There are an estimated 300,000 child soldiers world-wide. And although a Kantian practical anthropology would tell us this number is relatively low for contemporary standards, it has enormous potential to garner attention through all sorts of shaming practices. Pointing out that these are, in fact, children, being used already rouses our sensibilities. It is interesting that this is widely known as “child soldering” instead of something like “armed adolescent security”. And this has to do with the campaigning that has already taken place and is embedded in our political consciousness.
Children roaming streets are often coerced into joining armed groups, where they are trained, beaten, raped, and sent off into battle. They are used as human shields, human mine detectors, and have fought in the front lines of most of the recent conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa.
In Zimbabwe there exists the Green Bombers, a youth brigade amped up on narcotics and used for some of the worst acts of public violence in recent history. Rwanda, still fighting, uses child soldiers to invade parts of the Congo which are thought to house the combatants who instigated the genocide last decade. In Sri Lanka, there have been state collusions in abductions of children to military wings. There also exists the Tamil Tigers, a terrorist organization that uses young boys and girls as suicide bombers. The most heavily-armed drug trafficking organization in the world, the United Wa State Army, recruits child soldiers to make drug deals and assassinate enemies. The Human Rights Watch list goes on. There are at least 27 countries that have been listed as offenders.
The military use of children is considered a war crime in international law. According the the International Criminal Court, the flat age ban for military use of youth is set at age 15. The International Labor Organization, in the Worst Forms of Child Labor Convention, stated that the benchmark age was 18.
An optional protocol was drafted in 1999, called the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. However, the protocol itself is highly non-binding. There is no enforcement mechanism. It states that it is itself “optional”. There are no provisions about making reservations to articles specifically. Most of the worst violators have, in fact, signed and ratified the conventions and the protocols yet continue to violate them. For states that use governmental armed groups to carry out military operations, however, it would seem there is no clear justification for child soldering to take place. Many nations, however, cannot hold the non-governmental armed groups accountable for the practice. There is also an incentive to eliminate one’s enemies before following the international codes, since being tried and convicted in the Hague is not nearly as bad as being captured and tortured by one’s enemies.
Any sort of organizing that children might themselves do would easily be broken up by the armed groups. If children want to ban together and sell their labor in developing economies, they could collectively bargain for conditions that are favorable. However, labor movements in militaristic regimes are despotically eliminated. Child unionism would be obliterated. There are few options, however, for orphans (who are already in state control) or street wanderers, who are at the mercy of the armed bandits who employ them or force them to fight their battles. There are some fine libertarian lines one could draw between a child’s voluntary use of labor, and the overall coercive military use of children. In violent nations, plagued by child soldiering practices already, the recruitment is inherently coercive.
The top-down legal approach is not going to solve this problem. It only creates the appearance that the problem is being tackled by the international community. Labor and autonomous interest movements need to be organized, however, to combat the problem. Dominant ideological themes and belligerent foreign policy should be completely undermined through shaming and virulent NGO infiltration. Labor organizers also have a role to play here.