At any one time, more than 300,000 children under 18 – girls and boys - are fighting as soldiers with government armed forces and armed opposition groups in more than 30 countries worldwide.  In more than 85 countries, hundreds of thousands more under-18s have been recruited into government armed forces, paramilitaries, civil militia and a wide variety of non-state armed groups.  Millions of children worldwide receive military training and indoctrination in youth movements and schools.  While most child soldiers are aged between 15 and 18, the youngest age recorded in this report is seven.


These statistics represent only a ‘snapshot’ of the problem, as children are recruited, captured, demobilised, wounded or even killed every day.  Many of today’s adult soldiers started out as children, growing up in military ranks;  in many countries, with inadequate systems of birth registration, age can be difficult to determine. 


Conflicts come and go as well;  the more protracted the armed conflict, the more likely children will participate.  In recent years, large numbers of children fighting in Latin America and the Middle East region have been replaced as conflicts recede by new generations of child soldiers in Africa and Asia.  In the industrialised world, there is general trend away from conscription and towards volunteer, professional armies; combined with economic and social change this has made enlistment levels more difficult to sustain and placed downward pressures on recruitment age.


While many children fight in the frontline, others are used as spies, messengers, sentries, porters, servants and sexual slaves; children are often used to lay and clear landmines or conditioned to commit atrocities even against their own families and communities.   Most child soldiers suffer physical abuse and other privations within the armed forces;  in extreme cases, child soldiers are driven to suicide or murder when they cannot bear the mistreatment any longer.  When children are used as soldiers, all children in a conflict zone are often suspected and targeted by the warring parties.


While some children are recruited forcibly, others are driven into armed forces by poverty, alienation and discrimination.  Many children join armed groups after having experienced or witnessed abuse at the hands of state authorities.  The widespread availability of modern lightweight weapons has also contributed to the child soldiers problem, enabling even the smallest children to become an efficient killers in combat.  International political and military support for armed forces and armed groups using children, sometimes linked to the exploitation of natural resources like diamonds or oil, has in many cases deepened conflicts and the involvement of children.


Many governments and armed groups claim to use children because of a shortage of adult recruits.  But often children are recruited because of their very qualities as children – they can be cheap, expendable and easier to condition into fearless killing and unthinking obedience.  Sometimes, children are supplied with drugs and alcohol to achieve these aims.


Often child soldiers are recruited from second countries, among refugee communities or ethnic disasporas, and trafficked across borders.  Children from Angola, Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda have fought alongside their adult sponsors in the civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Children have been recruited from various countries of western Europe by Kurdish and Kosovar armed groups.


In many countries, military training and indoctrination is provided through schools and youth movements, often as a means of bolstering defence preparedness or recruitment levels.  In Iraq, thousands of children aged 10 to 15 participate in the Ashbal Saddam (Saddam Lion Cubs) youth movement formed after the 1991 Gulf War;  training reportedly include small-arms use, hand-to-hand combat, and infantry tactics.  In the United States of America, military-run programmes exist for children as young as eight.  In the Young Marines, boys and girls from age 8-18 wear uniforms, are assigned military ranks, and participate in “boot camp” and rifle drills;  the programme has over 200 units nation-wide, with 14,865 participants in early 2001.


The impact of soldiering on children


Child soldiers do not only lose their childhood and opportunities for education and development – they risk physical injury, psychological trauma and even death.  Children are often at an added disadvantage as combatants in relation to adults.


Widely perceived to be a cheap and expendable commodity, child soldiers tend to receive little or no training before being thrust into the front line.  In the early 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq war, thousands of Iranian children, many straight from school, were sent with popular militias to the frontline, often given a symbolic key to the paradise promised them as martyrs.  More recently, during the border war with Eritrea in 1999-2000, Ethiopian government forces reportedly press-ganged thousands of secondary schools students from marketplaces and villages, some of whom were used in human wave attacks across minefields. Children’s immaturity may lead them to take excessive risks — according to one armed group commander in the Democratic Republic of Congo, "[children] make good fighters because they’re young and want to show off. They think it’s all a game, so they’re fearless."


Children may begin participating in conflict from as young as seven. Some serve as porters (carrying food or ammunition) or messengers, others as spies.  In Myanmar, for instance civilians, including children as young as 10, are forced to porter for the military and even used as human shields and minesweepers:  the International Labour Organisation reported in 1999 that  children had been forced to sweep roads with tree branches or brooms to detect or detonate mines.  As soon as children are strong enough to handle an assault rifle or a semi-automatic weapon (normally at 10 years of age), they may be used in frontline roles. One former child soldier from Burundi stated that: "We spent sleepless nights watching for the enemy. My first role was to carry a torch for grown-up rebels. Later I was shown how to use hand grenades. Barely within a month or so, I was carrying an AK-47 rifle or even a G3."


