“I will do everything in my power to stop the suffering of these children.”
– UN Secretary General Ban-Ki-moon, marking the UN’s commitment to ending the use of child soldiers
Twenty years ago, on May 25, 2000, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict (OPAC), prohibiting the recruitment and participation of children in armed conflict.
The International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers, also known as Red Hand Day, is an opportunity to raise international awareness about the conditions of children victims of recruitment into armed forces.
The Red Hand campaign began on Feb. 22, 2008, when German youth activists initiated to collect the 250,000 hand-prints ultimately presented in a book to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon as a plea to political leaders to draw attention to child soldiers. In 2020, the need to take improved and concerted action to stop grave violations against children, including their recruitment by armed groups and manipulation by violent extremists, continues to be urgent.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is the most widely ratified international treaty. It defines children as every human below the age of 18 years, and protects their rights including life, survival and development, and freedom from violence, abuse, and neglect. CRC has played a critical role in improving the protection of children over the past 30 years, including developing the existing child protection framework.
The Current Status of Children in Armed Conflict
The international community has recognized that child soldiers today do not just exist in conflict zones and symmetrical warfare. The hidden victims also need protection and treatment.
Child Soldiers in Conflict Zones
Perhaps the most common image of child soldiers relates to war zones.
The image of a young boy, his face and body smudged with dirt or ash. He is scarred, and grips a battered AK47. He looks harder than his young years, with hatred and fear showing on his face; this is the picture that comes to mind. Other specific images include children planting mines and IEDs for the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, or young girl suicide bombers of Boko Haram in Nigeria, or young boys performing beheadings for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Child Soldiers in Near-Conflict Zones
While it is true that a large population of child soldiers are victims in conflict spaces, many are also present within near-conflict zones. Child victims of abuses in these areas are often less visible and have less degree of access to the services and aid they need.
Child soldiers in near-conflict zones may appear less gritty than their conflict zone counterparts, but are nevertheless exposed to violent acts, abuse, and indoctrination. They often ferry packages and messages, conduct petty crime, or act as lookouts or decoys for larger crimes. In the worst instances, they are expected or encouraged to kill. ‘Child soldiers’ in these scenarios are not in combat, and often suffer horrific abuses, while being groomed to serve and be ready if or when the fighting does start. They, too, deserve our collective attention and aid.
These condition examples are consistent across near-conflict zones globally, from child militias providing cross-border logistical support from Kenya to Somalia, to young boys recruited into militias and violent extremist groups in the Balkans. Girls in Marawi are forced to walk miles to deliver drugs, food and supplies to guerilla fighters of the Islamic State, before being raped, and forced to return home, or staying to fight alongside their abusers.
Child Soldiers in Domestic Spaces
Adding to an already complex challenge, we often fail to recognize the complete spectrum of children used and exploited by organized criminal groups, violent extremists, ideological supremacists. This is especially so for children in domestic spaces – where if they were located in a conflict zone, under the same conditions they live now, they too would be considered ‘child soldiers.’ For example, violent groups in the U.S. and Canada target and manipulate children for their purposes, even if aspects of their circumstances are not identical to child soldiers in war zones.
Here, there are images of street gangs, with initiations including violent attacks and rapes, and the aftermath of street wars. Children acting as mules and messengers for drug cartels and other organized crime networks. Disaffected youth being targeted and manipulated/indoctrinated online and in their communities by violent actors, ideological extremists, and radical interests willing to utilize violence to advance their cause. Also considered here are the children as young as six being armed and trained to defend villages against drug cartels in Mexico (first reported in January 2020).
The Pressing Need to Act Now
The number of children involved in armed conflicts globally more than doubled (159 percent increase) over 2012-2017.
Those assessments were reported two years ago, in 2018, and the phenomenon still persists today.
The Paris Principles (2007) and the Vancouver Principles (2015) provide a broad framework for the international community. However, there are challenges in practice relating to what constitutes a ‘child soldier,’ particularly regarding children who are associated to terrorist and violent extremist groups. This is because terrorism and violent extremism is not formalized and defined internationally, with no international framework in place. Instead, child soldiers fall under national frameworks for addressing terrorism and violent extremism, which differ country-by-country, leading to inconsistent application of the principles for child protection.
Terrorism and ideological violent extremism have changed the face of conflict in the 21st century. Asymmetrical warfare has proliferated globally since the events of 9/11 and the global war on terror, with children being manipulated as tools of conflict throughout that shift. The public perception and international frameworks relating to child soldiers have failed to keep up with the critical changes observed in the shift to asymmetrical warfare. It is clear that a pressing need to act exists.
To successfully protect children in all situations, it is critical for the international community to leverage its influence to conflict parties and to illustrate what it means to be a ‘child soldier’ in the 21st century. New considerations and frameworks must fully reflect the reality of child soldiers as they exist in different forms around the world in 2020, particularly children recruited and manipulated by terrorists and violent extremists.
We urge the international community to use the global awareness from Red Hand Day 2020 to develop more comprehensive strategies to protect children for the new decade.
Call to Action
- Be aware of additional victims: Child soldiers from all over the world deserve the international community’s attention and protection, regardless of whether or not they are in conflict/war zones.
- Don’t forget the original victims: The awareness of other types of child soldiers beyond war zones should not distract or take away from tackling existing worst-case scenarios (e.g. child soldiers in Somalia, Indonesia, and Iraq).
- Consider the full spectrum: Other groups of children in non-conflict or domestic spaces need to be acknowledged, clearly identified, and protected.
- Harness the power of Red Hand Day for the new challenge: This awareness campaign should be connected to Red Hand Day, so that it is revisited on each anniversary of the International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers going forward.
By updating our understanding of the ‘child soldier’ phenomenon for the 21st century, we will be better able to protect the rights of all children globally, in line with the missions of the CRC and especially Red Hand Day.
This article has been written by the 1st NAEF and the Working Group on Children Recruited by Terrorist Groups (CRTG Working Group) on occasion of Red Hand Day 2020, to present the history, current state, and considerations for better understanding the challenges related to addressing the child soldier phenomenon.