in Burma, for example, can only survive due to the strength of its armed forces, a quarter of which are children under the age of 18. The vast majority of these soldiers have been forcibly recruited. Human Rights Watch estimates that Burma has the largest number of Child Soldiers in the world.

All of these examples highlight what has become a tragic phenomenon of our time – the widespread use of, and participation by minors in the conduct of armed conflict and other hostilities. Young boys and girls, who under international law are regarded as ‘children’, volunteer or, more frequently, are forcibly ‘recruited’ into government forces or militia groups and subsequently involved in the commission of serious – sometimes heinous – crimes.

This is not a ‘new’ problem. Children have been used in conflict for decades, if not centuries. But alarmingly the situation appears to be worsening. There have been many warning signs demanding that international law establish a more stringent regulatory regime to deter the recruitment and use of children as weapons of war. Yet, sadly, this has not happened, primarily due to the highly sensitive and political nature of armed conflict. Indeed, it is only relatively recently that international law has been specifically directed towards addressing it.

II. The Extent of the Child Soldier Problem

In 1900, it was estimated that civilians represented approximately 5 percent of the casualties of conflict. By the time of the Second World War, this figure had risen to approximately 65 percent. Human rights groups now calculate that approximately 90 percent of all casualties in recent armed conflicts have been made up of civilians, of which 40 percent are children.

In addition, however, children are increasingly being forced to actively participate in the conflict as Child Soldiers. It has been conservatively estimated that, at any one time, there are approximately 300,000 children participating in active conflict, though these figures in all likelihood significantly understate the true position. In 2004, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers found that children were ‘fighting in almost every major conflict, in both government and opposition forces.’

In addition to the estimated 300,000 children who engage in actual military conflict, another 500,000 are ‘conscripted’ into paramilitary organizations, guerilla groups and civil militias in over 85 countries. As well as serving as fighting troops on the front line, they serve in other ‘indirect’ roles such as sex slaves, porters, cooks, spies, and perform dangerous tasks such as planting land mines.

Children are ‘attractive’ participants in armed conflict for a number of reasons. They can be intimidated and ‘molded’ relatively easily, are vulnerable to outside influences and can be trained to become efficient soldiers. They can more readily be made to perform the most dangerous (and brutal) of tasks, if not through sheer intimidation, then under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

The proliferation of effective small arms and lightweight weapons such as the ubiquitous AK47 – equally deadly in the hands of a child trained to use them - means that they can be deployed in active combat without any apparent ‘hardware’ disadvantages. The United Nations Security Council has noted in the past the dangers posed by the illicit trade in ‘small arms’ and the special relationship that this has with the problem of Child Soldiers.

Adding to the enormity of the problem, the world continues to be wracked by armed conflict. Between 1990 and 2007, 16 of the world’s 20 poorest countries – where the use of Child Soldiers is particularly prevalent - endured violent internal conflict. Recruiting children becomes an easy way to make up for shortages of personnel caused by death or injury.

While many government and paramilitary commanders around the world claim that they cannot stop the flow of children ‘volunteering’ to join their ranks, in most cases the use of the term ‘volunteer’ is a complete misnomer. It is usually the case that extreme circumstances – hunger, poverty, abandonment, the death of parents and family, disease and the lack of even basic medical services or the threat of violence or property confiscation – will leave a child little choice but to offer his/her services to a ‘cause’. The very nature of armed conflict and its adverse effects on the livelihood of communities and destruction of the natural environment merely fuels further this vicious cycle of poverty and violence.

III. What is a ‘Child’ Soldier?

International law defines a child simply in terms of age. The 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (CROC) generally regards a child as any person below the age of 18 years. In relation to the international law principles directly regulating the issue of Child Soldiers, age is also the relevant determining factor. Similarly, all other international law provisions dealing with Child Soldiers are made dependent on the age of the relevant individual(s).

