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Children at War

To the Editors:

John Ryle is mistaken when he says Amnesty International is seeking to expand the definition of childhood in its campaign on children in armed conflict [NYR, March 4, 1999]. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international human rights treaty ratified by 191 countries (only the US and the collapsed state of Somalia have not ratified), defines childhood in Article 1 as “every human being below the age of eighteen years unless, under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier” and increasingly international law uses the benchmark of eighteen years as the age below which special protection should be afforded.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child in Article 19 enshrines the right of those under eighteen to protection “from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse…” although Article 38, which deals specifically with children in situations of armed conflict, establishes fifteen, not eighteen, years as the minimum age for recruitment into armed forces of states or parties and participation in hostilities. Many governments, UN agencies, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, and non-governmental organizations, such as those supporting the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, which are seeking to raise the age of recruitment into armed forces and participation in hostilities, are simply trying to correct an anomaly in the convention and not redefine childhood.

John Ryle’s review also attempts to justify recruitment of children into armed forces providing recruitment is voluntary. Such a position is simplistic as the distinction between forced and voluntary recruitment is often imprecise and ambiguous. Children may join armed forces for a range of reasons, including family connections, lack of alternative employment opportunities, a parental belief that the child will benefit from a period of military discipline, peer pressure, adventure, a desire for revenge, or ideological beliefs. But regardless of how children are recruited, the treatment of child soldiers is often abusive, and mentally and physically hazardous in itself. Even with regular government armed forces children are often subject to “toughening-up regimes” which may be detrimental to their mental and physical well-being, as well as to punishments which can lead to death or permanent physical or mental injuries.

Raising the minimum age for recruitment and participation to eighteen will also help to implement existing standards. In some countries birth registration is not universal and raising the age from fifteen to eighteen will make it much more difficult for children under fifteen to pass as eighteen-year-olds, whether deliberately or accidentally.

Ryle’s argument that any attempt to protect children’s rights is to force them into “the Procrustean bed of the child rights convention” is disturbing. Human rights standards—whether for adults, children, women, refugees, or any other group—are based on the concepts of universality and nondiscrimination. To argue against this demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of the role of all human rights standards which seek to provide equal protection for all.

In his review John Ryle gives examples of child soldiers on the continent of Africa to support his argument that the definition of childhood is not universally accepted and argues for more realistic and culturally convergent ways of resolving the child soldier problem. And yet, it was the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1990 which adopted the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, which defines a child as “every human being below the age of 18 years” and prohibits the recruitment of children. This was reinforced in 1997 when the Labour and Social Affairs Commission of the OAU adopted the Arusha Recommendations which, inter alia, “condemn recruitment and conscription of children under the age of 18 years in the armed forces or armed groups.” Furthermore, in July 1996 the First Mini-Summit of African Children stated in its report: “Despite some hesitations, the minimum age for joining the army has to be put at 21 years. This act should be voluntary.”

The involvement of children in armed forces is not inevitable. There is no excuse or acceptable argument for abusing and exploiting children as combatants. The recruitment and participation of children in armed conflicts is a decision made by governments or by leaders of armed opposition groups. It is unforgivable that children and young persons are encouraged to commit barbaric acts as well as being the victims of grave human rights abuses. It is time to exclude children from participating in war, and the optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict which raises to eighteen years the minimum age for participation in hostilities into armed forces is a significant contribution to this goal.

Martin Macpherson
Adviser, International Organizations
Amnesty International
London

John Ryle replies:

Few readers, I think, would interpret my review as Martin Macpherson does, as an attempt “to justify the recruitment of children.” What I argued was that in some places, in some circumstances, sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds might have good reason to take up arms. And I suggested that, while this is clearly not a desirable state of affairs, it is neither practicable nor morally justifiable to deny them the right to do so. I argued that in seeking to limit the involvement of young people in war the key issue is not chronological age but whether they are volunteers or not. As combatants such young people are, of course, subject to (and protected by) existing laws of war, which already prohibit the “barbaric acts” that Mr. Macpherson refers to. The challenge to campaigners is not to assert new paper rights but to find ways to enforce those that already exist. I argued, further, that the blanket use of the word “child” and “children” by campaigners to designate any person under eighteen took insufficient account of cross-cultural variation in notions of childhood and adulthood. Mr. Macpherson’s constant reiteration of these emotionally charged terms illustrates my point all too well. It is characteristic of a campaign that appears to seek a simple aspirational solution to a complex and variegated problem. It remains the case that an eleven-year-old and a seventeen-year-old do not constitute a single moral category. One is unambiguously and universally recognized as a child; the other is not. This is true both of Western societies and those outside the West.

In January this year a new optional protocol to the child rights convention was agreed in Geneva. Among other measures it sets eighteen as the lower age limit for compulsory recruitment into armed forces. This ban on forced recruitment is desirable, but the new protocol has introduced further sources of confusion. States party to it will be barred, not from recruiting sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds, but from deploying them in combat. Non-state actors, on the other hand (who cannot sign the convention or the protocol, but can be bound under international law), are barred both from recruitment and from deployment. This discriminatory position hardly seems likely to encourage respect for the convention on the part of non-state actors, who are generally the parties responsible for the worst abuses of children in war.

Mr. Macpherson describes my distinction between voluntary and forced recruitment (which is now, in fact, enshrined in the convention) as “simplistic.” Yet in a rights-based discourse such a distinction is crucial. Indeed, it is fundamental to most moral and legal systems. The existence of a continuum between forced recruitment and voluntary participation does not mean we should abandon the attempt to distinguish between them. What is simplistic is the idea that expanding the definition of childhood is the way to minimize the horrors of war.

Finally, I did not say that “any attempt to protect children’s rights is to force them into ‘the Procrustean bed of the child rights convention.”’ I used the term “Procrustean” very specifically to characterize the incorporation of soldiers over sixteen into the provisions of the convention. This is not an argument against children’s rights; nor is it an argument against universality. On the contrary, it is an argument that seeks to safeguard the convention, an already overstretched piece of legislation, by drawing attention to the extent to which the new protocol threatens to bring it into conflict with other, equally important rights and distance it from universal norms—not the norms of diplomats in Geneva, but those of the diverse peoples in countries worst affected by war. My argument was against mission creep, internal contradiction, and ethnocentricity in the position of some, but not all, of those who subscribe to the honorable cause of protecting children. I am loath to accuse Mr. Macpherson, as he does me, of a lack of understanding of the issue, but he could definitely benefit from more careful reading.

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