Documento creado: 20 de marzo de 2008
Air & Space Power Journal - Español  Primer  Trimestre 2008

Child Soldiers: Despair, Barbarization, and Conflict

John P. Sullivan

Young Sudanese Liberation Army members on patrol

Young Sudanese Liberation Army members on patrol. Source: With pertmission by 2004 Joanne Mariner, Human Rights Watch

Contemporary warfare is no longer the sole domain of adults and state forces. Children are increasingly involved in conflicts waged by nonstate actors: guerillas, terrorists, jihadi bands, gangs, criminals, and warlords. These groups utilizing child soldiers operate outside the norms of war and the rule of law, and have abandoned long-held prohibitions against terrorism, attacks on noncombatants, torture, reprisal, and slavery. These actors fight among themselves and against states for turf, profit, and plunder while accelerating the barbarization of warfare. This article examines the use of children in war and armed conflict. Specifically, it reviews the contemporary child-soldier issue and discusses child combatants in three settings: internal conflicts (civil wars and insurgencies), terrorism, and criminal gangs. Finally, it describes how children become child soldiers and looks at ways of responding to the problem.

Introduction: Defining Child Soldiers

Worldwide, over a half-million children (under 18) participate in armed forces, paramilitary, and nonstate forces.1 An estimated 250,000–300,000 of these child soldiers, some younger than 10 years old, are involved in over 30 conflicts.2 In fact, separate studies in Southeast Asia and Central Africa have placed the average age of child soldiers at just under 13.3 They are often “recruited” or abducted and then manipulated to participate in brutal violence directed at times against their own communities and families. Both girls and boys are exploited to participate in acts they frequently are unable to comprehend. The girls often are required to provide sexual as well as combat services.

Child soldiers

“Boys, some as young as 11, now outnumber foreign fighters at US detentions camps in Iraq. Since March, their numbers have risen to 800 from 100, said Maj. Gen Douglas Stone, the commander of detainee operations”. Zavis & Therolf, Los Angeles Times, August 27, 2007

The Cape Town Principles define child soldiers as any Person under 18 years of age who is part of any kind of regular or irregular armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to cooks, porters, messengers, and those accompanying such groups, other than purely as family members. It includes girls recruited for sexual purposes and forced marriage. It does not, therefore, only refer to a child who is carrying or has carried arms.4

Although juveniles have been features in past conflict, notably the Hitler Jugend at the end of World War II, they were never primary actors. This is changing radically. P. W. Singer documents this change in war fighting in his book Children at War, in which he recounts 10-year-old troops wielding AK-47s and teenagers becoming suicide bombs in a global juvenile jungle.5 Abducted, purchased, and even handed over by their own families, child fighters have been used as suicide bombers in Sri Lanka and Palestine, guerillas in Colombia and Afghanistan. According to the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Save the Children,

Children are recruited and used by armed groups around the world—both government and opposition—for a variety of reasons. It is generally easier to abduct, subjugate, and manipulate children than adults. Children are more impressionable and vulnerable to indoctrination. They can learn skills and tasks quickly, and they can be fast and agile on a battlefield. They are more willing than adults to take risks. Children are seen as more loyal and less threatening to adult leadership. It is easier for children to slip through enemy lines unnoticed, making them effective spies and bomb carriers. Children are typically viewed as cheap and expendable labor; they require less food and no payment. In addition, using child soldiers can present a moral dilemma to enemies: should they kill children? 6

Global instability; broad pools of children available for recruitment; continuing, often multigenerational, conflict; the proliferation of cheap, easy-to-use weapons; and weakened state structures fuel the trend of child military labor. Warlordism and “lawless zones” that fuel conflict allow warlords and terrorists to exploit disaffiliated children as low-cost, expendable troops. As a result, endless supplies of hungry, gullible, and malleable child warriors replace ideology and traditional military leadership.

The 2006 US Department of State report on child soldiers documents 25 countries in which child soldiers have been employed.7 Among the worst violators were the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC), government security forces in Burma, and both government forces and armed groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In nine of the 25 countries, children were forcibly conscripted by government forces; in three, children were reportedly used as human shields by both state and nonstate forces.

