The military use of children takes three distinct forms: children can take direct part in hostilities (child soldiers), or they can be used in support roles such as porters, spies, messengers, look outs, and sexual slaves; or they can be used for political advantage either as human shields or in propaganda.
Throughout history and in many cultures, children have been extensively involved in military campaigns even when such practices were supposedly against cultural morals. Since the 1970s a number of international conventions have come into effect that try to limit the participation of children in armed conflicts, nevertheless the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers reports that the use of children in military forces, and the active participation of children in armed conflicts is widespread.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, Art. 38, (1989) proclaimed: "State parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure that persons who have not attained the age of 15 years do not take a direct part in hostilities." The Optional protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict to the Convention that came into force in 2002 stipulates that its State Parties "shall take all feasible measures to ensure that persons below the age of 18 do not take a direct part in hostilities and that they are not compulsorily recruited into their armed forces". The Optional Protocol further obligates states to "take all feasible measures to prevent such recruitment and use, including the adoption of legal measures necessary to prohibit and criminalize such practices." (Art 4, Optional Protocol) Likewise under the Optional Protocol states are required to demobilize children within their jurisdiction who have been recruited or used in hostilities, and to provide assistance for their physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration. (Art 6(3) Optional Protocol)
Under Article 8.2.26 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), adopted in July 1998 and entered into force 1 July 2002, "Conscripting or enlisting children under the age of fifteen years into the national armed forces or using them to participate actively in hostilities" is a war crime.
In a resolution in 2005 the Security Council requested that the action plan for establishing a monitoring, reporting and compliance mechanism produced by the Secretary-General be implemented without delay.
Under the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, which was adopted and signed in 2002, the use of anyone under the age of 18 in combat is illegal under international law. National armed forces are permitted to recruit individuals below the age of 18, but are strictly forbidden from deploying them into combat. Non-state actors and guerrilla forces are forbidden from recruiting anyone under the age of 18 for any purpose.
This prohibition traces its roots to the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, adopted in 1977, which had set the age at 15 years old. Following the civil wars of the 1990s, especially in Sierra Leone, it was recognized that the age of 18 was the most widely recognized dividing line between childhood and adulthood. The International Criminal Court embodied this principle in the Rome Statute by refusing jurisdiction over anyone who committed crimes under the age of 18 and David Crane, Chief Prosecutor in Sierra Leone, additionally refused to prosecute anyone who had committed crimes as a child soldier under the age of 18.
In terms of the Worst Forms of Child Labour Recommendation ratifying countries should ensure that forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict is a criminal offence, and also provide for other criminal, civil or administrative remedies to ensure the effective enforcement of such national legislation (Article III(12) to (14)).
Recently, a strong international movement has emerged to put an end to the practice. See, for example, Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers.
According to the website of Human Rights Watch as of July 2007:
In over twenty countries around the world, children are direct participants in war. Denied a childhood and often subjected to horrific violence, an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 children are serving as soldiers for both rebel groups and government forces in current armed conflicts.
Under the terms of Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions, children over the age of fifteen who have volunteered can be used as spotters, observers, message-carriers. (see above International humanitarian law)
The Capetown Principles and Best Practices, adopted by the NGO Working Group on the Convention on the Rights of Children and UNICEF at a symposium on the prevention of recruitment of children into the armed forces and on demobilization and social regeneration of child soldiers in Africa in April 1997, proposed that African Governments should adopt and ratify the Optional protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict raising the minimum age from 15 to 18, and that African Governments should ratify and implement other pertinent treaties and incorporate them into national law. The symposium define a child soldier as any person under age 18 who is "part of any kind of regular or irregular armed force or group in any capacity, including but not limited to cooks, porters, messengers and those accompanying such groups, other than purely as family members. The definition includes girls recruited for sexual purposes and for forced marriage. It does not, therefore, only refer to a child who is carrying or has carried arms.
As of 2007, Africa has the largest number of child soldiers. In 2004 one estimate put the number of children involved in armed conflict including combat roles at 100,000.
The New People's Army gave up the use of child soldiers, and instituted a minimum age of 16, acting as couriers, medical volunteers and members of education and propaganda units while 18 is the more preferred age to become members of the force.
In Sri Lanka, thousands of children are believed to be in the ranks of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a rebel group banned as a terrorist organization by a number of countries. Since signing a ceasefire agreement in 2001, the latest available UNICEF figures show that the LTTE has abducted 5,666 children until July 2006, although the organization speculates that only about a third of such cases are reported to them. Sri Lankan soldiers nicknamed one unit the Baby Battalion, due to the number of children in it. In response to widespread international condemnation of alleged children recruitment practices, the LTTE informed that they have made (taking effect in Oct. 2006) child recruitment illegal for its groups.
More recently, the para-military group known as the Karuna Group, which is apparently a splinter group from the LTTE, has been held responsible for the abduction of children according to UNICEF and Human Rights Watch.
