UN General Assembly Adopts Child Soldiers Protocol
by HPN staff June 2003

The UN General Assembly’s adoption of the ‘Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict’ on 25 May 2000, six years after negotiations began, reflects growing international concern over the use of minors in conflicts around the world. By the end of June, seven states had signed the protocol: Argentina, Canada, Cambodia, Monaco, Norway, San Marino and Sweden. The protocol’s adoption is a step in the right direction, but significant work remains to be done.

Under the protocol, state signatories are obliged to:

  • take ‘all feasible measures’ to ensure that members of their armed forces below 18 years of age do not take part in hostilities;
  • ensure that no one under 18 is subject to compulsory recruitment, and that existing conscripts below that age are demobilised; and
  • raise the minimum age for voluntary recruitment, currently set at 15 years by the protocol’s parent Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).

For non-state armed groups, the minimum age for recruitment – either voluntary or forced – is set at 18 years.

Child-rights groups welcomed the protocol’s adoption as a major advance after six years of stalemate. However, there was disappointment that the threshold for voluntary recruitment into state armed forces was not fixed at 18 years. Failure to bring voluntary and compulsory recruitment into line (the so-called ‘straight-18’ ban) stems largely from vigorous lobbying, chiefly by the US, UK and Australia. In Canada, the first country to ratify the protocol, voluntary recruitment is permissible from 17 years of age, as also in the US. America is the only UN member save Somalia not to have ratified the CRC. Despite this, the US will be permitted to sign the optional protocol.

The extent of the problem of child soldiers is not in doubt. According to Save the Children, between 1985 and 1995 two million children died in conflict; one million were separated from their families; and between four and five million were disabled or maimed. An estimated 10m children around the world have been left with serious psychological problems stemming from their exposure to combat. There are at least 300,000 child soldiers in the world today, fighting in state and non-state forces in over 30 conflicts. Lack of information makes these figures necessarily provisional, and the actual involvement of children in combat is likely to be still higher.

Governments using children in their armed forces include Myanmar, Colombia and Peru. Non-state groups doing so include the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka. While levels of involvement and combat exposure vary, children are reportedly engaged in all-out warfare in countries such as Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, and in Chechnya. The problem is especially acute in Africa, where more than 100,000 children are fighting across the continent. Countries most affected include Angola, the DRC, Sudan and Sierra Leone. In Angola in the 1980s, every third child had been militarily involved in the civil war.

Rädda Barnen – Save the Children Sweden – has been a vocal advocate of children’s rights in conflict, and played an important role in the lengthy negotiations leading to the protocol. In common with other NGOs, it gave a cautious welcome to the protocol, but has already pressed for firmer action. In particular, the agency has called for governments to:

  • ratify the protocol and monitor compliance with it;
  • deposit the strongest possible declaration upon ratification, setting forth the minimum age at which voluntary recruitment will take place;
  • where necessary, pass the protocol into domestic legislation;
  • ratify the International Labour Organisation (ILO)’s Convention 182, which calls for a ban on ‘hazardous and exploitative work’ by children;
  • become party to the Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC); and
  • ensure that they do not deploy troops in UN peacekeeping operations who are under 18 years of age, and preferably not under 21.

Its shortfalls notwithstanding, the protocol’s commitments to stop the conscription of under-18s and to halt their use in combat constitute an advance in establishing normative legal principles governing the use of minors in armed forces. But a question-mark remains as to whether governments can summon the political will to press ahead with further measures to tackle the problem. Moreover, it is doubtful that documents drawn up in New York will seriously affect the conduct of non-state armed groups, for whom children are, and will remain, an important manpower source. While institutional measures to limit children’s exposure to combat are welcome, their involvement in some of the world’s most brutal conflicts will not be easily curtailed.



Rädda Barnen’s website is at <www.rb.se>. The text of the optional protocol is at <www.un.org/special-rep/childrenarmed-conflict/fUnDocs.htm>. Material from the International Conference on War Affected Children, held in Winnipeg, Canada, on 10–13 September 2000, is at the Child Rights Information Network, <www.crin.org/news/winnipeg.htm>. Other resources include <www.savethechildren.net> and WARChild at <www.warchild.org>.