This raises the rather complex question of ‘how old is a child’, particularly (though not only) in relation to the question of his/her participation in conflict. While the use of an objective criterion such as age is relatively simple for definitional purposes, it does not take account of cultural values that will be determinative, in specific societies, as to whether the person has achieved adulthood. Many societies have initiation or ‘rites of passage’ ceremonies that form the basis of an individual’s transformation from a child to an adult. While some of these are themselves based on the specific age of the person, it is clear that the requisite age may differ from the arbitrary levels set at international law.

Moreover, there are other cultures where the transformation from a child to an adult will be achieved by a specific act(s) irrespective of the age of the individual. Of particular relevance to the question of Child Soldiers, participation in warfare constitutes a rite of passage in some societies. There may therefore be situations where the very act of playing a role in warfare or armed conflict will of itself deem that person not to be a child in the eyes of the community. Indeed, there are societies where having a status akin to that of a ‘warrior’ may be regarded as a positive attribute.

These factors are not taken into account by the regulations prescribed under international law, though they are, or at the least should be relevant in relation both to the way in which the criminality or otherwise of the actions of that person is to be regarded and the consequences – including any possible sentence - that may arise.

IV. The Regulation of Child Soldiers at International Law

There are a number of fundamental international law instruments that are directed towards the regulation of Child Soldiers. The majority of relevant instruments set standards for States in their recruitment practices of young persons. Some other instruments deal with the ‘criminalization’ of certain actions relating to Child Soldiers – either conscripting or enlisting them or forcing them to participate in hostilities, or with respect to the acts perpetrated by the Child Soldier him/herself.

(a) The Prohibition and/or Restriction of the Recruitment of Child Soldiers

Prior to 1977, international law did not deal directly with the issue of children participating in armed conflict, although the 1949 Geneva Conventions afforded children protection (as civilians) during times of armed conflict. As the issue of Child Soldiers began to come within the international political agenda, the international community has, however, more recently sought to address the problem directly. Various fundamental instruments have been agreed, providing a progressive (although not always consistent) series of international standards. These are briefly noted below (in chronological order).

1977 Additional Protocols to the 1949 Geneva Conventions

These provisions were introduced largely in reaction to the growing realization within the international community that children were being used as active forces in war and armed conflict. They are binding on governmental and opposition groups. However, the standards were set at ‘low’ levels – they set the minimum age for the recruitment and use of children in armed conflict as 15 years and States Parties are only required to take ‘all feasible measures’ to comply with the provisions.

1990 African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child

The African Charter came into force on 29 November 1999 and is the only regional instrument in the world that currently addresses the issue of Child Soldiers. Its adoption reflects the disastrous consequences that the use of Child Soldiers brings to whole communities within a significant number of States in the African continent. It is therefore highly appropriate that steps continue to be taken in Africa to inform the world about the extent of the problem.

Of all the international law instruments currently dealing with the use of Child Soldiers, the African Charter sets the highest standards. It sets a ‘without exception’ minimum age of 18 years and has stronger language – ‘all necessary measures’ – than other instruments. The tragic reality is that these laudable standards are not currently being complied with by a number of African Member States.

1989 Convention of the Rights of the Child

CROC provides rules in relation to the active participation of children and their recruitment. The language used is generally reflective of the provisions set out in the 1977 Additional Protocols. The provisions of CROC also set a minimum age of 15 years for ‘direct’ participation or recruitment. This seems an anomaly when one considers the overall context of CROC and the fact that it defines a child as any person under 18 years.

Indeed, the inclusion of this minimum age in CROC itself was highly controversial and led to contentious debate during the drafting stages. States such as the United States, the United Kingdom and France objected to 18 being set as a minimum age, due to the fact that these and other States regularly recruit people below that age into their armed forces.

1999 International Labour Organization Convention No. 182 on the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour

This instrument came into force on 19 November 2000. Interestingly the United States, which is one of only two States (the other being Somalia) that has not ratified CROC, played an important role in the drafting and finalization of this instrument.