Israeli children receive familiarization and military training well below the age of recruitment. In Israel, the military is physically present in schools and school activities, with the official curricula and textbooks reflecting the militaristic attitudes inherent in the Israeli educational system, all the way from kindergarten and up; Glorifications of military conquest and negative or skewed representation of Palestinians are found in many Israeli textbooks.
Recruitment of children to fight as soldiers against Israelis has been documented in Palestinian school textbooks. Recruitment also exists in the content of Hamas children's television programming, denounced as an "mistaken approach" by the Palestinian Authority and unprofessional and inhumane by Fatah.
Professor of Georgetown University William O'Brien wrote about active participation of Palestinian children in the First Intifada: "It appears that a substantial number, if not the majority, of troops of the intifada are young people, including elementary schoolchildren. They are engaged in throwing stones and Molotov cocktails and other forms of violence. Arab journalist Huda Al-Hussein wrote in London Arab newspaper on October 27, 2000: "While UN organizations save child-soldiers, especially in Africa, from the control of militia leaders who hurl them into the furnace of gang-fighting, some Palestinian leaders… consciously issue orders with the purpose of ending their childhood, even if it means their last breath."
In 2001, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers said it has no evidence of children being recruited or used systematically by the Palestinian Authority or armed groups in the intifada against Israeli rule, with less than 1% of Palestinian adolescents having played an active role in clashes with Israeli troops. According to the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers 2004 Global Report on the Use of Child Soldiers, there were at least nine documented suicide attacks involving Palestinian minors between October 2000 and March 2004: but also stated "There was no evidence of systematic recruitment of children by Palestinian armed groups. However, children are used as messengers and couriers, and in some cases as fighters and suicide bombers in attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians. All the main political groups involve children in this way, including Fatah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine."
On May 23, 2005, Amnesty International reiterated its calls to Palestinian armed groups to put an immediate end to the use of children in armed activities: "Palestinian armed groups must not use children under any circumstances to carry out armed attacks or to transport weapons or other material."
In 2008, extreme Israeli settler movements around Hebron involved children in violent activities related to the local conflict, and Israeli military forces continued to arrest large numbers of Palestinian children, torturing some of them during detention. Palestinian children were used as human shields by the Israel Defense Forces in and around Nablus, despite the Supreme Court of Israel banning this practice.
Historically, In Armies of the Young: Child Soldiers in War and Terrorism anthropologist David M. Rosen discusses the creation of troops of boys aged twelve and up, modelled on the Hitler Youth, and armed by the Arab Nazi party in Palestine and that carried out military attacks as part of the 1936–1939 Arab revolt in Palestine. Yassir Arafat grew up in this era and was both a child soldier and an organizer of other youth, emerging as a militant political leader by age ten. During the same period, very young children of Zionist settlers were allowed to take part in military activities in the same area, committing numerous hostilities both against Palestinians and against the British authorities.
The United States has recently come under fire for the detention and trial of child soldiers and non-combatant minors captured during military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Omar Khadr, a 15 year old Canadian citizen, arrested in Afghanistan in 2002, and held at Guantanamo for the past five years was to have been one of the first detainees to be charged before a military commission. Human Rights Watch charges that, "the US government incarcerated him with adults, reportedly subjected him to abusive interrogations, failed to provide him any educational opportunities, and denied him any direct contact with his family." In 2004, three Afghan children were released from Guantanamo, believed to be between the ages of 13 and 15 at the time of their capture, to rehabilitation programs operated by UNICEF in Afghanistan.
In 2008 ACLU stated in a report on "Abusive U.S. Military Recruitment and Failure to Protect Child Soldiers" that "By exposing children younger than 17 to military recruitment, the United States military violates the terms of the Optional Protocol [on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict].
Throughout history and in many cultures, children have been extensively involved in military campaigns even when such practices were supposedly against cultural morals.
The earliest mentions of minors being involved in wars come from antiquity. It was customary for youths in the Mediterranean basin to serve as aides, charioteers and armor bearers to adult warriors. Examples of this practice can be found in the Bible (such as David's service to King Saul), in Hittite and Egyptian art, and in Greek mythology (such as the story of Hercules and Hylas), philosophy and literature.
Also in a practice dating back to antiquity, children were routinely taken on campaign, together with the rest of a military man's family, as part of the baggage. This exposed them to harm from rearguard attacks, such as the one at the battle of Agincourt, where the retainers and children of the English army were massacred by the French.
The Romans also made use of youths in war, though it was understood that it was unwise and cruel to use children in war, and Plutarch implies that regulations required youths to be at least sixteen years of age.
In medieval Europe, young boys from about twelve years of age were used as military aides ("squires"), though in theory their role in actual combat was limited. The so-called Children's Crusade in 1212 recruited thousands of children as untrained soldiers under the assumption that divine power would enable them to conquer the enemy, although none of the children actually entered combat; according to the legend, they were instead sold into slavery. While most scholars no longer believe that the Children's Crusade consisted solely, or even mostly, of children, it nonetheless exemplifies an era in which the entire family took part in a war effort.