When not actively engaged in combat, children can often be seen manning checkpoints.  In Afghanistan, young students from religious schools in Pakistan perform military service with the Taleban, policing urban centres and checkpoints to free more experienced fighters for the front line.    Others, such as 15-year-old Stevica in the Former Republic of Yugoslavia, perform domestic tasks:  I prepare the weapons, I write reports from the field and I cook. I work for the Serb Tigers. There are 100 of us from Macedonia but we are all Serbs.”


In many countries, girls too are used as soldiers, though generally in much smaller numbers than boys.  Many governments and armed groups around the world are increasing the recruitment and functions performed by females in their armed forces, in many cases including girls under the age of 18.   In Sri Lanka, for instance, young Tamil girls, often orphans, have been systematically recruited by the opposition Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) since the mid-1980s.  Dubbed “Birds of Freedom”, many are reportedly trained as suicide bombers as they may better evade government security.  In October 1999, 49 children, including 32 girls aged between 11 and 15 years of age were among the 140 LTTE cadres killed in a battle with the security forces at Ampakamam in the north.


Girls are at particular risk of rape, sexual slavery and abuse, although the exploitation of boys for these purposes is also reported.  Concy A., a 14-year old girl abducted from Kitgum in Uganda by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and taken to camps in Sudan told how “we were distributed to men and I was given to a man who had just killed his woman. I was not given a gun, but I helped in the abductions and grabbing of food from villagers. Girls who refused to become LRA wives were killed in front of us to serve as a warning to the rest of us."  Grace A. gave birth on open ground to a girl fathered by one of her [LRA] abductors:  "I picked up a gun and strapped the baby on my back"  and continued to fight the government forces.  In Colombia, girls fighting with armed groups are frequently subjected to sexual abuse.  The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) operates a “sexual freedom” policy and there are reports of young girls being fitted with inter-uterine devices;  one 15-year-old girl soldier who was killed was found to be pregnant.


Even in the supposedly sophisticated armed forces of industrialised countries, young recruits – especially girls – are subject to ‘hazing’, harassment and abuse.  In recent years, cases of  bullying and humiliation of under-18 recruits in the British Army have included mock execution, forced simulation of sexual acts, ‘regimental baths’ in vomit and urine and the forced ingestion of mud.   In August 1997, a 17-year-old recruit to the British Army was forced to perform a sex act and raped by a drunken instructor while she was on manoeuvres. She told the judge that she “didn’t shout out because he is a sergeant and a higher rank. You don’t disrespect your boss”.  (The instructor was jailed for seven years in November 1998.)  In 1999, one school district in the US state of Washington banned recruiters from schools after several Army recruiters from a local recruiting station were investigated for sexual harassment of high school girls. 


Besides the risk of death or injury in combat, child soldiers suffer disproportionately from the rigours of military life.  Younger children collapse under heavy loads;  malnutrition, respiratory and skin infections and other ailments are frequent.  Child soldiers may also be at additional risk of drug and alcohol abuse (often used to recruit children or desensitise them for violence), sexually transmitted disease, including HIV/AIDS, and unwanted pregnancies.  Auditory and visual problems are common, along with landmine injuries. 


Harsh training regimes and other forms of ill-treatment often lead to casualties and even deaths among young recruits.  In Paraguay, 56 under-18s died during their military service, six of them under the age of 18 in 2000 alone.  On 3 April 2001, 17-year-old Héctor Adán Maciel was shot by a fellow conscript after he refused to give him cigarettes. He died due to inadequate medical care as the Armed Forces argued that intensive care would be too expensive. Maciel was recruited at 16 after the armed forces reportedly falsified his mother’s signature on documents giving her consent.  Between 1982 and 1999,  92 recruits aged 16 and 17 died during service with the British Army, including four deaths as result of battle wounds or injuries. In 1998 one 16-year-old Royal Marine recruit drowned wearing full kit during a river-crossing exercise during a 30-week commando training course;  he was the fourth to die during training in two and a half years.


Children are often treated brutally and punishments for mistakes or desertion are severe.  In May 2001 four children in the Democratic Republic of Congo, aged between 14 and 16, were sentenced to death by a military court under a special law designed to crack down on looting and robberies by gangs of child soldiers.  In Ethiopia, young conscripts claimed that comrades who tried to escape during attacks were shot;  others who returned alive after battles were reportedly ill-treated, charged with desertion and even imprisoned in pits in the ground.  In September 2000, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child raised a general concern about the application of military laws to under-18 recruits, in possible contradiction with the Convention on the Rights of the Child and international standards on juvenile justice.


In many countries, child soldiers who are captured, escape or surrender often face ill-treatment, torture and even death. On 26 May 2000 in Nepal, one girl aged 17 was killed with five other Maoist suspects in Urma village, allegedly after being wounded and captured. In Burundi, the government has imprisoned and tortured children, many accused of collaborating with armed opposition groups, for long periods without charge or trial.   Others face retaliation from the community and are given little protection.  On 25 October 2000 in Sri Lanka, a mob from nearby villages attacked Bindunuwewa rehabilitation camp killing 26 inmates between the ages of 14 and 23; an inquiry is underway into the circumstances.  In Sierra Leone, many demobilised children have been re-recruited by armed groups, sometimes from rehabilitation camps themselves.


