Child Soldiers in Africa - the Violence of Human Rights

One of the most horrifying features of the contemporary armed conflicts is common recruitment of children as soldiers. Child soldiers can be found in all parts of the world, in the majority of the armed conflicts. According to the latest data, 300 000 child soldiers are involved in over 30 current conflicts around the world. However, a real number of child soldiers can be even higher for when children die or are wounded, or become older, other volunteers immediately take their places. In this way, the destruction of young lives lasts and passes from one generation to another. According to the data of Global Report on Child Soldiering (2004), the majority of child soldiers are juveniles, although many of them are ten years old or even younger (Topa, 2007). The problem pertains to both sexes. Though most of child soldiers are boys, girls are employed as well. For example, in Ethiopia, girls covered nearly 25 percent of opposition forces in the civil war of 1991 (Topa, 2007).

Despite all the negative sides of the use of children in war, it is not a recent phenomenon. According to multiple sources, child soldiers appeared long before the 21st century. To prove this, it is enough to have a look at the Children’s Crusade of the 13th century. Particularly Sabina Loriga states that the Prussian Kantonsystem established by Frederick Wilhelm the First demanded all males to undertake military training for two or three months annually. The age of those recruits ranged from the age of 10 and older (Schmidt, 2007). The experts of the Western civilization history have also mentioned the children status in the armed conflicts of the 19th and 20th centuries. At that time, children were the agents and the victims of the wartime violence. A German historian Guido Knopp wrote a detailed study of the use of children in the Nazi army. Thus, the role of children in times of conflict seems to be double-sided. As such, children could be the victims and agents of violence simultaneously.

Employment of children in times of war is not restricted to African regions only. This discovery, however, must not distract the reader from specifics of the history of the African continent. To understand the phenomenon of child soldiers, one must look for the broader context, which is possible through historical view of children in African society. Turning back to the past, it may appear that one of the preconditions of the child soldiering was a slave trade. According to Jean-Hervé Jézéquel (2006), the phenomenon of slavery in Africa, whether connected or not with the slave trade, turned a child into a target of choice in the strategy of capturing and mobilizing of the workforce. Yet, it is difficult to determine the children’s status in per-colonial and colonial African societies due to the lack of data. Thus, it is difficult to track the cases of child rights’ violation of that time. Fortunately, there is more data about the post-colonial period, particularly in the cases of countries involved in an armed conflict. The works of this period show that the problem of child soldiers is a part of a longer history of child labour in the colonial and post-colonial African economies. It is difficult, though, to evaluate the impact first of the slave trade and then of colonization on sub-Saharan Africa. It is worth remembering that children are more than just a biological group. They represent a social group whose history differs depending on whether they are in Europe or Africa. Even though children have been engaged in armed conflicts for hundreds of years, the common use of child soldiers is a quite new phenomenon. It comes from industrial improvements, which have made weapons lighter, and from massive social troubles, which have made millions of children homeless. Homeless juveniles become defenceless against force recruitment practices (Cahn, 2007).

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From this point, the notion of a legal age should be considered. This notion takes a central place in the Western societies and is a key notion in international agreements prohibiting the use of child soldiers. Nevertheless, it is totally absent in African societies, which have developed their own models of childhood. There are few reasons for that. The first is a different perception of the nature of childhood. The second reason is economical. The economic systems of the West and Africa developed in different ways. Since the end of the 19th century, children of Western societies became treated as consumers and not as the workforce. Meanwhile, in African societies, children were still an important part of the workforce. Nobody thought that hard work could somehow violate child rights. Apparently, the relations between children and parents have changed, but a child is still considered to be as a prospective part of the workforce (Jézéquel, 2006).

There are many reasons why children choose to become soldiers and take part in armed conflicts. These include the poverty and the conflict the children live in. Their families can also be a powerful factor. The poverty and conflict prevent children from attending schools and can deprive children of their parents as well, which is particularly tragic for children. According to Schmidt (2007), almost eighty percent of children who have become soldiers, compared to twenty percent who have not, faced conflict close to their homes. The government is interested in recruiting child soldiers because the army is lacking workforce. It promises payments, rewards, or social benefits to the child soldiers. It provides children with lighter weapons so that young soldiers can carry them easily (Schmidt 2007). Armed forces benefit from recruiting children for they are more obedient and execute orders immediately, and it is easier to manipulate them than it is the case with grownup soldiers (Young, 2007).