Under the terms of this Convention, a child is defined as a person under the age of 18 years. States Parties to the instrument are under an obligation to take immediate and effective measures to secure the prohibition and elimination of the ‘worst forms of child labour’, which includes:

‘(a) ... all forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery, such as the sale and trafficking of children, debt bondage and serfdom and forced or compulsory labour, including forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict’

2000 Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict

This is the most recent international instrument that elaborates on standards in relation to the recruitment of children into armed forces. It was formulated in conjunction with another important instrument relating to the welfare of children – the 2000 Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Sale of Children, Child Pornography and Child Prostitution. Both of these instruments were adopted by consensus by the United Nations General Assembly on 25 May 2000 and came into force in early 2002.

The two Protocols were formulated to strengthen international standards in relation to specific areas where children were particularly vulnerable. Nevertheless, in certain important respects the 2000 Children in Armed Conflict Protocol represents somewhat of a disappointment. The opportunity was missed to provide appropriate universal standards for the new millennium. The instrument recognizes ‘a need to increase the protection of children from involvement in armed conflict’, but it is clear that the spectre of realpolitik continues to play a significant role in these areas – even though the protection of the child should be the overriding concern. While the terms of the 2000 Children in Armed Conflict Protocol raise the minimum age to 18 for non-government armed forces, they fall short of the standards set by some of the previous instruments in relation to recruitment into State armed forces.

Instead, the 2000 Children in Armed Conflict Protocol raises the minimum age of compulsory recruitment to 18 years, but allowing for voluntary recruitment at a younger age. States are obligated to raise – to some undefined level - the age of voluntary recruitment from 15 years. As noted above, most of the ‘voluntary’ recruitment that takes place does not reflect a genuine expression of the child’s free will and, in any event, it will often be difficult to prove a child’s age at the time they volunteer.

Overall, the 2000 Children in Armed Conflict Protocol represents an important element in the international law regime that seeks to prohibit and/or restrict the recruitment of Child Soldiers. The very fact that it has been introduced and is increasingly accepted by States indicates that the use of children in armed conflict is no longer a problem that the international community can ignore. Civil society and human rights groups now have another legal ‘weapon’ with which to pressure States to address the problem more directly. States are under more specific legal obligations to act than they had been previously.

Yet, the 2000 Children in Armed Conflict Protocol suffers due to the inherently political nature of recruitment practices for the armed forces of many States. In addition, voluntary recruitment of children is still permitted at international law. Indeed, many developed countries of the world, including the United States, United Kingdom and Australia, permit children under the age of 18 to join their armed forces. While recruitment in these countries would be on a ‘genuinely voluntary’ basis, other so-called instances of ‘volunteering’ are obviously not.

What is required is more determined international action. Political reality means that this can only be lead by the developed countries setting an example, so that the real offenders cannot hide behind a ‘people in glass houses’ type of argument. It is here that Australia should take positive action, consistent with Government’s clear desire to promote this country as a leader when it come to addressing issues of global concern.

The Australian Defence Force continues to maintain a minimum voluntary recruitment age of 17 years, provided that those volunteering have the written informed consent of their parents or guardians. The benefit to Australia of such under-age recruitment is minimal – yet changing this policy and speaking out against the use of children in war would represent a real opportunity for Australia to come to the fore in this debate. It would cost us very little, promote us very positively and give us some real moral authority on this issue, which is currently lacking.

If there were more concerted efforts like this to set positive examples, as well as to improve the enforcement mechanisms, those regimes and militia that currently rely on the use of children to fight their wars may begin to decline. In this regard, Australia has the opportunity to play an integral role in the protection of current and future generations of innocent children around the world, but our voice will not be heard as it should if our hands are not seen to be absolutely clean.

(b) The Criminalization of the Recruitment of Child Soldiers

The rules of international criminal law embody a legal regime that defines certain ‘international crimes’ and provides for the individual criminal responsibility of those who commit these crimes. The international criminal judicial bodies are given a specific jurisdiction over particular international crimes in accordance with the terms of their respective constituent documents. The inclusion, within the jurisdiction of tribunals created by the international community, of a specific crime directed towards the recruitment of children for active participation in armed conflict therefore represents an appropriate ‘law-making’ role for the international community.

The International Criminal Court

The Rome Statute was finalized in July 1998 and came into force on 1 July 2002. It established for the first time a permanent international criminal tribunal to try persons charged with committing various international crimes.

