Letting Children be Children: the Problem of Child Soldiers in Africa



Margaret Kosmack



The presence of war in the world is consistently rising, and continues to evolve in breadth while changing in character.  Fighting in the first two World Wars was drastically different than most of the conflicts we see today.  Guerrilla fighting, unorganized attacks, war crimes, violations of human rights and child soldiers are all characteristics of many of the wars taking place throughout the globe today.  An important factor lies in the fact that much of these wars are internal, civil wars amongst various groups within a nation.  By law, the International Court of Justice has no jurisdiction over human rights violations committed by a state against its own citizens (HØiskar, 2001, 354).  Knowing this, it remains very difficult to exercise any penalties on countries breaching basic human rights. 


                  Child soldiers fall under this category, and continue to be a major concern for human rights activists as well as many governing bodies.  In general terms, a child soldier is defined, internationally and in common practice, as “any person under eighteen years of age who is engaged in deadly combat or combat support as part of an armed force or group” (Singer, 2005, 7).  Children as young as seven years of age are fighting on the front lines of violent, gruesome and extremely dangerous wars.  Much of this is occurring on the continent of Africa, where some of the poorest nations exist, providing an additional obstacle to the crisis.  In a developing nation, children may be increasingly susceptible to becoming a child soldier as they are frequently subject to extreme poverty, a lack of education, a shortage of resources, and often a lack of parental or familial guidance (Singer, 2005, 45).  Children can be forcibly recruited, or some enter the force voluntarily.  The term ‘voluntary’, however, is loosely used, and does not necessarily entail the child had much to choose from.  Many young people are driven to join the forces because of poverty, alienation, propaganda or more often, for safety reasons (Rosen, 2005, 17).  Because many of these children are being recruited by rebel forces, not government authorities, it is increasingly difficult to report, measure and thus prevent this enlistment.  At present there are numerous treaties which address the issue of child soldiers, including the 1949 Geneva Conventions, the 1998 Rome Statute, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict (2000), and the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (1990) (Rosen, 2005, 139).  Although these are important steps in prevention, few practical steps have been taken.  These protocols, agreements, treaties and declarations have been “flagrantly ignored since the end of the Cold War” (Achvarina & Reich, 2006, 128).  Clearly not enough is being done.  International legislation alone is unlikely to ensure a peaceful, non-violent world without child soldiers.


                  This thesis examines the various complex challenges facing the international community in preventing child soldiers from recruitment as well as in treating former child soldiers to aid in ending the cycle of violence.  An approach is needed which will focus on inhibiting children from becoming vulnerable to rebel leaders, protecting them from war zones, and developing rehabilitation centers in order to properly reintegrate former child soldier back into their community in a healthy and enduring manner.  In order to reach this conclusion, it is imperative that the situation be more thoroughly examined and analyzed, taking into account political, social, and cultural factors.