Whenever even a few children are involved as soldiers in a conflict, all children in that particular community or area - civilian or combatant - come under suspicion.  For instance, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and UN Special Rapporteurs have expressed concern about cases of extra-judicial execution, torture and ‘disappearance’ of juveniles suspected of involvement with armed groups in the northeast states of India.  On 15 August 2000 in Colombia, an army unit near Pueblo Rico, Antioquia, mistook a party of schoolchildren for a guerrilla unit and opened fire, killing six children aged between 6 and 10 and wounding six others.


The full psychological impact on children of participation in armed conflict, especially for those who have witnessed or committed atrocities, is only beginning to be understood.  According to one 14-year-old girl abducted by the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone in January 1999, “I’ve seen people get their hands cut off, a ten-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.”  >From Algeria, one report cites boys who appeared to be around the age of 12 decapitating a 15-year-old girl and then playing 'catch' with her head. 


However there is growing experience today in many parts of the world with the physical and psycho-social rehabilitation of child soldiers and their successful reintegration into society, some of which is documented in this report.  Often these programs combine the latest developments in psychology and child development with traditional custom and ritual. The adjustment from highly-militarised environments to civilian life can be extremely difficult, particularly for those who have lost or are rejected by their families or in societies where social infrastructure has been shattered by years of war.  Special attention needs to be paid in such programs to the experience and needs of girls, who have often been overlooked in assistance programs and disadvantaged by traditional patriarchal social values. 


These programs are vitally important to peacebuilding efforts and the long term stability and development of post-conflict societies.  The United Nations, including in Security Council Resolution 1314 of August 2000, has recognised the importance of incorporating the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of former child soldiers into peace negotiations and agreements, and donors are committing more resources to this critical area.  But a more consistent and long-term commitment is desperately needed if this problem is to be squarely addressed.




As this report shows, the use of children as soldiers is a global issue requiring a global response.  While the problem has been most critical in Africa and Asia, children are used as soldiers by governments and armed groups in many countries in the Americas, Europe and Middle East.  The following section provides a brief overview of each region, details of which can be found in the individual country entries contained in this report.


Sub-Saharan Africa


The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers believes that more than 120,000 children under 18 years of age are currently participating in armed conflicts across Africa, some no more than 7 or 8 years of age. In recent years, the countries most affected by this problem have been Angola, Burundi, Congo-Brazzaville, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Sudan and Uganda.


Burundi and Rwanda have the lowest legal recruitment ages on the African continent, seemingly 15 or 16 years for volunteers.  The overwhelming majority of African States set 18 as the minimum age for recruitment, whether voluntary or through conscription, in line with the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, but in too many cases these laws are not applied in practice.  Given the lack of systematic birth registration in many countries, however, younger children are inevitably recruited even where there is a will to prevent it.  Several countries, such as Uganda and Chad, appear to accept recruits under 18 with parental consent;  others, such as Botswana, Kenya and Zambia allow for the recruitment of children with the ‘apparent age of 18’.  Several countries, including South Africa and Mozambique, allow for the recruitment age to be lowered in time of war or national emergency;  Angola has reduced its minimum conscription age several times since 1993, currently set at 17.

Even in armed forces that otherwise appear to respect recruitment procedures, the creation of government-sponsored militia forces tends to open the floodgates to child recruitment. In Sierra Leone, up to 30 per cent of government-sponsored Citizens Defence Forces in some areas are children between 7 and 14, despite government promises to the contrary;  UN officials report that children are no longer used to guard checkpoints but are hidden in the bush.  During the 1998-1999 civil war, government militia in Congo-Brazzaville, widely blamed for serious human rights abuses, included many teenage children in their ranks.  In some countries, such as Burundi and Rwanda, military schools appear to serve as backdoor recruitment into the armed forces of tens of thousands of children.  In some cases it is difficult to distinguish between recruitment and traditional initiation rites of passage into adulthood, especially for young boys.  In Sierra Leone, for example, young boys are initiated into traditional hunting societies which have become integrally involved with civil defence militias.


Some countries have recruited children from across their borders – there were reports throughout 2000 of Namibian children being recruited by Angolan armed forces in the border region;  Ugandan and Rwandan armed forces were found to have recruited children to militias they have backed in the DRC’s civil war;  Kenyan street-children have reportedly been recruited by Burundi Hutu militias active in the same conflict;  Rwandan forces recruited children in neighbouring countries to fight in both the DRC and Burundi.


Armed groups throughout Africa have a flagrant record of recruiting children and using them in combat.  While some armed groups, such as the Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), have made public declarations and pledges to stop this abuse, these have often been flouted in practice.  Others have made no such promises.  Opposition forces in Sierra Leone, including the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) and Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC), have recruited children as young as seven in a civil war characterised by the most heinous human rights abuse.  In Uganda, the LRA has systematically abducted children from their schools, communities and homes to camps in Sudan, forcing them to commit atrocities and become sexual slaves.  Children who attempt to escape, resist, cannot keep up, or become ill are killed.   In Angola, more than 3,000 children were reported to be fighting with UNITA, many forcibly recruited or abducted (some from neighbouring Namibia);  girls as young as 13 had been forced to serve as porters, camp followers and concubines.


