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Child soldiers

Tamsin Walker
June 29, 2014

A recent Human Rights Watch report highlighted the willingness of children to fight in the deadly Syrian conflict. But even those minors who volunteer for armed combat emerge from it scarred and in great need of help.

Child running with a gun
Image: Getty Images/AFP

What is immediately apparent from the Human Rights Watch report "Maybe We Live and Maybe We Die" is that the children wielding weapons in the fragmented Syrian conflict are there by choice rather than force.

Moved to tread the dangerous path as a result of being detained and tortured by government forces, in order to feel powerful in a climate where violence has replaced education or because they wanted to follow their fathers, brothers and cousins, hundreds of minors are known to have lent or given their lives to the complex war.

The leader of one Free Syrian Army (FSA) group, the Saif Allah al-Maslool brigade, told Human Rights Watch that boys of 16 and 17 are no longer young, and that if not recruited they would go and fight by themselves regardless. The implication being that they know what they want and they won't stop until they get it.

In the report, one young man, Samir, recounts how he joined an FSA brigade weeks after his release from detention at the hands of pro-Assad forces. After attending two military training camps, he was armed and unleashed. "My role was to attack checkpoints with other fighters," he told HRW researchers. "I was on the frontline and I used a Kalashnikov."

Lax barriers

Samir was 17, and as such, a minor. Yet for all that, he was several years older than some of the children who had taken up arms in the ongoing battle and others like it around the world. Their involvement contravenes the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child as adopted by the UN in 2000 - and to which Syria is a party.

Child soldier in Aleppo, Syria
Human Rights Watch reports children as young as 13 fighting in Syria's warImage: Guillaume Briquet/AFP/Getty Images

Besides decreeing that state parties should take "all feasible measures" to ensure minors do not take part in hostilities, the document stipulates that armed groups external to state military, "should not under any circumstances, recruit or use in hostilities persons under the age of 18 years."

Syria is by no means the only country in the world where the regulations are routinely flouted. The British NGO War Child estimates that there are currently 250,000 child soldiers in the world, a state of affairs that Richard Clarke, Director of Child Soldiers International blames on insufficient practical barriers.

"There is no one solution, but there are a series of measures that could be put in place to prevent the recruitment of children, even those who want to fight," Clarke told DW. They include universal birth registration, monitoring of military recruitment practices and effective age verification practices.

Accountability counts

The fact that children lie about their age to secure themselves a place in the ranks of the armed and dangerous is no secret, but Priyanka Motaparthy, researcher in the Children’s Rights Division of Human Rights Watch says no armed group should be allowed to hide behind such a veiled excuse.

And that means accountability. Two years ago, Thomas Lubanga, a former Democratic Republic of Congo rebel leader became the first person ever to be convicted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague. His crime was the recruitment and use of child soldiers during his time as leader of the Union of Congolese Patriots.

Thomas Lubanga at the International Criminal Court
Thomas Lubanga was convicted by the ICC for recruiting and using child soldiersImage: Reuters

"Of course part of the struggle is getting the situation referred to the ICC, but if that happens, it is absolutely possible to hold commanders to account for using children," Motaparthy said.

It doesn’t matter, she adds, whether a child volunteers to join a military movement, is coerced or forced - those who allow, encourage or enable it should be made to pay for what they have done. They ruin young lives, and often times the chance of a stable adulthood.

"Even the after-effects of war on experienced adult soldiers are devastating to mental and physical health," she said. "And coming back into life as a civilian when you have experienced the kinds of violence and horror these children have seen is really hard."

Downward spiral

Those who have been armed as minors have been exposed to so much more than combat itself. They have been separated from their families and communities, have lived through bereavement at a young age and have often been subjected to sexual exploitation and the resulting stigmatization. Clarke says profound depression and behavioral difficulties are common consequences, which give rise to further complicated repercussions.

"If a child is having conduct problems, there is a build up of mistrust which makes it very hard to reintegrate them into the community," Clarke said. "It’s a downward spiral."

He sees the only hope in recovery and rehabilitation programs, but says there are currently not enough of them. Those that do exist, he says, are often not readily accessible and invariably too short-term.

Child soldier in Aleppo, Syria
Experts say it is crucial to rehabilitate and successfully reintegrate children who have been active in combatImage: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images

"You have to consider these children's needs. They lack education, skills, a sense of belonging to their community or family, they are stigmatized and damaged in many different ways, so what they need is long-term investment," Clarke explained, adding that they are simply not getting it.

That is not only bad for the individual. A poor sense of reintegration leads to feelings of grievance and thoughts of revenge, which heightens the chance of renewed conflict. Even if it doesn't come to that, there is no escaping the fact that unheeled scars affect the well-being of any post-conflict state relying on its young to meet the challenges of reconstruction and help usher in a new era of socio-economic success.