Improper and abusive military recruitment of minors: a human rights issue

Children’s Human Rights and Military Service

While the exact numbers of child soldiers is difficult to pinpoint at any given time, the visibility of such combatants in recent conflicts in Burma and sub-Saharan Africa, and in training schools run by Al-Queda in Pakistan, has focused world attention on the human rights abuses inherent in such practices.  Most child soldiers are aged between 14 and 18. While many enlist "voluntarily" research shows that such adolescents see few alternatives to involvement in armed conflict. Some enlist as a means of survival in war-torn regions after family, social and economic structures collapse or after seeing family members tortured or killed by government forces or armed groups. Others join up because of poverty and lack of work or educational opportunities. Regardless of how they are recruited, child soldiers are victims, whose participation in conflict bears serious implications for their physical and emotional well-being. They are commonly subject to abuse and most of them witness death, killing, and sexual violence. Many participate in killings and most suffer serious long-term psychological consequences.1

In June 2001, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers published the first-ever global survey of child soldiers, documenting military recruitment by government armed forces, civil militia, paramilitaries, and non-state armed groups in 180 countries. It found that more than half a million children were recruited into government forces and armed groups in more than eighty-seven countries, and that at least 300,000 of these children were actively fighting in forty-one countries. Once inducted into a military organization, children are often subjected to threats, violence and psychological manipulation—all tactics designed to gain their unquestioning submission.2 The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) sets the age of majority at 18 years, and states that children and youth below 18 require special protection because of their physical and mental immaturity. The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict (CRC OPAC) came into force in February 2002. It bans the direct use of all children under the age of 18 in hostilities and prohibits all military use of under-18s by non-governmental armed groups. While government armed forces are permitted to recruit volunteers from the age of 16, they must take steps to ensure that the recruitment is genuinely voluntary.3

Improper Military Recruitment of Minors in the U.S.

The United Nations as well as the United States military promulgates strict regulations governing the recruitment of minors into the armed services and the involvement of minors in armed conflict. The international prohibitions and guidelines are detailed in the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, signed by the U.S. government in 2000 and ratified it on Dec. 23, 2002. Human Rights Treaties are enforced through periodic self reporting.  Contrary to both international law governing such matters and elaborated in its own policy manuals, recruiters from all branches of the U.S. military regularly engage in prohibited practices, thereby endangering the well being of young people and violating their internationally recognized human rights. On August 19, 2006, CBS news reported that over 100 underage girls had complained of being sexually assaulted by military recruiters, who in many cases took advantage of the teens’ desire to enlist. “Women were raped on recruiting office couches, assaulted in government cars and groped en route to entrance exams. A six-month Associated Press investigation found that more than 80 military recruiters were disciplined last year for sexual misconduct with potential enlistees. The cases occurred across all branches of the military and in all regions of the country.” And in a widely published Associated Press story dated July 24, 2006 , journalist Audrey Mcavoy describes the way recruiters for the Marine Corps make use web-based social networking sites such as My Space, to gain access to and develop relationships with youngsters that are unsupervised by parents or other community adults. The American Friends Service Committee reports that at least 1400 cash-strapped public high schools routinely administer the Armed Forces Vocational Apptitude Battery as a career counseling tool to 11th and 12th graders who have expressed no prior interest in joining the military, because it is one of few assessment tools offered to them free of charge. Students are required to provide a variety of personal information on the test form in order for it to be electronically scored by the testing service; the results of these tests, along with this personal information, most often become lists of “pre-qualified leads” turned over to local recruiters.
Practices such as these compromise the effectiveness of military operations, sour relationships between the armed services and the communities it exists to serve, and shortchange the futures of young people eager to enlist. Over the past several years, our members in branches located across the country have expressed deep concern and outrage over the military recruitment practices ongoing in their communities, practices that seem to have been encouraged by the provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, which require schools to provide detailed contact information on enrolled students to the military as a condition of continued federal funding . Because similar scenarios have been reported by our members in so many different parts of the country, we believe that the problem is systemic rather than one of a “few bad apples” or individual recruiters whose practices fall outside the bounds of what is permitted by international law or even by the armed forces’ own internal guidelines.

Collected reports of recruiter misconduct (pdf)


Protecting the Human Rights of Minors
In the United States, a network of peace and justice organizations has emerged to support youth facing a sophisticated barrage of military recruitment advertising and increasingly aggressive military recruiters. American Friends Service Committee addresses this issue through their Youth and Militarism Campaign, the War Resisters League through their Youth and Countermilitarism Program , Veterans for Peace through their Recruitment Education efforts and Pax Christi by supporting Contentious Objectors. WILPF has historically worked with each of these organizations on various campaigns and currently connects to them through membership in the United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ) coalition, of which WILPF was a founding partner. 

Today WILPF members are vitally involved with UFPJ’s Counter Military Recruitment Campaign in many cities across the country, organizing in local communities, demonstrating at schools and recruitment centers, and publicizing recruitment abuses through letters to the editor and to their elected representatives. At its recent national strategy session, UFPJ recommitted to its Counter Military Recruitment Campaign, and WILPF, through its Advancing Human Rights issue committee, will bring a unique perspective and new advocacy tools to its work in this area.


1 For more information on the problems associated with the use and recruitment of child soldiers internationally, see United Nations office of the  Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children in Armed Conflict, and the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers website at

2Human Security Centre at the University of British Columbia, Human Security Report 2005: War and Peace in the 21st Century, p. 115.

3 Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, Frequently Asked Questions webpage,, accessed 7.31.07.

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