Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
October 31, 2008
Child Soldiers: U.S. Policy and Action
The forced recruitment of children for use in armed conflict is defined as one of the “Worst Forms of Child Labor” under International Labor Organization Convention 182. An estimated 200,000 to 300,000 children under the age of 18 are serving as soldiers for both rebel groups and government forces in current armed conflicts worldwide.
U.S. Law and Policy Regarding Child Soldiers
The United States does not permit compulsory recruitment of any person under 18 for any type of military service. However, the U.S. does permit 17-year-olds to volunteer for service in its armed forces. This practice is subject to a range of safeguards, including requirements for proof of age prior and parental consent.
U.S. law and policy are consistent with its obligations under the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict (OP), which permits governments to accept 16- or 17-year-old volunteers into their armed forces under certain conditions. The OP prohibits any compulsory recruitment of children under the age of 18 into governmental armed forces and requires State Parties to take “all feasible measures” to ensure that members of their armed forces that are under the age of 18 do not take a direct part in hostilities. It also requires Parties to prohibit and criminalize the recruitment and use in hostilities of persons under age 18 by non-state armed groups.
The forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict is defined as one of the “worst forms of child labor” under International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 182. The U.S. ratified this convention in 1999.
Section 699C of the 2008 Appropriations Act contains a U.S. foreign assistance restriction on those countries identified in the Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices as “having governmental armed forces or government supported armed groups, including paramilitaries, militias, or civil defense forces, that recruit or use child soldiers.” Section 699G on the Act also contains an assistance restriction on Sri Lanka dealing with child soldiers and other human rights abuses. The 2008 Appropriations Act was passed at the end of 2007.
New legislation addressing the issue of child soldiers has also recently been cleared for White House action. On September 15, 2008, the Child Soldier Accountability Act was passed by both the House and Senate, and cleared for White House action. This Act would prohibit the recruitment or use of child soldiers, extend U.S. criminal prohibitions relating to recruitment and use of child soldiers, designate certain persons who recruit or use child soldiers as inadmissible aliens, and allow the deportation of certain persons who recruit or use child soldiers.
U.S. Activities To Improve the Situation
The Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor (DRL); Bureau of African Affairs; Bureau for International Organization Affairs; Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration; Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons; and the U.S. Mission to the UN are all involved in addressing children and armed conflict issues in some capacity. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) are also engaged on this issue.
USG Reporting: The Department of State’s annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices and the Trafficking in Persons Reports cite countries in which the recruitment of child soldiers occurs. The practice is also reported on in the DOL’s annual Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor Report mandated by the Trade and Development Act of 2000.
UN and Multilateral Efforts: The U.S. works with foreign governments, UN agencies, non-governmental organizations and others to monitor, report on, and prevent the unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers and to protect, assist, and rehabilitate children associated with fighting forces through Disarmament, Demobilization, Rehabilitation and Reintegration (DDRR) Programs. The DDRR programs include counseling, formal and informal education, vocational training and physical rehabilitation (e.g., prosthetics) for former child soldiers.
The U.S. is engaged with the UN Security Council and its Children and Armed Conflict (CAAC) Working Group to address children and armed conflict issues (UNSCR 1612). The CAAC Working Group reviewed a number of country situations this year (Burma, Burundi, Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nepal, Philippines, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Uganda) and made recommendations to various entities, including the Secretary-General, the government of the country concerned, rebel groups, and international organizations.
The U.S. encourages all countries to ratify ILO Convention 182 against the Worst Forms of Child Labor, as well as to sign and ratify the Optional Protocol.
USG Programming: In 2008, DRL is funding two grants totaling nearly $1 million for child soldier reintegration programs in Burundi, particularly girl child soldiers.
DOL currently has over $20 million in funding to go towards five projects which specifically address child soldiers in Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Nepal, Sierra Leone, and Uganda. DOL also funds an additional 14 projects to educate children and protect them from exploitation in countries recovering from armed conflict or in post-conflict situations.
Across seven war-affected countries, USAID has contributed more than $10 million over the past several years toward the demobilization of child combatants and reintegration into their communities. USAID’s Displaced Children and Orphans Fund and the Leahy War Victims Fund also support a variety of programs that address children in vulnerable situations, including children affected by armed conflict.
In 2006, the U.S. gave over $100 million to UNICEF, which is committed to improving the lives of children around the world.
Improved Coordination and Knowledge-sharing: While the activities of various U.S. agencies have contributed to addressing the child soldier issue, key agencies will need to work more effectively together to address the issue as a whole and its related challenges. Some challenges may include: the sexual exploitation of girls and women by child soldiers, reintegration of former child soldiers into their communities, re-recruitment of former child soldiers, protection of children during peacekeeping missions, and the flow of light weapons.
The Department of State promotes knowledge-sharing with other federal agencies engaged in ending unlawful child soldiering and protecting the interests of children. DRL has co-hosted seminars and fora to discuss policy and programming gaps, and to address specific problems, such as child soldiering. For more information about one of these fora, see Policy Forum on Children and Armed Conflict: Child Soldiers as Combatants, Victims, and Survivors.