Civil Wars and Insurgency:
Children in Internal Conflict

In Liberia, Charles Taylor provides a notorious example of a warlord exploiting children to wage war. In the Liberian conflicts, up to 70 percent of the forces used by Taylor and his adversaries were children, amounting to nearly 20,000 child combatants. An escaped convict from Massachusetts, Taylor fled to Liberia and became a warlord through the exploitation of thousands of child soldiers, running a criminal enclave known as Taylor Land sustained by illegal trade worth $300 million a year. Eventually, his child army became the center of gravity of a force that took over the government of Liberia. Taylor demonstrated that child warriors could enable gangs to become low-cost, combat-effective forces—forces that are able to regenerate despite a lack of popular support and devaluation of ideology. Personal profit and plunder can become the fuel for ongoing conflict.

Mother sends son on a suicide mission
Mother sends son on a suicide mission. Source: Palestinian TV, section.php?id=3

A similar outcome is found in Joseph Kony’s LRA, which operates in northern Uganda. With about 200 adult followers, the cult-like gang has assembled a force that at its height consisted of 14,000 fighters, many of them children. The LRA uses all the tools of exploitation found in child armies—abduction, enslavement, beatings, rape, and sexual assault—to make escape and reintegration into society difficult if not impossible. The LRA has been able to stay in the field for over a decade.

US forces have also encountered child soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. An Afghan child was responsible for the death of the first US serviceman killed in the Afghan conflict, Sergeant First Class (SFC) Nathan R. Chapman, a Green Beret, on 4 January 2002; the child-warrior threat continued when a 15-year-old al-Qaeda fighter from Canada killed SFC Christopher Speer. Later on in Iraq, US forces encountered child soldiers in Saddam Hussein’s forces, some as young as 10 years old. In addition, at least five underage fighters suspected to be members of al-Qaeda or the Taliban have been imprisoned in the US military prison at Guantanamo Bay. 8

The spillover effects of children in conflict are great. Frequently, the children are acculturated into violence and continue to fight in one conflict or another until dead or incapacitated. Consider the case of Burma’s (Myanmar) Karen National Liberation Army, which fractured into a number of groups, including “God’s Army,” led by a pair of notorious 12-year-old twins, Luthur and Johnny Htoo. The threat is not limited to boys; girls are also increasingly deployed as child soldiers, with 30 percent of child-using forces deploying girls under 15. These girls with guns are found in 55 countries. In 27 of these, they were abducted; in 34 they saw combat; in virtually all, they are subject to sexual abuse, rape, and enslavement serving as “soldiers’ wives” and providing sexual services to their “leaders” and fellow fighters.

Child soldiers have also been used in Central and South America. For example during El Salvador’s civil war (1980–92), both the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) and the Armed Forces of El Salvador (FAES) were reported to have engaged children in their confrontation.9 “In 1998–1999 the José Simeón Cañas Universidad Centroamericana (UCA) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) carried out a survey of nearly 300 former FAES and FMLN child soldiers and found that three quarters of the FMLN respondents had been recruited between the ages of 10 and 14, while 80 per cent of FAES recruits had been 15 years or older at the time of joining.”10 Researcher Claudia Ricca reports that although only one group within the FMLN recruited children under 15, at times the conflict was so intense that children under 15 were used. As the conflict got worse, the ages of fighters decreased, their numbers increased, and their tasks morphed from support function in the rear to fighting in the front. 11

Colombia’s narco-insurgencies are also a forum for child soldiers. The over 40-year-old internal armed conflict has greatly impacted children in Colombia and the neighboring nations of Ecuador and Venezuela. Between 11,000 and 14,000 children of both sexes are believed to be involved in the armed conflict in Colombia.12 These child soldiers are used “in combat, logistical and intelligence work, to make explosives and in the recruitment of other children. They can be killed for trying to escape, disobeying orders or being unable to do what they are ordered to do. They are also exposed to other violations of their rights, such as torture, abuse and sexual slavery.”13

In Afghanistan both the Northern Alliance and Taliban are believed to use child soldiers. A Northern Alliance commander is reputed to have said, “Our cause is so great that even our children want to join us in fighting the enemy.”14 Likewise, while the Taliban denies using children to fight, a widely publicized beheading carried out by a child reinforces accusations of child activity.15

