Monday, March 19, 2012

International Criminal Court's Historic First Conviction Puts Spotlight on Child Soldiers

On March 14, the ICC found Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga guilty for the war crime of using children under the age of 15 as active participants in hostilities in the Democratic Republic of the Congo between September 2002 and August 2003. This is the ICC's first conviction in its 10 year history. In his forthcoming book, Child Soldiers: A Reference Handbook, Dr. David M. Rosen tackles the complex legal and social questions surrounding this controversial global issue.

For more than 40 years, humanitarian and human rights groups have sought to ban the recruitment and use of child soldiers. Their efforts have produced mixed results. On one hand, they have had a profound effect on the development of international law prohibiting the recruitment of children, but on the other hand, such laws seem to have had only limited efficacy in reducing the actual number of child soldiers participating in conflicts throughout the world. This huge gap between the aspirations of law and the practical reality of child recruitment is one of the greatest problems in ending the recruitment of child soldiers.

International efforts to end the use of child soldiers first bore fruit in 1977. That year, for the first time in history, there were changes made to the so-called “laws of war” that placed restrictions on recruiting children into armed forces and groups. Since that first victory, the issue of child soldiers has developed and expanded in scope. What began in 1977 as a relatively narrow concern with protecting children under 15 years old from serving as armed combatants has evolved into an international effort to sever a broad range of connections between the military and any person under the age of eighteen. The entire concept of the “child soldier” has evolved to encompass a greater number of children engaged in a wider variety of activities than first imaged. This raises some powerful questions. Are there actually more child soldiers in the world today than in the past? Certainly, child soldiers have been integrally involved in the military for a very long time. Andrew Jackson, 7th President of the United States, joined the armed forces of the American Revolution at age 13, and he was far from alone in doing so. How have changing definitions of child soldiers affected our perception of the actual number of child soldiers in the world? Are all children who are involved in the military coerced or abused? Is it always the case that children would be better off away from military involvement? And finally, when children are involved in military activity, should they be held responsible for their actions in the same way as adult soldiers?

- David M. Rosen is a professor of anthropology and law at Fairleigh Dickinson University

Explore these new ABC-CLIO resources to learn more about the complex issues surrounding the use of child soldiers around the world:

Child Soldiers

Slavery in the Modern World

Issues: Understanding Controversy and Society

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