All members of a society suffer the consequences of armed conflicts in their area. However, the magnitude of these consequences for vulnerable groups, especially children, is often poorly understood. Children are faced with many aspects of war and the consequences affect both their physical and psychological development.
Children who have become amputees as a result of anti-personnel mines, orphans as a result of the war, or soldiers to survive, as well as those who are victims of sexual abuse or have been forced into slavery are reminders of the urgency for the international community to act.
In 1989, the member States of the United Nations agreed to further develop the rules established for the protection of children. They culminated in the Convention on the Rights of the Child1 , which provides a wide range of rights for persons under the age of 18. Every child, regardless of social, economic, political or other status has the right to these rights.
The reasons for the direct participation of children in armed conflicts are many, with a variety of roots and causes.
Extreme poverty, dispersal or loss of family, belonging to an armed political, religious or ethnic group, presence of a conflict zone nearby, urban violence, and the absence of a viable social support structure are some of the reasons that explain the involvement of children.
For children left to themselves while the hostilities rage on, the army represents an opportunity to obtain shelter, food, stability, and a sense of belonging, indeed social status, but most importantly a chance to survive.
Children are easily manipulated and obedient, with no awareness of the potential danger of their acts. Therefore, cruel and atrocious acts may be committed without reluctance, especially when the perpetrators are under the influence of illegal substances.
Since they are small and easily hidden, children are often used as spies or messengers.
Forced recruiting through kidnapping from schools, refugee camps or family homes is one way to obtain affordable military forces to perpetuate the conflicts. This recruiting method is also used to terrorize and exert pressure on the civilian population.
The proliferation of small arms fosters the participation of children in hostilities. Since this type of weapon is light, it does not require special handling expertise, thus opening the door to the participation of children of all ages in military operations.
Children's involvement in armed conflicts has major consequences for future development of the society. The conflicts erode public values and the social, economic and legal structures required to adequately educate the youth who constitute the area's future. In addition, the vulnerability of children becomes more evident and thus compromises peace and stability for future generations.
Serious psychological and physical trauma will persist well after hostilities have ceased, and there are many obstacles to reintegrating children into a normal lifestyle. One major problem involves rejection by their community or even their family circle. Children who have served for an armed group are often stigmatized or outcast.
Furthermore, the process of reintegration and rehabilitation may prove more difficult for girls than for young boys. Since girls are often victims of sexual abuse, rape, forced prostitution and unwanted pregnancy, they are even more stigmatized and reluctant to seek help and uncover the root of the problem.
Although children may be directly involved in the conflicts, the repercussions of war on them are much larger. Landmines, family displacement and the spread of HIV/AIDS are some of the problems that must be taken into consideration.
The threat of landmines is more serious for children. They become at greater risk when they play on a mined field or when they walk along the edge of the road in search of wood or water. Furthermore, the consequences of an explosion are greater for a child than an adult, not to mention the years of medical treatment and psychological and physical support required.
Children are often left on their own following the death of one or more family members or following mass displacement of populations that temporarily or permanently separate families. Alone, children become more vulnerable and, to some extent, slaves to whoever will take them under their wing.
The spread of HIV/AIDS is another consequence children must face. Often targets of forced prostitution, sexual abuse and slavery, children are the most exposed to this epidemic.
The number of child soldiers throughout the entire world exceeds 300,000. Estimates vary because armies generally do not reveal the exact number of children in their ranks. Most are between 15 and 18 years old, but sometimes children as young as seven participate actively or directly in the conflict.
Child soldiers are found in more than 30 countries2, mostly African countries (Congo, Uganda, Liberia, Rwanda). In Sub-Saharian Africa alone, the number of child soldiers has reached 120,000. In Liberia, more than a quarter of all soldiers are children.
Children suffer direct and indirect consequences of conflict. According to UNICEF, 2,000,000 children were killed between 1990 and 2000, while 6,000,000 children became disabled in the same period. Of 22 million refugees, half are children3.
International humanitarian law grants extended protection to children. In the event of international or non-international armed conflict, children benefit from the general protection granted to civilians not participating in the hostilities. In an international conflict, children are under the protection of the Fourth Convention and Additional Protocol I, while in a non-international conflict, children also have the right to the fundamental guarantees as stipulated in article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions and Additional Protocol II.
The special vulnerability of children is taken into consideration by 1949 Geneva Conventions III and IV. The Additional Protocols of 1977 also provide for an additional special protection plan, applicable in the event of international or non-international conflict. Based on article 77 of Additional Protocol I, “children shall be the object of special respect and shall be protected against any form of indecent assault. The Parties to the conflict shall provide them with the care and aid they require, whether because of their age or for any other reason.”
The Additional Protocols were the first international instruments to deal specifically with the participation of children in armed conflicts. While Additional Protocol I requires States to take all possible measures to prevent the direct participation of children less than 15 years old in hostilities, Additional Protocol II prohibits recruiting and direct or indirect participation in the conflict. Additional Protocol I expressly prohibits the recruiting of children to armed forces and encourages the Parties to first recruit those between 15 and 18 years old.
See the Summary table on the IHL provisions specifically applicable to children. (PDF file)
The commitment of the international community to provide increased protection to children was demonstrated in the adoption of the Rome Statute, in which articles 8(2)b)xxvi) and 8(2)e)vii4 define the participation of children under 15 years old in armed conflicts as a war crime. Furthermore, Convention 182 of the International Labour Organization prohibits the “trade in children, serfdom, work and forced recruiting of children in hostilities.” The Convention sets 18 as the minimum age for forced recruitment.
In 2000, States agreed to strengthen the protection for children by adopting the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The protocol strengthens the 1989 Convention in many ways. First, it stipulates that the minimum age for mandatory recruitment is 18. Then, it asks the parties to increase the age of voluntary enrolment from 15 as well as to provide special protection and guarantees for those who are under 18. It also asks participants to provide financial and technical assistance to prevent enrolment at too young an age and to improve the rehabilitation and social reintegration for former child soldiers. Finally, it asks States to make provisions to minimize the effects of war on children by implementing such things as demobilization and reintegration programs designed especially for them.
Section of the International Red Cross Committee Web site on Children in War
UNICEF Web site, United Nations body dedicated to the plight of children
French Web site dedicated to children's rights (in French only)
Amnesty International report on children and war
Human Rights Internet report on children's rights
Human Rights Watch report on children's rights
Overview of the child soldier issue by the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers
War affected children