Insurgency and terrorism blur in modern operational space (op-space). In Iraq, al-Qaeda is increasingly using child soldiers. Youths as young as 10 are being recruited by al-Qaeda to join the Iraqi insurgency. According to Maj Gen Douglas Stone, head of US military detention operations in Iraq, al-Qaeda is targeting the “young and the most impressionable; I equate them with drug dealers.”16 Of the 4,000 prisoners in Camp Cropper, 950 are juveniles, some as young as 10. Most are from 15 to 17 years old. They are being held for actions ranging from planting improvised explosive devices to engaging in firefights. In January 2007, US forces had detained approximately 100 juveniles; in December 2007, the number is about 950.17

Once a rare presence on Iraq’s battlegrounds, child soldiers are now a significant feature in kidnappings, killings, and roadside bombings. According to General Stone, boys now outnumber foreign fighters. They “make effective fighters because they are easily influenced, don’t experience fear in the same way as adults and don’t draw as much scrutiny from U.S. forces.”18 These child fighters are paid between $200 to $300 to plant bombs and are glorified in Web stories that feature child martyrs. Both Sunni insurgents and their Shi’a counterparts, such as Sadr’s Mahdi Army, boast of child combatants.19

Terrorism: Children of Terror

Terrorist groups also use child warriors. In current news reportage, we see this threat accelerating. For example, al-Qaeda-related extremist groups are recruiting minors (i.e., “child soldiers”) to conduct terrorist attacks, according to the head of the UK’s Security Service, known as MI5. Teenagers as young as 15 are being recruited by terrorist groups in Britain. Director-General Jonathan Evans describes youngsters being turned into extremists, saying that “terrorists are methodically targeting young people and children in [the UK]. They are radicalizing, indoctrinating and grooming young, vulnerable people to carry out acts of terrorism. This year, we have seen individuals as young as 15 and 16 implicated in terrorist-related activity.”20

Child terrorists have been employed by several groups, including al-Qaeda, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), FARC, and LTTE. Singer observes that “groups such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad have pulled children into the terrorism game. More than 30 suicide bombings since 2000, according to Time magazine, have been carried out by children, and multiple juvenile al-Qaeda terrorists have been detained at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay in the special ‘Camp Iguana’ facility.”21 In an earlier essay, Singer also notes that children as young as 13 have been deployed as suicide bombers in the Palestinian conflict, that child suicide bombers have been used in Sri Lanka, and that Colombian guerillas used a nine-year-old boy to bomb a polling place in 1997.22 Child terrorism has also crossed the gender gap: women and girls are employed by the LTTE to circumvent the scrutiny and body searches of male security personnel.

Children serve in a variety of roles in these fourth-generation armies: infantry shock troops, raiders, sentries, spies, sappers, and porters.23 They are able to man “child-portable,” easy-to-handle weapons systems in an extremely effective manner, even when poised against adult troops. For example, in 1997 the LTTE’s Leopard Brigade—an elite child formation primarily comprised of orphans—surrounded and killed about 2,000 Sri Lankan army commandos, a loss that demoralized the whole army since children routed their elite vanguard.24

Criminal Gangs: Children as Gang Warriors

Conflict and crime are converging in many contested places around the world. Current concerns of the UN special representative for children and armed conflict include so-called borderline situations. One such example is in “Haiti, where armed violence and conflict have created an environment in which grave violations are being committed against children by criminal gangs, many of which also appear to have strong links to political parties. In Haiti, such armed groups control territory, particularly in the capital, Port-au-Prince, and other cities, such as Gonaives, and they are systematically recruiting children as fighters, spies, informants and gun and drug carriers.”25

The exploitation of children as warriors and terrorists is strikingly similar to the dynamics of street-gang violence in Los Angeles and that employed by maras throughout Latin America. As gangs morph and migrate into transnational criminal bands, there is a potential for a deadly convergence between third-generation gangs with child soldiers.26

Journalist Fred Weir of the Christian Science Monitor observes that “any place where there is some combination of conflict, breakdown of services, economic collapse or absence of governance is a potential deathtrap for children.”27 These places or “ungoverned spaces” or “lawless zones” are incubators of conflict. Lawless zones can be found in the barrios, favelas, gecekondas, chawls, ghettos, and megaslums of global cities; in rural enclaves or frontiers; or in the desakotas (urban villages) where sprawl has blurred the distinction between urban and rural, center and periphery. They are regions ranging from a few small blocks to large, uncontested areas and failed states where state institutions such as the police and traditional government services hold minimal or no traction. Gangs fill the political void and seek to further their ends through violence:

