The recruitment or use of children below the age of 15 as soldiers is prohibited by both the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the additional protocols to the Geneva Conventions, and is considered a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

The United States of America has added Pakistan and 14 other countries to a Child Soldier Recruiter List that identifies foreign governments having government-supported armed groups that recruit or use child soldiers, a designation that could result in restrictions on certain security assistance and commercial licensing of military equipment.

The US Child Soldiers Prevention Act (CSPA) requires the publication in the annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report a list of foreign governments that have recruited or used child soldiers during the previous year (April 1, 2020, to March 31, 2021). The countries which have been added to the annual TIP list of the US State Department this year are: Pakistan, Turkey, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, Venezuela and Yemen. The United Nations, too, has identified the recruitment and use of child soldiers as among six “grave violations” affecting children in war and has established numerous monitoring and reporting mechanisms and initiatives to combat this practice. The UN verified that over 7,000 children had been recruited and used as soldiers in 2019 alone.

So, Who Is A Child Soldier?

The recruitment or use of children below the age of 15 as soldiers is prohibited by both the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the additional protocols to the Geneva Conventions, and is considered a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. In addition, the Optional Protocol to the CRC on the involvement of children in armed conflict further prohibits kids under the age 18 from being compulsorily recruited into state or non-state armed forces or directly engaging in hostilities. The United States is a party to the Optional Protocol.

How Did The Legislation Come About?

The United States Congress adopted the CSPA in 2008, as an amendment to the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection and Reauthorization Act of 2008. The CSPA, which went into effect in 2009, prohibits the US government from providing military assistance, including money, military education and training, or direct sales of military equipment, to countries identified as having government or government-supported forces that recruit and use child soldiers. It also requires the US Secretary of State to designate portions of the annual Human Rights Report to the issue of child soldiers. The report must include “trends toward improvement… of the status of child soldiers” and “the role of the government” in “engaging or tolerating” the practice. The statute allows the President to issue a “national interest waiver” for countries even if they are in violation of the Act, so long as the President notifies Congress within 45 days of the waiver and justifies his decision.

Additionally, the President has the authority to provide assistance if that country has taken “steps” to come into compliance with the law and has “implemented policies and mechanisms to prohibit and prevent future… use of child soldiers”.

Outside of the United States, the international community responded to human rights abuses inflicted on children by enacting the CRC. The CRC was adopted on November 20, 1989 and entered into force on September 2, 1990.

Currently, 193 countries have ratified the CRC. The CRC requires state parties to “take all feasible measures” to ensure that children under 18 are not engaged in direct hostilities. It further prohibits the state parties from recruiting children under 15 into the armed forces. In 2000, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child adopted the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict. While the CRC requires states to refrain from using children under 15 in direct hostilities, the Optional Protocol raises this age to 18.

What Are Prohibited For Countries In The List?

The following types of security assistance are prohibited for countries that are in the list:

1. Licenses for direct commercial sales of military equipment
2. Foreign military financing for the purchase of defence articles and services, as well as design and construction services
3. International military education and training
4. Excess Defence articles
5. Peacekeeping operations

The countries will also not be eligible for the US Department of Defence’s “train and equip” authority for building the capacity of foreign defence forces.

How Have Countries Reacted To The List?

Pakistan and Turkey have categorically rejected the list, with the former calling it “baseless” and the latter accusing the US of “hypocrisy and double standards”. The Foreign Office of Pakistan said the move depicted “a factual error and lack of understanding”, and urged Washington to review the “baseless assertions” made against the country. “No state institution was consulted prior to being added to the list. “Nor were any details provided of the basis on which the conclusion was reached,” it added.

The statement emphasised that Pakistan neither supported any non-state armed group nor any entity recruiting or using child soldiers, saying, “Pakistan’s efforts in fighting non-state armed groups including terrorist entities are well-recognised.”

The Turkish foreign ministry, on the other hand, said it was “grotesque” that the list did not mention Kurdish militant groups, which have been fighting an insurgence against Turkey for over 40 years. “A striking example of hypocrisy and double standards as the US openly aids, provides weapons to Kurdish militant groups that forcibly recruits children,” the statement added.

What Do Critics Say About The List?

International treaties and instruments, such as the CRC and its Optional Protocol regarding children in armed conflict, are valuable and necessary tools to establish international norms as they raise awareness regarding human rights abuses.

However, these treaties are limited in scope and nature, and they tend to be idealistic rather than practicable. The UN’s mechanisms only bind state parties that ratify the treaties. It therefore has no authority over countries that are not parties to the convention or are non-state entities, such as rebel militias recruiting child soldiers. It also relies on the signatories themselves to implement its doctrines and prevent human rights abuses around the world. Therefore, most of the responsibility in preventing such abuses lies with the individual countries themselves. While the UN views its treaties and conventions as binding on state parties, it has no police power mechanism to enforce its decisions. Therefore, the CRC and its Optional Protocol are limited by the signatories’ willingness to comply. Somalia, for example, is a signatory but it hasn’t ratified the convention.