Children and War


Throughout this century, there have been many attempts to give substance and effective existence to the rights of children in armed conflicts. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, The Geneva Convention of 1949 and the added Protocols of 1977, the special Declaration on the Protection of Women and Children in Emergencies and Armed Conflicts adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1974, and the ongoing drafting of an international Convention on the Rights of the Child are but examples of these legislative efforts. Taken as a whole, humanitarian law offers two fundamental assurances to children in armed conflicts: one, as civilians, they will not be targets in any given war; and two, as children, they will not be recruited or used as soldiers by either side of an armed conflict.

In reality, however, neither of these basic rights has ever been implemented. The overwhelming majority of victims in today's wars are indeed children. While most of these fatalities result from indiscriminate bombings or attacks on cities and villages, others do not. Rather, adolescents, young boys and girls and infants are singled out, injured and killed as part of a calculated strategy. Moreover, thousands of children are currently bearing arms in at least 20 ongoing conflicts. Even children as young as nine years old are used as frontline combatants in unwinnable battles, as decoys to lure opposing forces into ambush and as human mine detectors to explode bombs in front of advancing adult troops.

Between 1982 and 1984, the Guatemalan army (by its own determination) destroyed 400 Indian villages and killed between 30,000 and 50,000 men, women and children during is military campaign against he guerrilla movement in the countryside.(1) Yet, in the midst of this violence directed at Indians as a whole, children in a number of villages were tortured and killed whereas their adult counterparts were left physically unharmed. In some cases, these victims were older boys and adolescents whom the military thought were or might someday become guerrilla soldiers. Others, however, were babies and toddlers still too young to leave their mother's side. This is how one 24-year-old Mayan Indian mother described to me the deaths of seven children in her highland village:

At first we didn't think there would be trouble because a few days before another group of soldiers had questioned us about giving food to the guerrillas. When we told them it happened once and only because the guerrillas had threatened us, they went away. But this time the soldiers said we had to be punished. They pushed five boys forward, made them lie face-down on the ground and shot them in the back. A baby girl was then pulled from her mother's arms and her skull crushed against the side of a house. The last death occurred when a soldier cut open the stomach of a pregnant woman saying that even our unborns will not be spared.(2)

Why? Why are children, the future of any community, if not of the world itself, being singled out in today's armed conflicts? As paradoxical as it may be, this is occurring precisely because children are so precious to many of us. To destroy what is of highest value to someone is clearly among the most effective forms of terrorism imaginable; to kill and injure children is to rob a family or an entire group of its future. What better way to undermine whatever popular support may exist for any given cause than to attack the very beings we love and value most in life?

Child Soldiers

International humanitarian law prohibits the participation in hostilities of children under the age of 15 years and urges that, when recruitment takes place within the 15-18 age group, the older children in this category be enlisted first.(3) These age distinctions approximate what is known in general about children's developmental limitations and capacities, including their differing abilities to make reasoned and informed judgements. Despite this legislation, there are at least 20 countries in which children from 10 to 18 years of age are involved in civil wars, armies of liberation and even international war.(4) Recruitment of child soldiers often has been associated with heavy indoctrination programs that merge the call to duty with national or religious symbols, drawing upon the media and educational system to glorify war. Such is the case in Iran where, after receiving special religious training in martyrdom, thousands of 10-and 11-year-old children have been seen off to their deaths literally carrying the keys they were given "insuring" their entrance into paradise.(5)

The lack of food and protection has also turned many a child into a soldier. Beginning in late 1979, relief agencies provided special group homes and services to "unaccompanied" Cambodian children who managed to reach holding centers inside Thailand. These same programs, however, were not established for parents children in border camps. As a result, many fell prey to the recruitment campaigns of Khmer resistance armies still baling Vietnamese troops.(6) In Uganda, where between 100,000 and 300,000 people have died during the past three years alone, children in national and revolutionary armies are often better fed and protected than non-combatant youth. "I have a gun, food and place to sleep," one nine-year-old Ugandan soldier recently told a relief worker. "That's more than I had in my village. If I stayed there I'd probably be dead by now."(7) In 1982, a photographer caught an American Green Beret training 13-year-old boys for combat in Honduras. When asked why this was permitted, a government official answered in much the same way: "Sometimes it's their only chance for a job, a paycheck and a square meal."(8).

Children also have been expected to commit violent murders against unarmed civilians as a kind of rite of passage into combat forces. In hi study of "la violencia" in Colombia, for example, Leon Carlos discovered that boys were sometimes forced to kill other children of similar ages in order to save their own lives and enter into paramilitary groups, acts most undertook only after severe beatings.(9) Indeed, child soldiers who have committed similar crimes against civilians in Kampuchea, Uganda, El Salvador and other countries in crises usually have not succumbed to "instinctual" aggression, as did the group of British boys portrayed in Lord of the Flies when stranded too long from adults. Rather, many child soldiers were reluctant participants at first, whose initial feelings of fear and guilt were transformed into the kind of rage that obliterates moral sensibility under the watchful eye of adult overseers. As one Khmer Rouge leader put it: "It usually takes a little time but eventually the younger ones becomes the most efficient soldiers of all."(10)

As a psychologist, I was able follow the progress of several teenagers who left the Khmer Rouge cadre in 1981 and entered a holding center for displaced persons in Thailand. Initially, there was a striking absence of depression or remorse over the atrocities they had committed. Instead, they appeared to view themselves as being superior to other Cambodians in the camp, whom they sometimes described as "traitors" of Pol Pot's revolution. Although this attitude kept them socially isolated, there was still an appropriate degree of logic and order to their thought and speech. It was only when they felt more compelled to reenter the social and moral world of follow Cambodians, that their sense of reality became grossly distorted.

