Disarmament and International Security Committee

The Question of the Illegal Use of Child Soldiers


The 2007 Paris Principles, signed by 105 countries, define child soldiers as:

“Any person under 18 years of age who is or has been recruited or used by an armed force or armed group in any capacity (…), including, but not limited to, soldiers, cooks, porters, messengers, spies, and for sexual purposes”

Many child soldiers are abducted or recruited by force, while others join out of desperation and in poverty. Military organisations often target children believing that they are easier to entice or force into the service, and are easier to manipulate and control once in the service.

The Problem

The Child Soldiers World Index records child recruitment worldwide. Since 2016, at least 18 separate conflict situations have involved the participation of children and at least 46 states recruit children into their armed forces. Recent reports have suggested that children are being used by state armed forces or non-state armed forces in the Philippines, Myanmar, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Nigeria, Mali and Colombia. Boko Haram, for example, used children as suicide bombers in 203 verified cases in 2017. At least 19,000 under-18s are believed to be participating in the conflict in South Sudan.

Studies into the impact of child soldiering have cited devastating impacts on the children involved. Since child soldiers lose their educational years, they are nearly twice as likely to be illiterate, and thus struggle to gain employment, earning nearly one third less than those not involved with conflict. Impact on cognitive development has been linked to greater aggressive and violent behaviour.

Existing solutions

The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (OPAC) came into force in 2002, and has been signed by 167 out of the 197 UN Member States. This document states that States should “take all feasible measures” to ensure that no individual under the age of 18 years plays a direct part in hostilities.

Important steps have been taken towards establishing individual criminal responsibility for those who recruit or use children in hostilities. War crime charges relating to the conscription, enlistment and active participation in hostilities of children under 15 years old have been issued by the International Criminal Court (ICC) against members of armed groups in some countries. The signing of OPAC combined with these measures has seen significant progress in the abolition of child soldiers and, in 2017, over 10,000 children were formally released from armed forces and groups. However, the illegal practice still continues in both state and non-state armed groups. Often, the only way of combatting this practice is to work to remove social inequality and poverty in countries, removing the driving factors encouraging voluntary involvement in conflict.

The UN Security Council has already adopted resolutions 1539 (2004) and 1612 (2005), calling for the establishment of a monitoring and reporting mechanism on children and armed conflict. This has now been implemented in around a dozen countries, documenting six categories of grave abuse against children, including the recruitment and use of child soldiers.

In March 2014, the UN launched the “Children, Not Soldiers” campaign, aiming to end the recruitment and use of child soldiers. Focussing on Afghanistan, Congo, Myanmar, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Yemen, the campaign focusses on the establishment of an action plan between the government and the United Nations to identify the key action to be taken by the government to pursue the end of child recruitment by state forces. 7 out of the 8 targeted governments have signed and implemented action plans, with only Sudan still negotiating with the UN. In partnership with organisations, such as UNICEF, the campaign mobilises support, including expertise, advocacy and funding. The Country Task Force on Monitoring and Reporting (CTFMR) is the United Nations body at country level in charge of monitoring, verifying and reporting violations, entering into dialogue with parties, and supporting the implementation of their commitments.

Other possible solutions

Despite significant progress made on paper, many UN resolutions have not been effectively implemented in practice. Methods to improve implementation could be considered.

Societal developments are also crucial in providing viable options for education, employment and protection. The number of children used for military purposes can reduce if children have access to full economic and social rights. Particularly, the implementation of education is critical to ensure that children are able to escape the cycle of poverty, and avoid recruitment into armed conflict.

Many parents in war-torn countries are willing to provide their children as soldiers, in return for payment or protection. Measures to tackle this could be considered.

There have been suggestions that a more proactive approach is required in combating child soldiering by non-state armed groups.