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Children do not realize that their rights are violated. All they see is a wide range of opportunities that that the recruitment brings. Joining the armed forces gives children a chance for adventure as well as the opportunity for revenge. Revenge is one of the common reasons as often children are survivals of the family massacre. In that case, the only desire they have is to revenge their offenders and restore the justice. Sometimes children choose to join armed forces because of the opposite. Their family is alive, but it is exploiting them. Domestic violence keeps a leading position among the list of the reasons for recruitment. Children become soldiers for they hope to escape from domestic violence and oppressive home environments. Sometimes children are forced to leave their homes and enlist because of accusations of the witchcraft. (Cahn, 2007). When some of the family members (a mother, for instance) dies or disappears, the family sends children to other relatives. Because of the inability to feed so many children, the family can call a “priest” to exorcise evil forces from the child. After this ritual, the child is sent away from home and is disallowed to come back. Left on the street, the child may start committing crimes (theft, for instance) to survive. Another option is joining the armed forces. Thus, a personal experience of violence and rejection is a powerful factor that leads to enlistment (Cahn 2007).

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Taking into consideration that children have specific needs of their age, the sense of belonging is what encourages them to enlist. They are looking for their identity and they find an illusion of it in the nationalist ideology. Their motivation depends on the sense of self-affirmation as well. Their self-esteem becomes higher for they are treated as adults in the war conflicts. They are free to choose whim to become - “victims”, “heroes” or “leaders”, and thus, they get a sense of control over their lives and their future. Feeling of helplessness makes children enlist in order to escape danger and gain a sense of safety. One of the factors that affect the adolescents’ decision is a peer pressure. Liberian children who have volunteered to join armed forces commonly cite the phrase “everyone is doing that”.

Although recruited voluntarily, children face or commit atrocities for which they are not ready mentally. Theresa Betancourt’s research team interviewed Child soldiers in the Sierra Leone civil war (Drexler, 2011). These interviews showed that minors had been traumatized by their experiences: a majority of children had seen tortures (70%), had become witnesses of violent death (63%), saw wounding and shooting close-up (77%) or had suffered beatings by armed forces (62%). Nearly a half of the interviewed saw multiple massacres (52%). A half of the girl respondents admitted that they had been raped by their captors (45%). 39 per cent of children had been taking drugs involuntary (marijuana or cocaine) and 27 per cent of them had killed others during the armed conflict (Drexler, 2011).

The children's recruitment has negative physical and psychological effects. On the one hand, injuries like a loss of limbs or simply scars remain to the end of their life and diseases damage their health. Girls who take part in war and are raped often contract sexually transmitted diseases, HIV/AIDS, or get impregnated. They are forced to make abortions, which are often dangerous given the poor quality of health care in frontline areas.

On the other hand, the former children recruits reported nightmares, insomnia, fear, intense sadness, and recurring violent images (Cahn, 2007). Children, both the victims and agents of violence, can lose their basic trust in humanity and obtain a lifelong inability to develop close, trusting relationships (Young, 2007). Often, these children have troubles with human relationships after their demobilization. Juveniles who had to kill the members of their community, includingtheir friends and relatives, endure intense feelings of guilt. They have to fight with guilt and shame. They suffer psychologically as they remember that killing is a moral wrongdoing and not just a physical act of inflicting pain.Girls are also suffering from guilt in addition to feeling confusion, depression, anger, loss of trust in others, and extremely low self-esteem. The situation gets even worse when they face a prejudiced attitude from their community. In the eyes of community, ex-combatants are different or untrustworthy. They are blamed for having killed, destroyed lives, homes, property, and society itself. Thus, children are feeling lonely and unaccepted by their communities after the war.

What is more, forced recruitment is a common practice in African armed conflicts. A child may be not only encouraged but forced to join armed forces by threatening, intimidation, and kidnapping. Children are never safe on the streets for they can be kidnapped anytime of the day. This is a clear case of children's rights violations. As children areemotionally and physically immature, they are an easy target for manipulation and can be drawn into violence that they cannot resist or understand. Commanders easily decide to sendboys and girls to the heart of combat or the minefields. Children are the ones who take the orders and go for suicide missions. Deprived of their childhood and education and often left psychologically scarred or physically disabled, their life is totally ruined, which is a result of the violation of their rights (Young, 2007).

