23 May 2009

Fact and Fiction About Child Soldiers

Scott Gates and Simon Reich, coeditors of the forthcoming book Child Soldiers in the Age of Fractured States, have become mythbusters in the study of child soldiers in armed conflict. In a web exclusive story on ForeignPolicy.com, they reveal “what human rights activists never tell you about young killers.” They address the following six points of conventional wisdom and offer their response to each.

1. "Child Soldiering Is a Human Rights Issue."

Gates and Reich do not deny that child soldiers are exploited casualties of conflict, but they also point out – even beyond the moral hazard – their proliferation poses geostrategic and development risks as well. Though children, they are also soldiers - often mobilized as cheap and expendable labor to commit atrocities and used for strategic advantage. The legacy of those who survive their childhood is a continuing risk for stability.

2. "There Are 300,000 Child Soldiers in the World."

Gates and Reich suggest the true global number is unknown and perhaps unknowable, but this often cited figure from the 1990s probably overestimates the scope today. They argue that – for strategy and development - it would be more useful to count by country, rather than globally. We could learn what proportion of a country’s child population was engaged in soldiering and what proportion of soldiers in a conflict were children. They say “child soldiers have constituted more than a quarter of all belligerents in many conflicts, including at least nine in Africa over the last two decades.”

3. "Most Child Soldiers Are African Boys."

“Not even close” Gates and Reich say. First, child soldiers have a variety of rols from support to armed fighting – so some prefer the term "children associated with fighting forces." Second, girls are a bigger part of the effort than you might think – they have fought in more than 40 conflicts over the past 20 years and comprise as much as 40% of some armed groups. Third, they point out “child soldiering is a global phenomenon, not simply an African one. More than 70 military organizations in 19 countries around the world recruited and used them in armed hostilities between 2004 and 2007.”

4. "Globalization Created Child Soldiering."

Gates and Reich say, bluntly, this is wrong; that child soldiering has existed for thousands of years. Ancient Spartans used boys as young as seven. They say the view of childhood (as a time for protection and nurture) and level of awareness have changed.

5. "Child Soldiers Are No Match for Western Militaries."

This is only true, the authors suggest, in “conventional combat” but most of the conflicts in which they are employed are irregular and asymmetric, where they have some advantage over convention military forces. Conventional soldiers often do not know how to respond to a child who is armed or suspected of being armed – perhaps even as a suicide bomber.

6. "Our Current Approach to Ending Child Soldiering Is Working."

Gates and Reich point out that current strategies focus on deterrence (prosecuting the adult recruiters) and demobilization (taking away the children's guns and sending them home), but neither approach goes far enough. Brokers of child soldiers are undeterred by sanctions because they believe (often correctly) they will not get caught or will ultimately be granted amnesty. The demobilization programs (like current “deradicalization” programs globally, I would note) are mixed. Often they exclude the eligibility important groups (like girls) or mis-train them for re-integration.

No comments: