Western Militaries Confront Child Soldiers Threat

Peter W. Singer
Peter W. Singer Former Brookings Expert, Strategist and Senior Fellow - New America

January 1, 2005

Reproduced by permission of
Jane’s Intelligence Review (Vol. 17, No. 1, January 2005), a Jane’s Information Group publication.

Underage soldiers have become a recurring feature of the modern battlefield, present in the majority of the world’s conflicts and armed organisations. The global spread of child soldiers raises deep dilemmas for both policy and military strategy and tactics, and has worrisome implications for the extent, level and persistence of conflicts. In short, the ‘soft’ issue of children has become a ‘hard’ security threat that must be taken into account in war and security planning.

Juveniles have been present in armies in the past, most notably the Hitler Jugend in the closing weeks of the Second World War, but in general the use of children as combatants has been limited. However, this has changed radically in recent decades. There are now as many as 300,000 children under 18 years old presently serving as combatants in 40 per cent of the world’s armed organisations (both non-state and state linked) and they fight in almost 75 per cent of the world’s conflicts. An additional set of as many as 500,000 children serve in armed forces not presently at war.

While questions of differing cultural standards of maturity are sometimes raised, the youth in question cover a range considered underage both according to international law and by almost every state in its own legislation. Some 80 per cent of those conflicts where children are present include fighters under the age of 15 and 18 per cent of the world’s armed organisations have used children of 12 years and under. The average age of child soldiers found by separate studies in Southeast Asia and Central Africa was just under 13.