Middle East and North Africa


In the past two decades the Middle East and North Africa region has witnessed some of the worst and most egregious cases of the exploitation of children as soldiers.  In the early 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq war, thousands of Iranian children, many straight from school, were used by popular militias in human wave attacks against Iraqi forces, often given a symbolic key to the paradise promised them as martyrs.  Iraq also lowered its age for conscription and engaged in the widespread mobilisation of children during its war with Iran.  In Lebanon, large numbers of children actively participated in the civil war with various paramilitary groups – until recent years, the South Lebanese Army, a militia supported by Israel in South Lebanon, forcibly recruited young teenagers to its ranks.


Today, while the situation is vastly improved, children under 18 across the region continue to serve with government and opposition armed forces or to be subject to various forms of militarisation in their communities and schools.  The conflict in Sudan has long been recognised as one of the worst child soldier problems anywhere in the world.  Thousands of children as young as 12 have been forcibly recruited into government-aligned and separatist groups in the south of the country.  The Sudan Government has also provided support and protection to the Lord’s Resistance Army, responsible for the abduction, brutal treatment and sexual slavery of approximately 10,000 children from northern Uganda since 1987.


In recent years, some countries of the region have begun to make the shift from conscript to professional volunteer armies.  With changing economic and social conditions, some countries are finding it harder to attract voluntary recruits or ensure that young people complete their military service.  These factors often lead to a downward pressure on the minimum age for military recruitment as armed forces struggle to maintain personnel levels.  Several countries also rely on military personnel contracted from outside the region, including Pakistan and the United Kingdom, both of which recruit at 16.


Also common in the region is the mobilisation and militarisation of children through various militia and youth movements.  Children are enrolled in special military schools in many countries, or given military drill and indoctrination in regular school programs. 


Armed opposition groups throughout the region have a long history of recruiting and using children, sometimes from outside the region.  In Algeria and Egypt, Islamist opposition groups have been reported to recruit children below 15.  While information is difficult to confirm, various Kurdish armed groups in northern Iraq, Iran and Turkey have used child soldiers as young as ten.  Children have been used as soldiers or guards by Islamist groups, tribal militia and Qat farmers in Yemen.  Over past decades there has also been extensive political and material support from the region to governments and armed groups that have exploited children as soldiers, including in Uganda/Sudan, Lebanon, Chechnya and Afghanistan.  


Asia and the Pacific


There has been widespread and considerable child participation in armed conflicts across Asia and the Pacific, with tens of thousands of children recruited, sometimes forcibly, into governmental armed forces, paramilitary groups or militia and non-governmental armed groups.  The worst affected countries have been Afghanistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and, in the recent past, Cambodia.


Myanmar has one of the highest numbers of child soldiers in the world, both within governmental armed forces and non-governmental armed groups. Some children, often under 15 years of age, are attracted by the prestige and power of the military, but many others have been forced to join. Orphans and street children are particularly vulnerable. Through economic circumstance and tribal ties, children have also joined ethnic minority armed groups pitted against the Burmese military.


Sri Lanka has seen many thousands of children used as soldiers by the armed opposition group, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).  The LTTE has in the past mobilised special battalions of teenage girls and boys, some as young as ten years old.  In October 1999, 49 children, including 32 girls aged between 11 and 15 years of age were among 140 LTTE cadres killed in a battle with the security forces at Ampakamam in the north.   Despite international commitments to stop the use of child soldiers, there were reports throughout 2000 of renewed recruitment drives and military drilling in schools in LTTE-held areas.


In Afghanistan, a  generation of children have grown up under arms – first as members of the resistance to Soviet forces, later as members of Afghanistan’s many warring factions.  The Taleban movement which today controls much of Afghanistan’s territory and machinery of government continues to recruit young men trained and indoctrinated in Islamic schools or madrasas in neighbouring Pakistan. In 2000 there were also reports of escalating child recruitment by anti-Taleban forces in the north of the country.


During Cambodia’s past civil war, there was widespread use of children, including girls, in combat by both the governmental armed forces and the Khmer Rouge. Cambodia today faces a major challenge with the demobilisation, rehabilitation and reintegration of former child soldiers.


Children have also participated with armed groups in the ongoing lower-intensity conflicts across India, Nepal, the Philippines, Indonesia and, in the recent past, Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands.   Children were mobilised as part of pro-Indonesian militias in the lead up to the popular consultation on East Timor’s independence in September 1999;  while the pro-independence armed group FALINTIL once recruited children, East Timor’s new national council has set 18 as the minimum age for recruitment to the new nation’s military forces.