Young boys often took part in battles during early modern warfare. One of their more visible roles was as the ubiquitous "drummer boy" – the film Waterloo (based on the Battle of Waterloo) graphically depicts French drummer boys leading Napoleon's initial attack, only to be gunned down by Allied soldiers. During the age of sail, young boys formed part of the crew of British Royal Navy ships and were responsible for many important tasks including bringing powder and shot from the ship's magazine to the gun crews. These children were called "powder monkeys". During the Siege of Mafeking in the Second Boer War, Robert Baden-Powell recruited and trained 12-15 year old boys as scouts, thus freeing up the limited number of men for the actual fighting. The boys' success led indirectly to Baden-Powell founding the Boy Scouts, a youth organization originally run along military lines. At the outbreak of the First World War, boys as young as 13 were caught up in the overwhelming tide of patriotism and in huge numbers cheerfully enlisted for active service others to avoid the harsh and dreary lives they had working in British industry. Many were to serve in the bloodiest battles of the war, such as ex-miner Dick Trafford who took part in the Battle of Loos, and Frank Lindley who, seeking to avenge his dead brother, went over the top on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Both were just sixteen. Typically many were able to pass themselves off as older men, such as George Thomas Paget, who at 17 joined a Bantam battalion in the Welsh Regiment. George died of wounds in captivity just five weeks after landing in France. George Mahers who served briefly in France when he was just thirteen years and nine months old. He was sent back to England along with five other under-age boys.
A young boy, Bugler John Cook, served in the U.S. Army at the age of 15 and received the Medal of Honor for his acts during the Civil War Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest day in American history. Cook is the only child to ever receive this honor.
By a law signed by Nicholas I of Russia in 1827, a disproportionate number of Jewish boys, known as the cantonists, were forced into military training establishments to serve in the army. The 25-year conscription term officially commenced at the age of 18, but boys as young as eight were routinely taken to fulfill the hard quota.
In World War II, children frequently fought in insurrections. During the Holocaust, Jews of all ages, including teenagers such as Shalom Yoran, participated in the Jewish resistance simply in order to survive. Many members of the youth movement Hashomer Hatzair fought in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943. The participation of children in this armed resistance is usually regarded as nothing short of heroic.
Many other anti-fascist resistance movements across Nazi-occupied Europe consisted partially of children (for example, Szare Szeregi in Poland). A number of child soldiers served in the Soviet Union's armed forces during the war. In some cases, orphans also unofficially joined the Soviet Red Army. Such children were affectionately known as "son of the regiment" (сын полка) and sometimes willingly performed military missions such as reconnaissance.
On the opposite side, Hitler Youth (Hitlerjugend) was an organization in Nazi Germany that trained youth physically and indoctrinated them with Nazi ideology to the point of fanaticism. By the end of World War II, members of the Hitler Youth were taken into the army at increasingly younger ages. During the Battle of Berlin in 1945 they were a major part of the German defenses.
In some cases, youth organizations were, and still are, militarized in order to instill discipline in their ranks, sometimes to indoctrinate them with propaganda and prepare for subsequent military service.
In the most notorious case, the Khmer Rouge communist group exploited thousands of desensitized conscripted children to commit mass murders and other inhuman acts during the Cambodian genocide. The brainwashed child soldiers were taught to follow any order without hesitation.
Thousands of children were recruited and used by all sides during Sierra Leone’s conflict (1993-2002), including the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), and the pro-government Civil Defense Forces (CDF). Children were often forcibly recruited, given drugs and used to commit atrocities. Thousands of girls were also recruited as soldiers and often subjected to sexual exploitation. Many of the children were survivors of village attacks, while others were found abandoned. They were used for patrol purposes, attacking villages, and guarding workers in the diamond fields. In his book A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Child Soldier, Ishmael Beah chronicles his life during the conflict in Sierra Leone.
In June 2007, the Special Court for Sierra Leone found three accused men from the rebel Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and other serious violations of international humanitarian law, including the recruitment of children under the age of 15 years into the armed forces. With this, the Special Court became the first-ever UN backed tribunal to deliver a guilty verdict for the military conscription of children.
On 14 June 2002 Uganda deposited its instrument of ratification of the Rome Statute, and on 16 December 2003 the Government of Uganda referred the situation concerning Northern Uganda to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC investigated the situation, and on 14 October 2005, issued indictments against Lord's Resistance Army leader Joseph Kony, and four other commanders, (Vincent Otti, Raska Lukwiya, Okot Odhiambo and Dominic Ongwen) for war crimes. The warrant for Kony, Otti and Odhiambo includes the alleged crime of forced enlisting of children (Rome Statute Art. 8(2)(e)(vii)).