The activities of the ICC reflect the desire of the international community that ‘the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole must not go unpunished’. The mandate of the ICC is ‘complementary’ to that of States, meaning that the Court is to be regarded as a court of last resort. It has jurisdiction with respect to the following crimes committed after 1 July 2002:

  1. The crime of Genocide;
  2. Crimes Against Humanity;
  3. War Crimes;
  4. The [as yet undefined] crime of Aggression

Within the definition of the crime of war crimes, the Rome Statute specifies that the recruitment of (certain) Child Soldiers would constitute a crime. In the context of an international armed conflict, the definition includes:

‘[c]onscripting or enlisting children under the age of fifteen years into the national armed forces or using them to participate actively in hostilities’

This is repeated in the definition of war crimes in the context of an armed conflict not of an international character, except that in those circumstances it applies to recruitment into ‘armed forces or groups’ rather than ‘the national armed forces’.

When one considers the relevant war crimes definitions in the Rome Statute, one is struck by the minimum age limit. It is difficult to reconcile the apparent desire of the international community to protect children under the age of 18 from participating in armed conflict with the criminalization of recruitment activities only in respect of children below the age of 15 years. One can surely accept an argument that the recruitment or use of children of, for example, 15 years of age does constitute (in the absence of other factors that may properly negate criminal responsibility) an action that is at odds with the basic norms that have now been set by the international community. Such an action could and should constitute an international crime and the definitions in the Rome Statute should be ‘upgraded’ accordingly. Yet, to open up for discussion the definition of this aspect of war crimes would almost certainly invite a wholesale renegotiation of many other crucial issues within the Rome Statute. This would not appear, at least in the foreseeable future, to be a realistic possibility.

In other aspects, the provisions in the Rome Statute are an improvement on the 2000 Children in Armed Conflict Protocol. During the drafting process of the Rome Statute, it was generally agreed that the terms ‘using’ and ‘participate’ in the relevant war crimes provisions would apply not only to direct participation in conflict, but also to other military activities linked to combat such as ‘scouting, spying, sabotage, ... the use of children as decoys, couriers, or at military checkpoints [and] carrying supplies to the front line’.

Within the definition of crimes against humanity in the Rome Statute, there are a number of other provisions that may also be applicable to the recruitment and use of Child Soldiers in specific circumstances.

The Special Court for Sierra Leone

The SCSL is mandated to bring justice those who bear the greatest responsibility for atrocities committed in Sierra Leone after 30 November 1996. The use of Child Soldiers was common during the conflict in that country. Under the terms of the Statute of the SCSL, it has the jurisdiction to try persons who are alleged to have committed one (or more) of various international crimes – crimes against humanity, violations of article 3 common to the Geneva Conventions and of 1977 Additional Protocol II or other serious violations of international humanitarian law - as well as certain criminal offences under the national laws of Sierra Leone.

Mirroring the terms of the Rome Statute in the context of armed conflicts not of an international character, article 4(c) of the Sierra Leone Statute criminalizes the:

‘[c]onscripting or enlisting [of] children under the age of fifteen years into armed forces or groups or using them to participate in hostilities’

Overall, the international community has recognized the need to criminalize acts which amount to the recruitment or use of children for participation in armed conflict. This is an important step, though the standards that have been specified – relating to the minimum age limit – in order to constitute a crime at international law must be reassessed and upgraded. With ongoing pressure from civil society and human rights groups, this will hopefully become an achievable goal.

(c) The Criminalization of the Actions of Child Soldiers

A far more complex and difficult issue is the question of whether the Child Soldier him/herself should be held criminally responsible under international law for their actions. In 2007, it was reported that the family of Dominic Ongwen, one of the 5 Lords Resistance Army (LRA) leaders indicted by the ICC, argued that he was a ‘victim’, having been abducted in 1986 as a 10 year old by the LRA. Although he has been charged with crimes committed as an adult, this raises the point as to what should be the position of the Child Soldier perpetrator for crimes committed whilst still a child.