For their part, Australia and New Zealand follow the lower standard of their western alliance partners, recruiting at 17 (16 in exceptional cases in Australia).  China appears to conscript and accept volunteers, including girls, at the age of 17.  While Japan claims not to recruit below 18, it does accept youth cadets into its Self Defence Force for technical training from age 15.


Latin America


Although the incidence of child soldiering has reduced in Latin America as conflicts come to an end across the region, thousands of children under 18 years of age continue to fight with both state and non-state armed forces or groups. The countries most affected by this problem have been Colombia and Peru, although large numbers of children are serving in the Paraguayan armed forces and problems persist in Mexico. The reintegration of former child soldiers in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua continues to pose major challenges.


Most Latin American States set 18 years or more as the minimum age for recruitment into the armed forces, whether voluntary or through conscription.  Cuba is the only country in the region legally to conscript under-18s, although several countries allow voluntary recruitment at 16.  Domestic legislation is not always applied in practice, however, and in several countries – notably Paraguay and Peru – there are reports of underage recruitment to the armed forces.   Further, conscription laws are often applied in a discriminatory manner, targeting in particular the poor and minorities.


An almost universal feature of armed forces across the continent is the brutalisation of the recruits, especially young conscripts. In Argentina, abuse of recruits led to the ending of conscription, while problems are regularly reported in Bolivia, Chile, Cuba, Paraguay, Peru and Venezuela.  As noted above, 56 under-18s died during their military service in Paraguay, six of them under the age of 18 in 2000 alone. 


Government-aligned militias and paramilitaries have a long history of recruiting children during the civil wars that have beset the region.  In Colombia, for instance, up to 50 per cent of some paramilitary units have been under 18.   


Military schools are also a common feature across Latin America, enrolling tens of thousands of teenagers each year.   In some countries such as Chile, students are considered members of the armed forces. 


Armed opposition groups in the region have also been responsible for the recruitment and use of child soldiers.  In Colombia, the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC) has stated that its minimum age of recruitment is 15 and the National Liberation Army (ENL) has denied recruiting children under 16, but both groups are known to have recruited younger.  The FARC has even recruited children over the border with Venezuela where it runs some activities.  In Peru, the leftist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) movement was believed to have forcibly recruited several thousand children from indigenous communities in areas under its control before its eventual disintegration.


Europe, USA, Canada, Russia and Central Asia


The problem of child soldiers is not confined to situations of armed conflict in the so-called ‘developing’ world.  Some of the most industrialised countries of Europe and North America, with some of the most sophisticated armed forces in the world, continue to accept voluntary recruits at the age of 17, in some cases as young as 16. A Coalition survey of the Organisation for Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) found that more than half of all OSCE member States accept under-18s into their armed forces.


Alone among European States, the United Kingdom routinely sends 17-year-olds into combat – even though they are not allowed under domestic legislation to drink, vote in elections, or even join the police force. British child soldiers were killed in the Gulf War as well as the Falklands conflict, and some 50 under-18s served among the British contingent serving in the KFOR peacekeeping force in Kosovo (despite the ban on under-18s in UN peacekeeping forces).  Between March 1998 and March 1999, 36.38 per cent (or 9,466 recruits) of the total annual recruits were under 18.  Although the UK has now signed the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, it has refused to raise its minimum recruitment age and has entered an interpretive ‘declaration’ that refuses to guarantee the non-deployment of under-18 recruits.


Recent US military practice has been to assign soldiers to units, including combat units, after completion of basic and technical training. Any soldier who is still 17 after completion of his or her training may therefore be assigned to a combat unit and deployed into combat operations.  The United States has acknowledged that 17-year-old soldiers served in US operations in the Gulf War, Somalia and Bosnia.  In June 1999, the Pentagon reported that less than 100 17-year-olds were serving in combat units at that time, primarily in the Balkans region.


Despite being the first country to ratify the new Optional Protocol, Canada continues to accept voluntary recruits at 16 (although it has passed legislation to prohibit their deployment). 


The Russian Federation upholds 18 as the minimum age for all military recruitment, although there are disturbing reports about the attachment of young orphans and streetchildren to military units and camps.  The five Central Asian states – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – maintain conscript armies with a minimum age of 18.  Draft evasion and desertion are widespread, partly due to poor conditions, abuse and ill-treatment within the military.  Most of these countries are now embarking on reform programs that will downsize and professionalise their military forces with increased emphasis on voluntary recruits.  Islamist opposition groups in the region are reported to use child soldiers.


Children have participated in several European conflicts in recent years, mostly with armed opposition groups but sometimes with government-aligned paramilitaries.  In Bosnia-Herzegovina, Chechnya, Nagorno-Karabakh, south-east Turkey, Kosovo, possibly in Daghestan and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, children have spied, conveyed messages, carried weapons and ammunition, and, inevitably, killed and been killed.  Children have been recruited from second countries in Europe and North America by Kurdish and Kosovar armed groups, and possibly by forces involved in conflicts elsewhere.




The past few years have seen some major breakthroughs at the international level towards a global ban on the use of children as soldiers. 


The Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted in 1989 and today almost universally ratified, generally defines a child as “every human being below the age of eighteen years unless, under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier” (Article 1).  However, it set the lower age of 15 in relation to the military recruitment and participation of children in armed conflict, while calling on states recruiting under 18 to give priority to the eldest (Article 38).


From 1993, efforts were made by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and under the auspices of the UN Commission on Human Rights to strengthen this prohibition on the use of children as soldiers.  New momentum was given to this debate by the landmark study on children and armed conflict prepared by Graca Machel for the United Nations in 1995.  The UN Secretary-General, UNICEF, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, together with many governments, regional bodies and non-governmental organisations called for the prohibition of all forms of military recruitment and participation of children under the age of 18 years (what became known as the “straight-18” position).


After many years of negotiations, on 25 May 2000, the United Nations General Assembly adopted by consensus the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict.  The new Optional Protocol helps to correct this anomaly by raising from 15 to 18 years the minimum age for direct participation in hostilities, for compulsory recruitment and for any recruitment by non-governmental armed groups.   It also calls on states to raise the minimum age and implement strict safeguards for any voluntary military recruitment under 18.


While it falls short of the “straight-18” position, the Optional Protocol represents a significant step forward towards a global ban on child soldiers.  It also builds upon a number of other significant developments in international law:


·       The Rome Statute of a permanent International Criminal Court (ICC) defines “conscripting or enlisting children under the age of fifteen years into the national armed forces or using them to participate actively in hostilities” as a war crime when committed in either an international or non-international armed conflict (Article 8);


·       International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 182 concerning the prohibition and immediate action for the elimination of the worst forms of child labour, which entered into force in November 2000, defines a “child” as all persons under the age of 18 (Article 2) and  includes “...forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict” among the worst forms of child labour (Article 3);


·       the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, which entered into force in November 1999, prohibits the recruitment or direct participation in hostilities or internal strife of anyone under the age of 18 (Article  22);


·       the UN Security Council, in Resolutions 1261 and 1314, the UN General Assembly, the UN Commission on Human Rights, the Organisation for African Unity, the Organisation of American States, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the European Parliament have all condemned the use of children as soldiers;


·       the Organisation of the Islamic Conference has called for the non-recruitment of (refugee) children in any armed conflict;  His Holiness Pope John Paul II has prayed for an end to the use of child soldiers.


The key provisions of the Optional Protocol and these other international standards are outlined in more detail in Appendix Four of this report.




Why prohibit military recruitment under 18?


The Convention on the Rights of the Child generally defines a child as any person under the age of 18 (Article 1).  In the vast majority of countries, national laws set 18 as the voting age because it marks the formal transition from childhood to adulthood and the legal and moral responsibilities which come with it.   The same psychological maturity should therefore be required for making a decision to join the armed forces. 


Article 32 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child requires States to protect children from “any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education”.  Military service can jeopardise the health and safety of children.  Some aspects of recruits' training - particularly live-ammunition exercises and physical endurance programs – can lead to death, injury and trauma.


Power relationships in the military often leave young recruits vulnerable to bullying, harassment, abuse and sometimes even rape.


Voluntary recruitment is often a choice not exercised freely;  it is rarely based exclusively on the volition of the child, but tends to be conditioned by factors beyond his/her control.   The line between voluntary, compulsory and forced recruitment is often ambiguous in view of various environmental factors that may coerce children to ‘volunteer’.  Children from the poorest, least educated and most marginalised sectors of society are often encouraged to join the armed forces as an economic and employment alternative.


Once recruited, children are members of the armed forces. International humanitarian law, which includes the Geneva Contentions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols of 1977, makes a fundamental differentiation between "civilians" and "combatants".  Members of the armed forces are combatants under international humanitarian law, which means that they can lawfully kill and be killed, including when they are under 18 years of age.  This could lead to situations where a person under 18 is prohibited from participating in hostilities but is nevertheless a lawful target by virtue of the fact that he or she is recruited and therefore a member of the armed forces.


In many countries birth registration is inadequate or non‑existent and children do not know how old they are.  A minimum age of 18 can be more effectively enforced by recruiters assessing age on the basis of physical development.


END BOX ****


The Optional Protocol, together with other developments in the international legal framework, reflects the strong international consensus against the use of children as soldiers.  The use of children as weapons of war is like the use of landmines or chemical and biological weapons – simply unacceptable in any circumstances.


Universal ratification of the Optional Protocol will lay the basis for a global ban on the use of child soldiers, backed by effective legal and programmatic measures on the ground.  It would build upon the near universal ratification of the Optional Protocol’s parent Convention on the Rights of the Child.


At time of publication, 79 states have signed the Optional Protocol, four have ratified (Canada, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Andorra) and many others are in the process of doing so.  The Optional Protocol requires ten ratifications to come into force.