After a month in camp, four out of the five boys became deathly afraid they were being persecuted by other residents who they believed were able to "listen" to their thoughts and feelings. One 15-year-old began hearing two voices "arguing with each other inside my head." The first was the voice of a Khmer Rouge leader who was angry because priest who "says even when I die I'll be punished for what I've done." Another 13-year-old saw visions in which the intestines of one of his victims turned into snakes. Eventually these hallucinations subsided. But none of these former child soldiers ever displayed the same recuperative powers I so often observed in other Cambodian children.(11) In my clinical experience, psychological disturbance has been greater among children who perpetuated violence than among those who were victims of it.

Lessons Learned

In looking at why the basic rights of children in armed conflicts continue to be routinely violated, it seems that we have failed, not because we lack sufficient legislation, but because we lack the will and the means to implement this legislation. While most countries have signed and ratified the Geneva Conventions, few have abided by these principles when directly involved in war themselves or when providing military support to other embattled nations. On the other hand, fewer than 30 countries have formally agreed to uphold the 1977 Geneva Protocols, which set forth the strongest prohibitions against the use of children in armed conflicts. Moreover, seven of these signatories have since recruited or trained underaged children for combat.(12)

Equally problematic, at times, is that there is still no viable structure for safeguarding and reporting on children's rights. In war and refugee situations, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) have mandates to do so. But normally both agencies undertake their tasks through quiet diplomacy with national governments, whose cooperation is seen as essential, especially in countries which have not ratified their respective conventions and protocols. Critics suggest that this tactic sometimes leads to situations in which protection issues can neither be aggressively pursued nor publicly disclosed.(13) Non governmental relief agencies, which often provide emergency assistance directly to children, are also caught in this bind. As invited "guests" of the governments in many of the countries in which they work, their programs could be shut down and personnel endangered or expelled should they protest too loudly.

Future Implicationsm

These lessons are particularly pertinent as we anticipate the completion of the international Convention on the Rights of the Child. Those who have been drafting this document since 1978 believe it will have two main advantages over previous legislation: first, as a convention it will be a stronger and more precise legal instrument than a declaration; and second, unlike other conventions, it will bring all humanitarian legislation on the rights of children into one document, including those pertaining to armed conflicts.

But whatever potential advantage this child-centered piece of legislation may have will not be realized unless it is recognized by more countries than in the past and adhered to by all with a greater sense of obligation. The first steps in attaining better results are to strengthen public support for the Rights of the Child and to lobby with governments to include its basic tenets as a top priority in their national programs. Protection and relief agencies must also begin devising a system whereby the state of children in armed conflicts will be more effectively monitored and reported in the future. Indeed, without greater recognition and compliance, any right possessed by a child is not worth very much.


(1) G. Black, "Under the Gun", Report on the Americans, New York, November/December, 1985; C. Brown, With Friends Like These: The American Watch Report on Human Rights in Latin America, New York: Pantheon Books.

(2)Personal interview, Chiapas, Mexico, February 21, 1986.

(3) Geneva Convention, Protocols I and II, adopted at the Diplomatic Conference on the Reaffirmation and Development of International Humanitarian Law Applicable in Armed Conflicts, 1977.

(4) D. Woods, "Children Bearing Arms," Children and War, Proceedings of Symposium at Siuntio Baths, Finland, Peace Union of Finland, 1983; Report on Child Victims of Armed Conflicts, Radda Barnen, NGO Forum, Rome, April 28,1984; Protection of Children, International Commission on International Humanitarian Issues and Radda Barnen, Amman Symposium, November, 1984.

(5) The Child Soldiers of the Ayatollah," The Economist, 228, September 17, 1983; H. Irandokhte, "Children of War in Iran," children and War, op, cit.

(6) N. Boothby, "Khmer Children: Alone at the Border," Indochina Issue, 32, December 1982; N. Boothdy, "The Horror, The Hope," Natural History Magazine, January, 1983; E. Ressler, N. Boothdy, and D. Steinbock, Unaccompanied Children in Emergencies: Their Care and Protection in Wars, Natural Disasters and Refugee movements, New York, Oxford University Press, (in press).

(7) Personal interview, New York, April 16, 1986.

(8) M. Ruiz, "The Pint-Size Paratroopers," Newsweek, April 5,1982.

(9) C. Leon, "Unusual Patterns of Crime During La Violencia in Colombia," American Journal of Psychiatry, 125: 11, May 1969.

(10) Personal interview, Thailand-Kampuchean border, November 12, 1981.

(11) N. Boothby, op cit., 1983.

(12) Children in Especially Difficult Circumstances," United Nations Economic and Social Council, E/ICEF/1986/L.6, New York, February 28, 1986.

(13) See, for example, W. Shawcross, The Quality of Mercy, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1984; "Honoring an Unpopular Cause," Time Magazine, October 26,1981; J. Clay, "Guatemalan Refugees in Mexico," Cultural Survival Quarterly. Cambridge, Mass., Fall 1984.

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