Crime and violence often blur when criminal enterprises seek to incapacitate enforcement efforts by the state, its police, and security forces. The use of violence as political interference has traditionally been a phenomenon of failed states, but a similar phenomenon occurs when street gangs exploit “failed Communities” and dominate community life.28

Endemic violence and lawless zones are synonymous with the global cities of discord described in Mike Davis’s recent book Planet of Slums. In the slums and megaslums described by Davis, the informal sector reigns and is fraught with conflict. Such conflict “is usually transmuted into ethnoreligious or racial violence. The godfathers and landlords of the informal sector (invisible in most of the literature) intelligently use coercion, even chronic violence to regulate competition and protect their investments.”29 Sectarian violence is also a prominent feature of such areas. Slum life with its informal political and economic structure “is a semifeudal realm of kickbacks, bribes, tribal loyalties, and ethnic exclusion. Urban space is never free. A place on the pavement, the rental of a rickshaw, a day’s labor on a construction site, or a domestic’s reference to a new employer: all of these require patronage or membership in some closed network, often an ethnic militia or a street gang.”30

Megaslums with their subsistence economies can trigger a wide variety of responses to structural failure, deprivation, and neglect. These can be positive (NGOs, church or social movements) or predatory (maras, street gangs, militias, or as seen in the “edge cities” surrounding Istanbul, Cairo, Casablanca, London, or Paris al Salifia Jihadia).31 Failed states and ‘lawless zones’ fuel a bazaar of violence where warlords and martial entrepreneurs fuel the convergence of crime and war.”32 The endless conflict in such zones is fueled by and exploits gang members and child soldiers.

In many ways, the exploitation of children as warriors and terrorists in contemporary conflict zones is similar to the dynamics of street-gang violence “where bands of youths seeking turf, belonging and power use violence as a salve for their powerlessness to intimidate and dominate ‘failed communities.’”33 This is occurring worldwide. Gangs like the Sexy Boys and Hard Livings in Cape Town’s poor sections are growing in sophistication and brutality, and they increasingly seek children as members.34

Gangs are a form of organized armed group that incubate in “failed communities” or “lawless zones.” Although dangerous, they possess a number of “positive attributes for those that belong to them, and in some cases, even those that don’t. Often they fulfill social, political or economic functions in the communities they dominate.”35

Rio de Janeiro’s favelas provide an important case study of children engaged in armed violence.36 More people (especially children) die from small-arms fire in Rio than in many conventional armed conflicts. Although not politically oriented armed groups, “Rio’s drug factions are a territorial and openly armed paramilitary presence in most of the city’s favelas.”37 Many similarities between child soldiers and Rio’s “youth drug faction workers” have been observed. These include voluntary recruitment, weapons use, and participation in armed confrontation.

Consider the case of Ricardo M. He was 11 years old when he first killed. It was nighttime in the favela. Together with members of the “Terceiro Commando,” Rio’s second-largest gang, he was partying and ready for initiation into the group. To seal his bond, a teenager reputed to have informed on a member of the gang was tortured and then placed on his knees. Ricardo M. now had to execute the “traitor” with a .38-caliber revolver. Ricardo passed the initiation; he fired the gun and was now a “soldier” in the gang.38 Such violence is endemic. Children in Rio are waging war on behalf of drug gangs to extend or secure control of the cities’ favelas—300 of 700 of which are controlled by gangs.39 According to the chief justice of Rio’s juvenile court, Guaraci de Campos Viana, “The drug mafia recruits children as young as nine or 10,” adding that “children have no sense of danger.”40

The drug gangs exploit the absence of legitimate structure of governance. “The government is almost completely absent from most slums and police presence is rare. The drug gangs are often so well armed that only heavily armed special units dare to enter the favelas.”41 Similar circumstances are found throughout Latin America. “In El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, adolescents are dying every day in battles between warring ‘Maras,’ or youth gangs. From Caracas to São Paulo, Mexico City to Buenos Aires, Central and South America are experiencing a dramatic upswing in youth crime.”42

