In the 1980s the standard image to emerge from the world’s disaster zones was a skeletal child with despairing eyes, clutching the hand of an aid worker. This was subsequently displaced by another stereotype, a bearded guerrilla fighter brandishing an AK-47, its forward-curving magazine silhouetted above his head. Today these two images have morphed into the figure of the child soldier, a gun-toting subteen with wraparound shades and a threatening demeanor, a child who is clearly not on his way to school.

The kid-with-a-Kalashnikov is already a cliché, and picture editors are now likely to demand more arresting images from the battlefield. (A seven-year-old with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, say. Preferably a girl.) But the child-at-arms is still the defining image of the troubled lands of the South, of the realm of war and hunger. He or she has come to represent a whole array of things that have gone wrong with the world: the loss of innocence, the destruction of youth, the collapse of order, the continuing spread of war.

Because we sentimentalize children and disprize soldiers, the very term “child soldier” has a disturbing resonance. Formerly we felt sorry and angry about the fate of children in disaster zones. Now we feel sorry and fearful.

According to a report from Amnesty International, In the Firing Line, there are at least 300,000 children under eighteen actively engaged in thirty-six armed conflicts around the world, a dozen of them in Africa. Such young people are the focus of a campaign by Amnesty and other human rights organizations to outlaw their participation in armed conflict. The proposal is to expand the 1989 UN Convention on the Rights of the Child to include a new protocol banning military recruitment below the age of eighteen (the current limit is fifteen). This move is opposed by a number of countries, including the United States and also Britain, where sixteen-year-olds are still recruited into the armed forces.

Like others of my generation growing up in England in the 1960s and 1970s I was a child soldier myself, from the age of fourteen to sixteen, a less-than-willing recruit to a ramshackle organization known as the Combined Cadet Force. We were, in theory, potential conscripts in the event of the reintroduction of national service. I was also a member of Amnesty International. On Thursdays I learned to shoot; on Saturdays I rattled a collection box outside the school chapel.

Since those days I have worked as an anthropologist and aid worker in various African countries. One day a week playing war games as a schoolboy is nothing like being a bush fighter, but talking to trigger-happy teenage sentries in Uganda, Somalia, Sudan, and elsewhere has made me come to doubt that these kidogos—little ones—as they are called in East and Central Africa, see their situation in the terms that human rights researchers do, any more than I did myself when I was a military cadet. I doubt that they would even accept that they are children. And, in the case of seventeen-year-olds, I am not sure they are wrong.

Despite the near universal adoption by governments of the existing child rights convention (the United States and Somalia share the distinction of being the only countries in the world that have not ratified it) the definition of childhood is by no means as universal as the convention implies. At the start of the war in Sudan most of the senior class in the secondary school in the town where I had worked went to the bush to join the southern rebel army. These sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds were from a pastoralist culture where young men were traditionally expected to be warriors. Their uneducated younger brothers in the village had most likely already been initiated into adulthood, a rite of passage that can occur at any age after puberty. Although the southern Sudanese are quite as shocked as we are by ten- or eleven-year-olds in the line of battle (such things have come to pass as the war has become more widespread and brutal), they did not consider it inappropriate for a sixteen-year-old to bear arms.

Faced with the horrors of the current wars in Africa and elsewhere, one would be churlish to question the Amnesty campaign. It is certainly imperative to reduce the dreadful abuse of children in conflict, both as victims and as perpetrators. But it is also necessary to consider the wisdom of trying to control these evils by expanding the definition of childhood. Africa is a young continent, demographically speaking. Most of its inhabitants are under eighteen. That is to say that the majority of Africans are children in terms of the UN convention. But there are many African societies where a seventeen-year-old would not necessarily be considered a child, and might well be expected to take on the role of an adult, possibly the head of a household. For many such young people, as the Amnesty report acknowledges, the choice is likely to be soldiering or starvation. In Africa and other troubled regions of the world, when there is no state to protect you, a gun may be the only way to ensure that you and your family have food—and that someone else doesn’t take it away from you.


If I were a seventeen-year-old in southern Sudan, or Somalia, or Afghanistan, I would get myself a gun just as soon as I could—I’d join a guerrilla force or a militia, whatever it took. And if I were the responsible adult in my family it would be not just my right but my obligation to acquire the means to defend myself and my weaker relatives. If a foreigner, or anyone else, told me that I was a child, and therefore had to be protected from military service, I would laugh.

The proposed extension of the UN convention risks jeopardizing, in the name of children’s rights, this right to self-defense, a right which may include bearing arms. Western countries with representative governments have, in many cases quite properly, legislated this right away; but the situation is different where there is no state, where there is no other source of security. The terrible situation that survivalists and militiamen in the United States fantasize about—and foolishly long for—has come to pass in many of the countries in the disaster zone. In such places martial skills may well be necessary for survival.

It is true that youths with guns can become monsters, that they may terrorize, rather than defend, local people. It would be a better thing if they could learn the arts of peace. But this is not an argument for forcing them into the Procrustean bed of the child rights convention.

Human rights campaigners need more realistic and culturally convergent ways of tackling the problem. Transparency in the arms trade is the first desideratum—and stricter controls on it the second. With respect to rights, the key issue when one considers the involvement of sixteen-year-olds and over in military activity is not their age; it is whether they are volunteers or not. Many child soldiers are forcibly recruited, and this, of course, is a manifest abuse. But it is the fact of conscription that is the issue, not chronological age. Whether the victims are sixteen or eighteen or twenty-one is of lesser importance.

Most armies in the world would be in breach of the new age limit on recruitment proposed in the additional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Although there is a case for establishing principles of good practice in military recruitment, principles that well-ordered countries can aspire to, the danger of enacting them into international law, a body of law that is already more honored in the breach than in the observance, is that they will distract from the more fundamental and unambiguous issue of forced recruitment—an issue that everyone, combatant and human rights worker alike, should be able to agree on. The right that must be asserted is the right not to be forced to fight. To do this is enough of a struggle in itself.

This Issue

March 4, 1999