Child Soldiers as per the International Law
Children receive special protection under international humanitarian law (IHL) and international human rights law during armed conflict. During both international and non-international armed conflicts, children benefit from the general protection provided for civilians not taking part in hostilities.
International Humanitarian Law (IHL) prohibits the recruitment and use of children in hostilities.1
It is prohibited to recruit child soldiers in both international and non-international armed conflicts. The ban on recruitment of children below the age of 15 enshrined in Article 77 of Additional Protocol I, and in Article 4 of Additional Protocol II. Voluntary recruitment is also prohibited under International Humanitarian Law.
This prohibition is also found in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and the Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labour.2
The recruitment of children is also prohibited in several military manuals, for example the military manuals of Cameroon, France, Germany, Kenya, Netherlands, Nigeria, Spain, and United States.3
Including in those military manuals which are applicable in non-international armed conflicts. For example, the military manuals of Argentina, Cameroon, Canada, Colombia, France, Germany, Kenya, New Zealand, Nigeria, and Spain.4
The recruitment of child soldiers is also prohibited under the legislation of many States. For example, the legislation of Australia, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Canada, Norway, USA, UK, Malaysia, Jordan, Philippines, Spain, and many more.5
Additional Protocols I and II, the Statute of the International Criminal Court and of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, put the minimum age for recruitment in armed forces or armed groups at 15.6 Many countries showed their disagreement with the age limit for recruiting children and wanted it to be increased to 18 years.7 At the 27th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in 1999 many countries pledged support to raise the age-limit for recruitment to 18 years.8
Although there is not yet any uniform practice regarding the minimum age for recruitment, however, there is an agreement that it should not be below 15 years of age. In addition, Additional Protocol I and the Convention on the Rights of the Child require that, in recruiting persons between 15 and 18, priority be given to the older ones.9
Child Soldiers and their Participation in the Conflict
Thousands of children are serving as child-soldiers across the globe, recruited by the government forces or by opposition rebel groups. They may fight on the front lines, participate in suicide missions, and act as spies, messengers, clear out landmines and explosives, or lookouts. Girls may be forced into sexual slavery. Many are abducted or recruited by force, while others join out of desperation, believing that armed groups offer their best chance for survival.10
Practices of recruiting children have generally been condemned by States and international organizations, for example, in Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Myanmar, and Uganda.
Why Children Become Involved in Armed Conflict
Children are especially vulnerable to military recruitment because they may be easily manipulated and can be drawn into violence when they are too young to resist or understand what is happening.
Despite the protection provided by law, they continue to be recruited by armed forces and armed groups. They are often separated from their families, driven from their homes, killed, maimed, sexually abused or exploited in other ways.
They are most likely to become child soldiers if they are poor, separated from their families, displaced from their homes, living in a combat zone or have limited access to education.11
For this reason, orphans and refugees are particularly vulnerable to recruitment. Many children join armed groups because of economic or social pressure, or because they believe that the group they are joining will offer food or security. Others are forcibly recruited or abducted by armed groups.
Impact on Children
Eighteen million children are being raised in the chaos of war. In the past ten years, as a result of armed conflict, over 2 million children have been killed, 6 million have been disabled, 20 million are homeless, and more than 1 million have become separated from their caregivers.12
According to UNICEF, over 400 million children live in countries affected by violent conflict. Children are the first victim of wars.
"When elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers" – An African saying
Children living in violent, terrorized environments experience such horrors as destruction of their homes, and the death of parents, siblings, neighbours, and friends. Many live in circumstances where they make critical survival decisions to hide under deceased remains of others, to kill or be killed, and often live through situations where they believe they will die.13
Modern warfare does not take place in isolated or remote battlefields, and is not fought between opposing countries. The vast majority of contemporary conflicts take place within a specific country, not between countries. In this new form of warfare, civilians are often caught in the midst of the fighting and routinely targeted. Presently, civilians make up to 90% of the casualties. (War Child)
Apart from all this, child soldiers suffer from additional traumas. Following are the experiences of two children who took part in armed conflicts as child soldiers:14
“I’ve seen people get their hands cut off, a 10-year-old girl raped and then die, and so many men and women burned alive. So many times I just cried inside my heart because I didn’t dare cry out loud.” - A 14-year-old girl abducted in January 1999 by a rebel group in Sierra Leone.
“I still dream about the boy from my village who I killed. I see him in my dreams, and he is talking to me and saying I killed him for nothing.” - A 16-year-old girl after demobilization from an armed group in Central Africa.
Principles of IHL in Popular Video Games, Novels, and Movies
Not everyone is an expert in International Humanitarian Law, but there are more people in the world who play action video games, read novels, watch action and war movies.
Having subtle hints of principles of International Humanitarian Laws in video games, novels, and movies, more people can learn about Humanitarian law and principles.
If we talk about video games, there is an action game called Metal Gear Solid.15 In that game, you play as a special forces soldier. In one of the missions in that game, you (the character) is deployed in Central Africa. During the mission briefing, the commanding officer told us about the presence of child soldiers and that we are not allowed to engage and kill them.