The UN General Assembly, the UN Security Council and the Secretary-General have called on all states to sign and ratify the Optional Protocol without delay.   This call was echoed by ministers participating in the International Conference on War-Affected Children held in Winnipeg in September 2000.  A series of regional conferences organised by the Coalition over the past two years have reinforced this call (see Appendix Five for conference declarations).


The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers is campaigning for all states to sign and ratify the Optional Protocol without reservations and setting at least 18 as the minimum age for all forms of military recruitment.   This ratification campaign has been endorsed and supported by the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and UNICEF.


Most significantly, and as borne out in this report, a majority of countries today do not recruit children into their military forces below the age of 18.  Many countries are taking this opportunity to review their current military legislation and practice and raise the minimum age for military recruitment to at least 18.   Even some non-state armed groups, of every description and from every part of the world, have made international commitments to abide by this standard.   For its part, the United Nations has set at least 18 and preferably 21 as the minimum age for civilian police and military observers on UN peacekeeping operations, one of the primary functions in which many armed forces are now engaged.


The Coalition hopes that this report, the first ever global survey of its kind, will generate new understandings of the dimensions of this problem and spur new efforts at the international, regional and national level for the protection of children from this abuse. 

Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers


The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers was formed in June 1998 to advocate for the adoption of, and adherence to, national, regional and international legal standards (including an Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child) prohibiting the military recruitment and use in hostilities of any person younger than eighteen years of age; and the recognition and enforcement of this standard by all armed forces and armed groups, both governmental and non-governmental. 


The Coalition was founded by six international NGOs – Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Save the Children Alliance, Jesuit Refugee Service, the Quaker United Nations Office - Geneva, and International Federation Terre des Hommes – and later joined by Defence for Children International, World Vision International, and regional NGOs from Latin America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific.  The Coalition has also established partners and national coalitions which are engaged in advocacy, campaigns and public education in nearly 40 countries (see separate section on National Coalition Activities). The Coalition has established and maintained active links with UNICEF, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, UNESCO, UNHCR, UNHCHR and the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict.


In just under three years the Coalition has generated considerable momentum towards its goal and is credited with having played an instrumental role in the adoption of the new Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflicts.  Achievements of the Coalition include:


·       Mobilising public pressure and political will to end the use of child soldiers and establish 18 as the minimum age for all forms of military recruitment and participation in armed conflict, both on the part of governments and armed groups;

·       Organising 5 regional conferences which produced strong political declarations, increased media exposure, ongoing NGO networks and practical recommendations for action; each conference brought together governments, international agencies and NGO representatives and produced strong consensus declarations;

i)               African Conference in Maputo, Mozambique, April 1999, bringing together 250 participants including representatives of 25 governments from the region;

ii)              Latin American and Caribbean Conference in Montevideo, Uruguay, July 1999, bringing together 100 participants from 20 countries;

iii)            European Conference, Berlin, Germany, October 1999, bringing together 180 participants including representatives of 29 European governments;

iv)             Asia-Pacific Conference, Kathmandu, Nepal, May 2000, bringing together over 120 participants including representatives of 16 governments from the region;

v)              The Amman Conference on the Use of Children as Soldiers in the Middle East and North Africa region in Amman, Jordan in April 2001 bringing together over 110 participants, including representatives of 15 governments from the region.

·       Prepared research reports on more than 170 countries covered in this report, detailing military recruitment laws, practice and (where appropriate) the use of child soldiers in conflict by both governments and non-state actors;

·       Published advocacy documents, created a website and disseminated information to the media;

·       Lobbied for the inclusion of child soldiers in the ILO Convention 182 on the worst forms of child labour;

·       Lobbied successfully for intergovernmental and regional bodies such as the OAU, OAS, OSCE, European Union and G8 to take up this issue.


Beyond standard setting


One of the Coalition’s key goals is to achieve universal ratification of the new Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict -- with a clear majority of states setting a “straight-18” ban on ALL recruitment as well as participation of under-18s.  In addition, the Coalition will be campaigning for ratification of ILO Convention 182, the ICC Statute and, where appropriate, the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. The Coalition will also continue to promote this issue in regional bodies such as ASEAN, SAARC, OAU, OAS and OSCE.


The Coalition is building a holistic and integrated program of action in the following three areas:


·      Research and monitoring:  having completed this first ever global survey of the use of child soldiers, the Coalition will build a global monitoring and reporting system that can keep research up to date and feed into UN bodies and ongoing campaigns;  the Coalition will also undertake in-depth research on particular countries and themes;


·      Campaigning and advocacy:  a global campaign for ratification of the Optional Protocol and necessary legislative change;  international campaigning actions focused on particular countries or non-state actors;  ongoing advocacy within UN system, donor agencies and regional bodies;


·       Programs and Capacity building:  the development of an inter-agency network for documenting and disseminating experience and best practice;  training and capacity building activities for NGOs in priority countries.