Such “urban child soldiers” have been described as “children and youth employed or otherwise participating in organized armed violence where there are elements of a command structure and power over territory, local population or resources. Organized armed groups include institutionalized street gangs, maras, and pandillas, drug factions, ethnic militias, vigilantes and even paramilitary groups acting in non-war scenarios.”43

The situation in Rio is not conventional war or insurgency. Since the drug factions have no stated intent of supplanting the state, many child-rights activists feel that the term “child soldiers” is imprecise; yet, due to the level of armed confrontation, territorial domination, and power of local populations, the term “juvenile delinquent” is also inaccurate. In order to bridge this gap, they have termed such youths as “Children and Youths in Organized Armed Violence” (COAV) in order to avoid legitimizing already-high levels of lethal state force deployed against them.44

The working definition of children and youths engaged in armed groups—such as institutionalized street gangs in the United States and South Africa, Central American maras and pandillos, Jamaican area and corner gangs, Brazilian drug factions, and similar groups elsewhere—has been articulated as

COAV—children and youth employed or otherwise participating in Organised Armed Violence where there are elements of a command structure and power over territory, local population or resources.45

Essentially, this level of “third generation gang” violence amounts to a “criminal insurgency” that challenges the legitimacy of state functions and the rule of law. Children largely wage these gang insurgencies. As stated by the special representative for children and armed conflict,

Many of today’s conflicts involve non-state actors and shifting landscapes of transnational organized crime. Security vacuums feature an increase in paramilitary forces and the privatization of conflict. Situations of armed violence fall into grey areas as traditional definitions of armed conflict erode. Despite distinctions in legal frameworks, the experience for children is the same. The situation in Haiti clearly highlights how, in a conflict-affected State with extreme poverty and corruption, armed groups, many with links to political parties, can quickly move towards organized crime, including drug and arms trafficking. A child recruited by an armed group one day may be labeled a gang member the next as political realities evolve.46

How Children Become Child Soldiers

Palestinian kids

Palestinian kids. Source: Palestinian TV,

Child soldiers are youth exploited by a global security situation in which conflict, economic pressures, extreme poverty and hunger, failed states, and “lawless zones” prevail. The impact of the AIDS pandemic and the surplus population of orphans, at risk of disease, hunger, and crime, provide fodder for the recruitment—forced or otherwise—of child soldiers. The result: children can make the fiercest soldiers, emerging as the new warriors in the twenty-first century wherever wars rage.47 For example, in the Philippines, children are willingly joining guerilla groups to escape seething poverty. A UNICEF-commissioned report, issued in December 2007, found that fear of government forces, poverty, and limited human services attracted some children to join both the communist New People’s Army (NPA) and the Islamist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Both the NPA and MILF use children below the age of 18 in noncombat roles such as couriers, spies, and cooks.48

As Singer notes, a desperate global-security situation fuels the use of child soldiers: “desperate and excluded children constitute a huge pool of labor for the illegal economy, organized crime and armed conflicts.”49 Warlords, gangsters, and terrorists recruit from this listless mass. In Africa alone, a third of all children are malnourished, and by 2010 this will rise to one-half. This emerging generation of disconnected children is the ranks from which child soldiers are born. Abduction and forced recruitment are standard means of initiating the involvement of children in conflict.

Abduction is often followed up with killing, rape, and beatings. The “inductee” complies or dies. Even voluntary recruitment (roughly two-thirds of child soldiers volunteer or are enticed to join with some kind of “inducement”) is colored by poverty, hunger, displacement, and the need for a sense of belonging or revenge. Indoctrination follows. This includes coercion of various types: “brainwashing” or psychological conditioning, including forced participation in ritualized killing, or participation in atrocity, and occasionally “branding” like slaves to provide a disincentive for escape. Typically this results in dissociation; for example, in the case of a child formation in Sierra Leone, the child fighters called themselves “cyborgs” to denote their status as killing machines with no feelings.

After abduction, training follows. An example of this is provided by the LTTE (which also uses child suicide bombers), an organization that breaks the links with families; regulates sleep and food; emphasizes drill, indoctrination, and weapons training—all the while extolling the virtues of risk taking. This results in more capable and daring war fighters than typical adult recruits. When action emerges, the result is effective combatants who operate with audacity and impunity. Higher casualties, enhanced confusion, and the presence of fighters whom conventional forces are conditioned not to harm result in serious threats to civilians and conventional forces when child fighters are present.