While playing the game, if you shoot or kill a child soldier, you will fail the mission and the game will end because you violated the laws of war.
Now, this is such a great way of teaching about child soldiers, their situations, and the laws regarding child soldiers.
There is another great game called Call of Duty.16 In that game, if you shoot your team, you will fail the mission as friendly fire is not allowed.
In my opinion, more humanitarian law principles can be added in the game. For example, in a mission we play as a CIA operative and along with US Marines we raid a hospital in Urzikstan17, where Wolf (the head of a terrorist organization) was hiding.
In that mission few hospital staff members died as they came between the crossfire, there is a moment when we are surrounded by enemy wounded fighters lying of hospital beds, and one of the wounded fighter takes a gun and tries to shot at us.
The Call of Duty franchise makes very realistic games with a lot of real life and film references.
There is a mission, after the capture of the Wolf, his supporters demonstrated a protest outside the US Embassy in Urzikstan18 and then broke into the Embassy and killed many innocent US civilians, this particular instances resembled the film Argo19 which was based on true events. Later on in the same mission, there is a scene when the US Marines and the UK SAS soldiers are firing at the enemy fighters from the rooftop of the US Ambassador’s residence. This particular scene resembles the film 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi20, again, which is base on true events.
It will only make more sense if these game companies will start adding principles of IHL into their games. That being said, the mission should fail if you shoot a civilian, doctors, wounded enemy soldiers, or disrespect the dead by keep firing at a dead body.
The same should apply to novels and action — war movies. Generally, movies do represent laws of wars, as they are based on real life events.
In my opinion, video games will do the most impact and teach people playing them about International Humanitarian Laws because in video games, people directly take part, the game character is directly in the control of the person playing the game.
Children of today playing video games are the soldiers of tomorrow. If we teach them the right thing now, it will prevent war crimes in the future.
1 Additional Protocol I, Article 77(2) (adopted by consensus) (cited in Vol. II, Ch. 39, § 379); Additional Protocol II, Article 4(3)(c) (adopted by consensus) (ibid., § 380).
2 Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 38(3) (ibid., § 381); African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, Article 22(2) (ibid., § 386); Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labour, Articles 1 and 3 (ibid., § 388).
3 ICRC, Customary IHL Database, Footnote Number 7, https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/customary-ihl/eng/docs/v1_cha_chapter39_rule136, Last Accessed on 17 June 2021.
4 ICRC, Customary IHL Database, Footnote Number 8, https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/customary-ihl/eng/docs/v1_cha_chapter39_rule136, Last Accessed on 17 June 2021.
5 ICRC, Customary IHL Database, Footnote Number 8, https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/customary-ihl/eng/docs/v1_cha_chapter39_rule136, Last Accessed on 17 June 2021.
6 Additional Protocol I, Article 77(2) (adopted by consensus) (ibid., § 502); Additional Protocol II, Article 4(3)(c) (adopted by consensus) (ibid., § 503); ICC Statute, Article 8(2)(b)(xxvi) and (e)(vii) (ibid., § 513); Statute of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, Article 4 (ibid., § 515).
7 Declarations and reservations made upon ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child by Colombia (ibid., § 382), Netherlands (ibid., § 383), Spain (ibid., § 384) and Uruguay (ibid., § 385).
8 Pledges made at the 27th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent by Canada ( ibid., § 435), Denmark (ibid., § 437), Finland (ibid., § 438), Guinea (ibid., § 439), Iceland (ibid., § 440), Mexico (ibid., § 442), Mozambique (ibid., § 443), Norway (ibid., § 444), South Africa (ibid., § 446), Sweden (ibid., § 447), Switzerland (ibid., § 448), Thailand (ibid., § 450) and Uruguay (ibid., § 453).
9 Additional Protocol I, Article 77(2) (adopted by consensus) (ibid., § 379); Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 38(3) (ibid., § 381).
10 Human Rights Watch, Children Rights, Child Soldiers, https://www.hrw.org/topic/childrens-rights/child-soldiers, Last Visited on 17 June 2021.
11 American Red Cross, IHL, Child Soldiers, April 2011, https://www.redcross.org/content/dam/redcross/atg/PDF_s/Family___Holocaust_Tracing/IHL_ChildSoldiers.pdf, Last Visited on 17 June 2021.
12 The Trauma And The Mental Health Report, Youk University, The Invisible Trauma of War-Affected Children.
13 Psychology Today, The Invisible Trauma of War-Affected Children, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/talking-about-trauma/201304/the-invisible-trauma-war-affected-children Last Visited on 17 June 2021.
14 American Red Cross, IHL, Child Soldiers, April 2011, https://www.redcross.org/content/dam/redcross/atg/PDF_s/Family___Holocaust_Tracing/IHL_ChildSoldiers.pdf, Last Visited on 17 June 2021.
15 Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metal_Gear_Solid_V:_The_Phantom_Pain. Last visited on 18 June 2021.
20 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/13_Hours%3A_The_Secret_Soldiers_of_Benghazi. Last visited on 18 June 2021.