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Adolescents volunteering for armed forces or armed groups

  • Rachel Brett


The focus of attention with regard to “child soldiers” has tended to be on abducted children or those forced or coerced into fighting. When asked, however, many children and young people themselves say that they volunteered. Moreover, when negotiating the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on involvement of children in armed conflict, some governments claimed the right to continue to recruit volunteers under the age of 18 and indeed still do so, although others have raised their minimum age for recruitment.



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1 Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on involvement of children in armed conflict, which was adopted and opened for signature, ratification and accession by General Assembly Resolution A/RES/54/263 of 25 May 2000 and entered into force on 12 February 2002; available at: (“Optional Protocol”).

2 Article 2 of the Optional Protocol reads: “States Parties shall ensure that persons who have not attained the age of 18 years are not compulsorily recruited into their armed forces.” Article 3.1 of the same Protocol reads: “States Parties shall raise in years the minimum age for the voluntary recruitment of persons into their national armed forces from that set out in article 38, paragraph 3, of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, taking account of the principles contained in that article and recognizing that under the Convention persons under the age of 18 years are entitled to special protection.”

3 Article 3.2 of the Optional Protocol reads: “Each State Party shall deposit a binding declaration upon ratification of or accession to the present Protocol that sets forth the minimum age at which it will permit voluntary recruitment into its national armed forces and a description of the safeguards it has adopted to ensure that such recruitment is not forced or coerced.”

4 The term “young soldiers” was used for the research project rather than “child soldiers” because the focus of the research was on the adolescent age group rather than on younger children. Being qualitative research, it entailed interviews with the youngsters themselves, many of whom would not have responded well to being addressed as “children”. It in no way suggests a redefinition of the term “child soldier” as applying lo all those up to the age of 18 years. Although the term “adolescent” may not be used in all cultures, there is widespread recognition of a transitional period during which a young person is no longer a “child” in the commonly understood sense, but not yet an “adult” although increasingly expected to take on adult tasks and roles.

5 Afghanistan, Colombia, Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, South Africa, Sri Lanka, United Kingdom (including Northern Ireland).

6 The full results of the project will be published as: Brett, Rachel & Specht, Irma, Young Soldiers: Why They Choose to Fight, International Labour Organisation, Geneva, and Lynnne Rienner, Boulder, Colorado, May 2004.

7 The term “war” is used to cover situations of both international and internal armed conflict and also situations of militarized violence not amounting to armed conflict in the strict legal sense. Outside war or violence, a military environment includes some of the same aspects.

8 Article 3.3 of the Optional Protocol.

* Rachel Brett is a representative of the Quaker United Nations Office in Geneva.

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Adolescents volunteering for armed forces or armed groups

  • Rachel Brett


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