Child warriors deploy with a sense of fearlessness, take undue risks, have a diminished sense of mortality, and are unable to fully weigh the consequences of their actions. Frequently, these factors are reinforced by the use of alcohol and drugs. Children can become the fiercest of fighters, in essence becoming audacious killing machines operating in small units under the command of a small number of adults. Their numbers and firepower are often directed into mass charges of human-wave attacks with the children viewed as expendable.

Recruitment of children in regional and cross-border conflicts is also of growing concern. According to the special representative of the secretary-general for children and armed conflict, “Cross-border recruitment of children and their recycling in regional conflicts” are significant challenges in which “significant numbers of children and young people are being compelled to join armed groups and take up lives as fighters because this may provide them and their families with a measure of protection in highly volatile and insecure settings, or in environments where war may represent the most viable livelihood.” 50

Responding to the Child-Soldier Problem

The use of child soldiers violates international law and is the result of the willful, systematic erosion of the ethical injunctions against the use of child fighters. The two Additional Protocols of 1977 regarding international and internal armed conflicts, respectively, impose the obligation on parties to conflict to “take all feasible measures in order that children who have not attained the age of fifteen years do not take a direct part in the hostilities.”51 The Additional Protocols also call upon parties to refrain from child recruitment. In addition the 1988 Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court makes using child soldiers a war crime. Human-rights law also weighs in. The 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) sets 15 as the minimum age for going to war.52 Yet in many African nations beset by internal conflict, for example, typically one-half the population is under the age of 15, making child participation in war fighting likely.53 In 2000 the General Assembly adopted the “Optional Protocol to the Convention of the Rights of the Child,” raising the age of legal participation in war to 18.

The United States Congress is currently exploring enacting legislation to deny US military assistance to countries that employ child soldiers. In the bill, known as the “Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2007,” countries clearly identified in the State Department Human Rights Report as recruiting or using child soldiers in government forces or government-supported paramilitaries or militias in violation of international standards would be eligible for military assistance only to address the issue of child soldiers or to professionalize their armed forces until the problem is resolved. 54

The use of child fighters results from deliberate choices by actors ready to thwart the rule of law in the pursuit of raw power, plunder, and profit. The loss of these norms turns the practice of the last four millennia of warfare on its head. Despite a strong customary and codified objection in international humanitarian law to proscribe the use of children in combat, the practice is on the rise.

In the past, active child soldiering was normally outside the scope of war. Today, child soldiers are a viable threat to conventional forces. Facing child soldiers can demoralize troops, expose them to great danger, and have negative results on public perception. New, area-specific rules of engagement that factor-in the presence of child fighters, when their action is likely, must be crafted. These rules must be supported by intelligence assessments that factor-in the cultural situation and potential for facing child soldiers. Failure to do so could have severe tactical consequences. The reluctance to face child soldiers is a cultural artifact that must be tempered to ensure both force protection and mission success. A child bearing an AK-47 or suicide bomb poses a threat, regardless of age—a reality that police have long faced with gang members and violent juvenile offenders.

Effects-based operations at the tactical level may assist. Often, adult leaders are the center of gravity for child soldiers. Eliminating the adult leadership and countering child swarms by holding them at a distance and applying indirect fire in an effort to shock and disperse may be effective. Nonlethal-weapons options may provide an additional choice for neutralizing and disrupting the threat in an effective and humane fashion. Additionally, force-protection efforts should require children to be scrutinized to the same degree as adults. (Not all children are threats, but all require scrutiny.)


Child soldiers today are a reality, and they are likely to continue to plague future battlespace and op-space. Fighters as young as 10 years old can deploy “child portable weapons,” yielding firepower equivalent to that of a Napoleonic-era regiment. Although that may have little effect on modern mechanized forces, the impact on peacekeeping, counterinsurgency, and constabulary operations—not to mention civilians—could be devastating. Child warriors are on the front line and can be expected to remain a major factor in future warfare and terrorism. Every effort must be made to convince child soldiers to stop fighting and seek rehabilitation and reintegration into society. The triad for military operations against child soldiers can be summarized as intelligence, force protection, and effects-based engagement (including nonlethal weapons, information operations, and all means of shaping the opposition). In all cases, postconflict debriefing and treatment opportunities should be made available to units exposed to child warriors.

