Dictionary of Gross Human Rights Violations

Child Soldiers

The use of child soldiers in conflicts worldwide is becoming rampant. 68% of ongoing or recently ended conflicts have child combatants, while over 40% of armed organisations in the world use child soldiers.1 Moreover, 18% of armed organisations employ child soldiers 12 and under.2 In sum, there are about 300 000 active or demobilised child soldiers in the world today.3 The countries and regions that are currently the most affected by the use of child soldiers are West Africa, Columbia, Central Africa, and Burma (Myanmar). Girls, although they are in the minority, are also frequently utilised as soldiers (a significant example of this are the LTTE or Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka). Many of these girls are taken as “wives” by superior officers and forcibly impregnated.

There is relatively little historical precedence for the systematic use of children as soldiers but this norm seems to be changing (or at least being ignored). This is a result of the changing nature of conflict itself with more and more internal wars fought by undisciplined forces motivated by extremist ideologies or opportunism. Most of the organisations using child soldiers are rebel or insurgent groups but there are many states (such as Columbia and Ethiopia) that also actively recruit and use children as soldiers.

Unfortunately, child soldiers are a perfect fit in this criminalised armed conflict. In conflicts without standards children might just be the ideal soldiers: they are an untapped and readily available pool of conscripts, they are malleable (child soldiers are often not compensated or barely compensated), they can perform special tasks (such as reconnaissance and decoy missions) due to their relatively innocuous presence, and child soldiers can be vicious (they frequently do not have the same sense of the consequences of their actions). Children are also usually considered to be expendable and are socialised to believe that they possess magic powers that make them impervious to bullets; they are then sent out as the first waves of attacks to be used as “cannon fodder.”

There is a particular process for the recruitment and training of child soldiers. Children are often abducted or lured by the promise of increased status and/or materials rewards. Once they are in their armed group they are typically indoctrinated (brain washed) and forced to perform an atrocity (i.e. executing a prisoner) as a means of both conditioning them for violence and also ascribing a social stigma to the child so that they cannot (or feel they cannot) return to their community. The children are frequently drugged so that their inhibitions are lowered and they become increasingly reliant (addicted) to the group. They are also often given nicknames as a form of psychological “doubling” whereby their “soldier” personality is compartmentalised and separated from the rest of their existence.

The humanitarian consequences of child soldiers are serious and long-term. First and foremost, the children are denied the chance of having an “ordinary” childhood. Instead they spend their formative years immersed in an atmosphere of extreme violence and brutality. The psychological ramifications of being a child soldier are also serious and long-term. One study of former child soldiers in Africa found that over 50% suffered from severe nightmares, 25% from forms of mutism, and 28% from paranoia.4 Rehabilitation of child soldiers is essential for society, yet it is not easy to turn a soldier back into a child.

Moreover, child soldiers can foment conflicts by allowing the quick mobilisation of soldiers (for example, the Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda grew rapidly from a force of 200 troops to an army with an influx of 14 000 child soldiers).5 Child soldiers also magnify the effects of conflicts by making them last longer and making them more violent.

The international community has widely condemned (and criminalised) the use of child soldiers as the following table illustrates:

Figure 1.1 Conventions and Resolutions Prohibiting the use of Child Soldiers



1924 League of Nations Declaration on the Rights of the child

1996 OAU Resolution on the Plight of the African Child in Situations of Armed Conflict

1948 United Nations Universal Declaration on Human Rights

1997 Capetown Principles

1949 Geneva Conventions

1997 Declaration by the Nordic Foreign Ministers Against the Use of Child Soldiers

1950 European Convention on Human Rights

1998 European Parliament Resolution on the Use of Child Soldiers

1951 Convention and 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees

1999 Berlin Declaration on the Use of Children as Soldiers

1966 UN Covenants on Civil and Political Rights, and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

1999 Montevideo Declaration on the Use of Children as Soldiers

1969 American Convention on Human Rights

1999 Maputo Declaration on the Use of Child Soldiers

1977 Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions

1999 UN Security Council Resolution 1261

1981 African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights

2000 OAS Resolution on Children and Armed Conflict

1984 Torture Convention

2001 Amman Declaration on Child Soldiers

1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child


1990 African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child


2000 Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Cl;hild on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict


Despite all of the attention paid to the issue of child soldiers there has been little concrete action to actually stop the practise. The use of child soldiers is a gross human rights violation and it also contributes to the commission of other gross human rights violations.

End Notes

1 P.W. Singer, Children at War, Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2006, p. 29.
2 Singer 29.
3 Singer 30.
4 Singer 194.
5 Singer 95.