Ilankai Tamil Sangam
Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA
Framing the Discourse on Child Soldiers
by N. Malathy
Taken together the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child proclaim the following, among others, as children’s rights:
The Optional Protocol on Children in Armed Conflict prohibits the recruitment of children under the age of 18 by non-state armed groups, but is tolerant of states doing so.
Studies on the phenomenon of child soldiers and the social context from which they come have concluded that child soldiers originate in societies where there are serious violations of many of the child rights proclaimed in the UN conventions.
A Perplexing Question
Why is it, then, that world opinion is so strong about "child soldiers" in comparison to the other child rights? There are many reasons.
For these and other reasons the power hierarchy that includes the corporate media and powerful international NGOS have popularised the term "child soldiers" to evoke strong emotional appeal in contrast to terms like "child malnutrition", "child prostitution", "child labour", "child neglect," etc.
A Terminological Confusion
There is another facet to the child soldier issue that is marred by terminological confusion.
"Soldier" by definition is someone who carries weapons. Therefore, "child soldier" implies a child who is carrying weapons.
Note that the UN Optional Protocol on Children in Armed Conflict prohibits recruitment of children by non-state armed groups even if they are not trained or involved in armed combat. Thus, when a non-state armed group recruits anyone under the age of 18, they become child soldiers even if they are not trained in use of weapons and are not used in armed combat.
Armed Groups and Reform
The terminological confusion of the term "child soldiers" is very unfortunate (or is it deliberate?) given that many armed liberation movements, having drawn their sustenance from the poorer sections of the society, also evolve into movements for social reform that aim to improve the conditions of the poor.
To achieve this, the movement needs manpower. This obviously comes from poorer sectors. The children in this sector would have most of their rights proclaimed in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child violated and no one except the armed group appear to really care. The older children aged 14-17 in this sector, with their right to education violated, would already be doing many adult tasks, some very hazardous tasks at that. They, therefore, have a developed social conscience. Obviously some of them are attracted to the social reform and services of the armed group.
More Perplexing Questions
Is the recruitment children aged 14-17 in this poorer sector for social work by the armed group morally wrong?
If not, then can what seems to be morally right be a violation of the children’s rights?
If not, then is there a serious/deliberate flaw in the way the Optional Protocol on Children in Armed Conflict is being applied in the international human rights discourse on "child soldiers"?
No attempt is made here to justify the use of children under the age of 18 by an armed group. The only purpose of this short article is to provoke people into reflecting about the so-called "child soldier" issue and into considering the ways in which the issue is being framed by the powers that be. A strong bias towards the powerful results when the issue is raised in isolation from all other rights of children as declared in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Posted April 27, 2005