Immediate steps must be taken to eliminate children from active combat roles in internal wars, terrorist campaigns, and urban gang wars. This requires awareness of the threat, support of international human-rights law, international humanitarian law, and criminal law at both the state and international levels. In addition, both military and police forces need to be aware of the associated threats and train to face child soldiers. Ultimately military and civil security forces must work with communities and NGOs to build options for children who may be prone to becoming child soldiers, or to reintegrate child soldiers (of all types) into civil society. Containing the spread of child soldiers can help mitigate the despair and barbarization attendant in present and emerging conflicts.


1.  For the purposes of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programs, UNICEF defines a “child soldier” as any child—boy or girl—under 18 years of age who is part of any kind of regular or irregular armed force or armed group in any capacity.  This includes but is not limited to cooks, porters, messengers, and anyone accompanying such groups other than family members.  It includes girls and boys recruited for forced sexual services and/or forced marriage.  The definition, based on the 1997 “Cape Town Principles,” is not limited to a child who is carrying, or has carried weapons.

2. The exact number of child soldiers in unknown.  Current UNICEF estimates are approximately 250,000 child soldiers, down from previous estimates of 300,000.  Ambiguity and the dynamics of conflict zones make accurate accounting problematic.  See “Factbox-Hot spots of child soldier recruitment,” Reuters. 31 July 2007 found at

3.  P.W. Singer, “Western militaries confront child soldiers threat, Jane’s Intelligence Review, 01 January 2005.

4.   The Cape Town Principles were adopted at the Symposium on the Prevention and Recruitment of Children into the Armed Forces and on Demobilization and Social Integration of Child Soldiers in Africa; 27-30 April 1997, Cape Town, South Africa.

5.  See P.W. Singer, Children at War, New York: Pantheon Books, 2005 for a detailed review of child soldiers involved in insurgency and terrorism worldwide.

6. Mark Lorey, Child Soldiers: Care & Protection of Children in Emergencies, A Field Guide, Save the Children Foundation, 2001.  Found at

7. United States Department of State, 2006 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. Found at

8. In addition to coverage in Children at War, these are recounted in P.W. Singer, “Talk is Cheap: Getting Serious About Preventing Child Soldiers, “ 37 Cornell Int’l L.J. 561 (2004)

9. Claudia Ricca, “Children in the Farabudo Martí National Liberations Front (FMLN) and the Armed Forces of El Salvador (FAES),” Forum on armed groups and the involvement of children in armed conflict; Chateau de Bossey, Switzerland, 4-7 July 2006.  Found at Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers:

10. Beth Verhey, The Demobilization and Reintegration of Child Soldiers: El Salvador Case Study, World Bank, 2001 as cited by Ricca, ibid., p.6.

11. Interviews with former armed opposition group members, El Salvador December 2005 as cited by Ricca, ibid. P. 6.

12. Human Rights Watch, Colombia: Armed Groups Send Children to War, 22 February 2005; and UNICEF Panorama: Colombia, as cited by Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers/Coalición contra la vinculación de niños y jóvenes en el conflicto armado en Colombia, “Armed Conflict in Colombia Report: Frontiers: Childhood at the Borderline,” February 2007, p. 8.

13. Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers/Coalición contra la vinculación de niños y jóvenes en el conflicto armado en Colombia, “Armed Conflict in Colombia Report: Frontiers: Childhood at the Borderline,” February 2007, p. 8.  Available in Spanish as «Informe Conflicto Armado en Colombia: Fronteras: La Infancia en el Límite,» Febero de 2007; found at

14. Swapna Kona, “Child Soldiers in Afghanistan,” IPCS Special Report, No. 44, June 2007, New Delhi: Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. Found at

15. Ibid.

16. “More youths join al-Qaeda: US generals,” The Straights Times, 04 December 2007.

17. Ibid.

18. Alexandra Zavis and Garrett Therolf, “Children doing battle in Iraq,” Los Angeles Times, 27 August 2007;,0,6380385.story?coll=la-home-center.