Tragically there are many examples of Child Soldiers committing acts of violent brutality – acts that at first sight would constitute an international crime. In most circumstances, there will be ‘excuses’ for such behaviour – threats and intimidation (‘kill these people or we will kill you and find someone else to do it anyway’), the effects of forced drug taking or a genuine lack of understanding of the nature and scope of the act. But what of the situation where such actions are committed by a Child Soldier in the absence of any such extenuating circumstances?

In such a case, consider the position of a victim’s family after a brutal act has been committed by a Child Soldier. Would it be acceptable to assert that the perpetrator is not to be tried under international law simply because of his/her age? Does this satisfy the broader aims of international justice and support the notion that ‘the most serious crimes of concern to the international community as a whole must not go unpunished’?

A consideration of these questions will necessarily involve many cultural, societal and moral factors – including the issue of who is a child, as well as the community’s view as to where responsibility should lie. For example, a Save the Children Federation study in Rwanda concluded that public opinion in that country supported the view that children should be held responsible for their actions during the genocide that occurred during 1994. An author on this subject explains this in the following way:

‘[y]ou will hear Rwandans say that if a child was able to kill, if a child was able to discriminate between two ethnic groups, to decide who was a Hutu moderate and who wasn’t, and was able to carry out murder in that way, why should that child be considered differently from an adult? And therefore the punishment should be the same.’

Yet, the rules of international criminal law cannot always reflect the differing cultural approaches to difficult issues, including the views of some States in relation to the responsibility of children for their actions. Whereas under many national legal systems children as young as 10 years (or even less in some jurisdictions) are deemed capable of forming the requisite intent to commit a crime, international law has tended to gloss over this very difficult issue. This is particularly reflected in the terms of the Rome Statute.

The International Criminal Court

The Rome Statute sets a minimum age for persons over whom the ICC has jurisdiction. Article 26 of the Rome Statute provides that:

‘[t]he Court shall have no jurisdiction over any person who was under the age of 18 at the time of the alleged commission of the crime.’

There is clearly a sense of inconsistency as far as the regulation of international criminal law through the ICC is concerned. On the one hand, there exists a prohibition on the recruitment of children under the age of 15 years. The international standard that is (quite wrongly) being set at this level means that there is no criminal wrongdoing in engaging children of 15, 16 or 17 years to take part in armed conflict. Yet, the ICC is not mandated to examine the actions of those children, even where they might have committed international crimes.

This anomaly has at least two adverse consequences – first it may, perversely, encourage the recruitment of children in this ‘responsibility free’ age bracket. To recruit someone in this category attracts no international criminal responsibility under the specific war crimes provisions relating to Child Soldiers, and there is no possibility that the actions of the child him/herself will be the subject of direct investigation (though of course they may be relevant for other investigations). In this sense, the terms of the Rome Statute send entirely the wrong message to those who are involved in the recruitment of children to participate as Child Soldiers.

Secondly, it appears that the Rome Statute has completely avoided confronting the issue of the criminal responsibility of Child Soldiers. It is almost as if the drafters of the Rome Statute would prefer that a consideration of this important aspect of the shameful problem of Child Soldiers be delegated elsewhere. As the first and only permanent court of its kind, it is important that the ICC be in a position to set standards that play a vital role in the evolution of international criminal law.

It would have been preferable to allow the ICC to have the jurisdiction to try persons under the age of 18. This would not lead to a ‘flood’ of trials, since the ICC Prosecutor would first undertake a rigorous investigation and then only seek to prosecute in appropriate circumstances where there are no justifiable excuses for the relevant actions of the alleged perpetrator. Indeed, there may never be any such cases, but at least the message as to the heinous nature of the crimes within the jurisdiction of the ICC would be emphasized.

Even if the Prosecutor did proceed with such a case, it would highlight even more to the international community in a transparent and highly public forum the horrors of the Child Soldier issue and further galvanize attempts to properly address it in more effective ways. In the case where there was such a trial and subsequent conviction, the Judges would be required – as with all sentences - to take into account ‘such factors as the gravity of the crime and the individual circumstances of the convicted person’ in determining an appropriate sentence.