For more information on the Coalition and its activities, please visit



National Coalition Activities


Since its formation in 1998, the Coalition has established partners and national coalitions in nearly 40 countries.   These local campaigns have been organised in different ways, in some places formally constituted in others through loose networks of organisations and individuals.  They bring together international, regional and local human rights and children's rights non-governmental organisations, humanitarian and developmental agencies, peace and disarmament groups, veterans' associations and youth movements, teachers and students, religious groups and trade unions, academics and other interested individuals.  Together we number more than 500 organisations. These committed organisations and individuals have been the very heart of the Coalition's campaign and a critical factor in its success.


National coalitions and partners share the Coalition’s goal of stopping the use of children as soldiers - preventing their recruitment and use, securing their demobilisation, and ensuring their rehabilitation and reintegration into society.  In each country, they have organised tailored campaigns involving advocacy with governments and armed groups, media work and public education and awareness activities.


Their  primary goal has been to secure signature, ratification and effective implementation of the Optional Protocol, without reservations and setting at least 18 as the minimum age for all forms of military recruitment.  Many have helped to secure significant changes in their government's position on this issue, either during negotiations on the Optional Protocol or the review of national recruitment legislation.  National coalitions have also joined in targeted campaigns and appeals directed to particular governments or armed groups.


National coalitions and partners have organised workshops, assisted with information gathering and research or the production, translation and dissemination of Coalition materials, and helped to mobilise resources for our work.  Many have assisted with the production of this report.


Some of the highlights of activities in the past year include:


·       The Coalition held a special ceremony at the UN Millennium Summit in September 2000, at which was attended by leaders, ministers and officials from more than 30 countries


·       National Coalitions joined in special campaigning actions for the establishment of a special court in Sierra Leone that would try those who recruited children, the withdrawal of the UK's declaration upon signature of the Optional Protocol, an end to the recruitment and ill-treatment of under-18s in the Paraguayan military, and the demobilisation of child soldiers in Ethiopia and Eritrea;


·       Sustained lobbying by the US Campaign to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers helped to produce the significant shift in US policy which allowed the breakthrough in negotiations on the Optional Protocol in January 2000 and its subsequent signature by the Clinton Administration;  the US Campaign continues to press for US ratification;


·       In Sierra Leone, NGOs took to the streets with a major demonstration calling for an end to the use of child soldiers;  several Coalition partners in Sierra Leone are engaged in programs for the rehabilitation and reintegration of former child combatants;


·       The Colombian Coalition has actively promoted this issue, conducted research and monitoring, and held specialist workshops to develop techniques for prevention, rehabilitation and reintegration;


·       Members of the UK Coalition campaigned for a change in UK government policy on recruitment and deployment through letter-writing, petitions, children’s demonstrations, public meetings, and parliamentary initiatives;


·       In the Philippines, local NGOs organised a national consultation and workshop which fed recommendations on the demobilisation of child soldiers into peace negotiations between the government and armed groups;  similar workshops are planned in other parts of Southeast Asia;


·       In Nepal, NGOs mounted street theatre performances to create awareness of the dangers of child recruitment and organised speaking tours to remote districts of the country;


·       In March 2000, students from more than 20 high schools in San Francisco marched from Union Square to City Hall to gain support for an international ban on child soldiers


·       The German national coalition gave active support to the Coalition internationally and maintained national level advocacy in support of a “straight-18” position;  some of the organisations support programmes and partners working on the child soldier issue in war affected countries;


·       Indian NGOs are planning to hold a national consultation and workshop on child soldiers in mid-2001;


·       The Australian Coalition organised a major international conference on the use of child soldiers in Melbourne and has continued to press the government for ratification of the Optional Protocol and a change in recruitment policy;


·       In Italy, sustained campaigning saw the adoption of new legislation raising the minimum age of recruitment to 18 and government commitments to support the issue in international fora;


·       The Bangladeshi Coalition for Child Rights published brochures and the Bangladesh Development Partnership Centre conducted research on small arms and children in Bangladesh;


·       In Belgium, Coalition members campaigned actively for Belgian signature and ratification and to raise awareness through exhibitions, magazine articles and television programs, competitions, festivals and lectures to the armed forces;


·       In Peru, Coalition partners organised a public event that drew together a thousand children's voices, signatures and flowers in a solidarity action with child soldiers around the world


·       The Russian Coalition organised a collection of signatures for a petition to protect the human rights of children in Russia


·       Indonesian NGOs held an information session for government ministers on the Optional Protocol


·       In Ecuador, the Working Group on Children in Armed Conflict has campaigned actively and organised two successful workshops on the subject;


·       In Japan, Coalition partners worked with the government to host a variety of international symposia on the issue of child soldiers; Amnesty International Japan chose children as the focus for its thirteenth anniversary celebrations.


·       After a sustained campaign in Israel, the Israeli Defence Force announced that it will end the deployment of under-18s and stop accepting conscripts before their 18th birthday (but will continue to recruit 17-year-old volunteers).


For more information on Coalition activities, please visit our website or contact the coordinators listed in Appendix Six or the Coalition Secretariat:


PO Box 22696

London N4 3ZJ

United Kingdom

Tel:  44 20 7226 0606

Fax: 44 20 7226 0208