19. Ibid.

20. Michael Evans and Philip Webster, “Children of 15 groomed to carry out terrorist acts, MI5 head says,” Times of London, 06 November 2007;

21. Peter W. Singer, “Tragic Challenge of Child Soldiers,” USA Today, 30 March 2005.

22. Peter W. Singer, “Terrorists Must Be Denied Child Recruits,” Financial Times, 20 January 2005.

23. P.W. Singer, “Caution: Children at War, Parameters, Winter 2001-02, pp. 40-56.  Found at

24. Ibid.

25. Report of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict,” Sixty-second session of the General Assembly. New York:  United Nations, A/62/228; 13 August 2007, p. 4.

26. In many ways street gang members are actually child soldiers already.  For a discussion of gang evolution and third generation gangs, see John P. Sullivan, “Third Generation Street Gangs: Turf, Cartels, and Net Warriors,” Transnational Organized Crime, Vol. 3, No. 3, Autumn1997, pp. 95-108, John P. Sullivan, “Urban Gangs Evolving as Criminal Netwar Actors, Small Wars & Insurgencies, Vol. 11, No. 1, Spring 200, pp. 82-96, and Max G. Manwaring, Street Gangs: The New Urban Insurgency, Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, Us Army War College, March 2005.

27. Ruth Gidley, “Sex abuse, work and war deny childhood to tens of millions, Reuters AlertNet, 09 July 2006.

28. John P. Sullivan, “Gangs, Hooligans, and Anarchists—The Vanguard of Netwar in the Streets,” p. 108.

29. Mike Davis, Planet of Slums, New York: Verso, 2006, p. 185.

30. Ibid.

31. Ibid, p. 201-202.

32. John P. Sullivan, “Child Soldiers: Warriors of Despair,” Small Wars Journal, Vol. 2, July 2005 found at

33. John P. Sullivan, “Child Soldiers: Warriors of Despair.”

34. Robyn Dixon, “Cape Town Gangs Seek Out Children,” Los Angeles Times, 25 September 2006 fund at,1,186603.story?coll=la-headlines-world.

35. Luke Dowdney, neither War nor Peace,: international comparisons of children and youth in organized armed violence, Rio de Janeiro: COAV, 2005 found at

36. See Luke Dowdney, Children of the Drug Trade: A Case Study of Organized Armed Violence in Rio de Janeiro, Rio de Janeiro: Viva Rio/ISER, 7 Letras, 2003, p. 11.

37. Ibid, p. 12

38. Jens Glüsing, “Child Soldiers in the Drug Wars,” Der Spiegal, Spiegal Online, 02 March 2007;,1518,469510,00.html.

39. Ibid.

40. Ibid.

41. Ibid.

42. Ibid.

43. Rebeca Pérez and Clarissa Huguet, “Children in Organized Armed Violence,” Child Soldiers Newsletter, Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, Issue 15, January 2007. Pp 10-11.

44. Ibid. p. 12-13.

45. Ibid, p. 13

46. “Report of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict,”, A/62/228, p. 17.

47. Michael B. Farrell, “Children make deadly soldiers in the world’s rebel groups: Poverty and AIDS provide thousands of young recruits,” Christian Science Monitor, 18 January 2005, p.15.

48. “Children willingly join guerilla groups in Philippines: report,” Agence France Press, as reported in Yahoo News, 05 December 2007;

49. Peter W. Singer, “Children at War: The Lost Generation,” theGlobalist, Globalist Bookshelf, 16 March 2005.  Found at

50. “Report of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict,”, A/62/228, p. 4.

51. 1977 Protocols additional to the 1949 Geneva Conventions.  Additional Protocol I, Art. 77[2] is applicable to international armed conflict, Additional Protocol II, Art. 4 [3c] is applicable in non-international armed conflicts.

52. The UNCRC has not been ratified by the United States.

53. Anna Cataldi, “Child Soldiers,” Roy Gutman and David Rieff (Eds.), Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1999, pp. 76-78

54. See S.1175, The Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2007, a bill to end the use of child soldiers in hostilities around the world, and for other purposes. 


John P. Sullivan is a researcher and practitioner specializing in intelligence, counterterrorism, counterinsurgency, and urban operations. He is a lieutenant with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, where he is presently assigned as Tactical Planning Lieutenant in the Emergency Operations Bureau. His current research focus is civil-military interaction and emerging threats at the intersection of crime and war.

Disclaimer: The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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