No matter what type of involvement is used, using children in such a way is unacceptable and violates their rights as defined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Whether forced or persuaded, recruited children lose their innocence and sense of self-identity. Recruiting children under the age of fifteen into armed force and using them as participants of armed combats are illegal. It is a serious violation of the international humanitarian law. This crime is punishable under Article 4(c) of the SCSL Statute (Top,a 2007). Law is vitally important in determining the illegality of the doings and withholding responsible those who recruit and the recruiters themselves. Many aspects of international law are related to children's protection. Enlisting of children under the age of fifteen is a war crime, as outlined by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). This Statute provides the prosecution and punishment of offenders. ILO describes the forced recruitment of children under the age of eighteen as one of the worst forms of child labour. Involvement of children in armed combats is an inhuman practice that should be stopped. It involves a mortal risk for children themselves as well as for the people exposed to their immaturity and unpredictability. What is more, it raises a great amount of issues related to the human rights. Children are usually ill treated; often being constrained to torture or murder their own relatives (Topa, 2007).

Being the combatants, children are mistreated and abused constantly. Their rights are violated and children do not even realize it. Professor Annette Appell separates two aspects of children’s rights: “civil rights,” which include children’s rights to autonomy, to freely express themselves, and to be independent from the state action, and “dependency” rights, which means that some people make decisions what is best for children (Cahn, 2007). Civil rights have to be grounded in the practical data on children’s needs for health, education, training, and shelter, not in constitutional and public conflicts; and “dependency” rights are there to help child soldiers receive the services they need. Establishing children’s civil rights will grant the children their right to freedom of expression, but more urgent is enforcing the dependency right to universal and free education. Another serious problem is compulsory elementary education, which is protected by different international human rights documents (since Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948).

Unfortunately, the justice system is inadequate. The countries’ legal procedures for prosecuting child recruiters and soldiers themselves are formal without practical usage. The African Statute on the Rights and Welfare of the Child likewise obliges that parties that have signed an agreement prevent the recruitment of children under the age of eighteen. According to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, governments should assume the measures to prevent children from being mistreated. The experts admit the need for ratification of some optional protocol to oblige signatories to set the minimum age of mobilization at eighteen and guarantee that under-age recruits do not participate in open arms.

The problem here is that government may find it beneficial to deny the existence of under-age child soldiers. In Liberia, commanders of all possible armed groups have denied the presence of children within their ranks and have taught child soldiers to hide their ages. Meanwhile, in other places, commanders may say that the children are those of soldiers or just travel with them (Topa, 2007). Thus, a lack of legally approved civil rights for African children, an absence of international criminal prosecutions for those who torture them, and a children’s agreement to committing atrocities as soldiers are not the most serious issues. A more serious one is that of the implementation of civil rights so that children may be safe and responsible for their actions. Since children are mostly incapable of applying any of these protections, the eloquence of legal rights is not helpful to them (Cahn, 2007).

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Anyway, it is difficult to institute rights in a state without any legal structure for enforcing them. It does not provide real advantages to the children and does not produce resources from nothing. Many African countries involved in conflict have weak corrupt governments or are victims of the war themselves. Besides, they are left today with almost no rights to participate in government elections. They do not have elementary institutions in the fields essential for establishing the preconditions for fundamental human rights; they lack a reliable legal system and a government skilful of legislating law guarantees. A written law and enforced law in the courts are very different. The right to satisfactory health care is worthless in a country without a health care system. The government does not have the competence or means to activate health centres. Children cannot exercise their rights because they do not possess legal literacy and cannot afford the advocates. Nevertheless, even if they realize their rights, they cannot get use of them because of the ancient cultural barriers that support children’s subordination (Cahn, 2007).

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Comparing to the United States and Europe, “the rule of law” is something alien to African society and government. There are no organized attempts by government to take some actions after officially recognizing and investigating the issues involving protection of children. African countries do not have necessary basic institutions to establish and implement the law. Even though these countries have mainly ratified the appropriate international documents, enforcing them is a different matter. The government is powerless to protect the children from violations of their rights. To solve this problem, some third kind of justice must be involved responding to the social, economic, and medical needs of the children. This alternative vision of justice is multispectral, involving governments, families, communities, and the children themselves.

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