Children at War

War is on the decline around the world, for the most part. The statistics are here. But that ignores the fact that the conflicts that do still exist are reaching new levels of general gruesomeness. Civilians are much more likely to die in today’s wars, limbs are more likely to be hacked off, women are more likely to be raped. And, Caroline Moorehead writes, children are more likely to serve as soldiers

As P.W. Singer points out in his new study, Children at War, child soldiers, some of whom are no older than six, are to be found in three quarters of the world’s current fifty or so conflicts. In Sierra Leone’s Revolutionary United Front (RUF), 80 percent of the fighters were aged between seven and fourteen. Twenty thousand children are reported to have served in Liberia’s protracted civil wars, and there were many children among Rwanda’s génocidaires. As if to make their use more palatable, many of these children were given childlike names. The Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka had a Baby Brigade and called their girl soldiers “Birds of Freedom”; there were “Little Bells” and “Little Bees” in Colombia and “Brave Sprouts” in Myanmar. Saddam Hussein called his child warriors “Lion Cubs.”….

If you have recruited and trained so many children —there are now veterans aged fourteen who have far more experience of soldiering than most Western soldiers do—what do you do with them when a conflict ends? Uneducated, lawless, violent, druggy, often infected by venereal disease, these young soldiers are, as one psychiatrist put it, “ticking time-bombs.” Reeducation and rehabilitation programs are woefully underfunded and inadequate, and most former child soldiers, unable to go home, either because their home no longer exists or because, as killers, they are no longer welcome there, often have little choice but to live on the streets or seek employment with other rebel forces. Many emerge from these conflicts severely traumatized and suicidal, having been forced to witness and perform acts that they cannot afterward forget. “Some children sit and look at running water and just see blood,” an aid worker reported to Human Rights Watch.

Singer estimates that there are some 300,000 child soldiers worldwide, although, as the 2005 Human Security Report notes, this number is over a decade old and has probably decreased somewhat during that time, given that the total number of conflicts has also decreased. Still, it’s a problem. Note that it’s already illegal to recruit child soldiers; the main problem is that the international community rarely enforces sanctions on countries where child soldiers are used, and doesn’t prosecute it as a war crime. You’d think if anything could get people to act, it would be children with AK-47s, but not yet, apparently.

Meanwhile, Moorehead points out that child soldiers exist largely because the global arms trade in light weapons makes it so easy for children to wage war: “You no longer have to be rich enough or strong enough to carry a Kalashnikov: it weighs little more than a small dog and, in parts of Africa at least, costs about the same as a chicken.” But there hasn’t been much effort to clamp down on that trade, despite calls from Kofin Annan. It’s easy to see why. Russia’s military-industrial complex is in decline, still has massive excess capacity, and depends (partially) on continued light arms sales to sustain itself; not much interest in regulation there. The American arms industry has never shown much interest in regulating the arms trade either—even in the black market. Not surprisingly, Bush hasn’t shown much interest either, but this is one of the major roots of the problem here.


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