The Special Court for Sierra Leone

The Sierra Leone Statute approaches the question of the criminal responsibility of the Child Soldier in a different way. Despite significant opposition from various children’s groups, the United Nations agreed to extend the mandate of the SCSL to include children aged between 15 and 18.

This reflects not only the prevailing cultural values of Sierra Leone in relation to the conflict but also, significantly, ensures that the crimes committed (in the absence of extenuating circumstances) are themselves dealt with. Besides bringing some element of ‘closure’ and justice to victims and their families, this highlights the unacceptable nature of the crimes in any circumstance. This is the important message of international criminal law – that there is certain behaviour (acts amounting to international crimes) that is not and cannot be tolerated and will be prosecuted.

In addition, the provisions allow for a standard of particular care for child offenders as is appropriate in their specific circumstances. The abhorrence of the crime is not in any way diminished or dismissed. The fundamental standards set by international law are not compromised. Yet, there is still a mechanism in place to deal ‘sympathetically’ with the child perpetrator, as is appropriate in ‘the individual circumstances of convicted persons’.

In this way the system of justice established under the Sierra Leone Statute seeks not only to maintain the gravity of the crimes but also to address the equally difficult issue of somehow aiding a traumatized child and giving him/her some hope for the future.

V. Concluding Comments

The escalating use of children as weapons of war is alarming and represents a massive human tragedy. For every one of the estimated 800,000 children being forced to participate in armed conflict, there is a childhood lost. Those that survive the ordeal are often so traumatized that it is virtually impossible for them in any way to recover the lost years, lost sensitivities, lost hope, lost trust and lost optimism. For example, most former female Child Soldiers are often ostracized by their societies because of the stigma associated with their use as a sex slave during that time. Even if they are able to return to their home communities, many have little means of supporting themselves and are forced to turn to sex work, further compounding their stigmatization.

Moreover, repressive regimes are highly dependent on this insidious use of children to prop up their power base, instill a climate of terror and carry out brutal and deadly work at the ground level. If there was a more concerted effort to improve the standards and enforcement mechanisms to counter the use of children in the military, these regimes would be much weaker and children would be safer. This is where a strong example on the part of developed countries like Australia in raising the minimum recruitment age for their armed forces would be so helpful, in that it would ratchet up further the pressure required to ‘persuade’ other countries to follow suit.

It is clear that the international community, particularly in the face of constant pressure from civil society and human rights groups, must do more to protect children. Not only is this a moral issue, but it also is highly relevant for the maintenance of ‘international peace and security’, one of the primary purposes of the United Nations. The use of Child Soldiers can no longer be treated as a political issue or be regarded as simply a ‘localized’ or internal question. It is a problem that can contribute to international, regional and even global instability.

In the end the only way to stop the Child Soldier tragedy is to stop armed conflict altogether. Of course this may in totality be an unattainable goal, but that is no reason why tangible steps should not be taken to mitigate the possibility of internal or international conflict, particularly in circumstances where children will be in a vulnerable position and coerced into the front lines. Without such efforts, the ‘advantages’ of using children in warfare, coupled with the flawed (though improving) regime of international law dealing with Child Soldiers means that, as conflict continues, so will the use of children to wage its deadly fight. Unless more is done, another 800,000 (or more) children will, over time, replace those currently being used.

It is an unfortunate truism that international law – including those provisions that seek to protect the Child Soldier – does not, unfortunately, go far enough to prevent armed conflict altogether. International law must be strengthened to provide the necessary support. It must be utilized to establish and reflect alternate policies and institutions that truly address these concerns. Without a more effective international legal regime, no amount of good intentions will suffice.

In addition, we must acknowledge and address the entire context of conflict – the social, cultural, geopolitical, economic, geographical, development and equity considerations – and the circumstances in which children ‘voluntarily’ or by coercion become weapons of war. This represents an inviolable imperative that must be implemented for the sake of the current and future generations of innocent children.

AustLII: Copyright Policy | Disclaimers | Privacy Policy | Feedback