The truth about child soldiers

Images last week from an ISIS video appearing to show a child executing a hostage were horrific. The very idea of the "cubs of the caliphate," as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria dubs them, is stomach-churning.

But ISIS is far from the first or only group to treat children in such a wretched way. There are tens of thousands of child soldiers under age 18 around the world, from South America to Africa to Southeast Asia to recent conflicts in the Balkans. The Kony2012 video that went viral, for example, featured children in the Lord's Resistance Army in northern Uganda. Boko Haram, in Nigeria, also dreadfully abuses children. Children associated with armed forces and armed groups typically serve as porters, sentries, spies, cooks or cleaners. Many are sex slaves. Some, however, carry weapons on their own, exercise authority over others and commit atrocities against adults and children alike.

There is, though, an oft-overlooked point that also highlights one of the difficulties we face if we are going to tackle the problem of child soldiers. Despite the dominant image of these soldiers as boys, it is estimated that globally as many as 40% of child soldiers are girls. This point, as much as any other, underscores why it is time to rethink how we view child soldiers.

If we are going to develop effective responses to child soldiering, the international community needs to move past two dominant images. These two dominant images cast child soldiers either as passive, helpless victims who have been abused into serving as tools of war or, on the other hand, as bloodthirsty fighters with considerable autonomy who kill with sadism and zeal.

As I have outlined in my book, both images are unhelpfully crude generalizations. Children who end up in armed groups arrive there from along a number of paths and for divergent reasons. And children are, of course, individuals. Hence, they act in different ways once they are in these armed groups. Some children are abducted, drugged, brainwashed and brutalized. Many refuse to kill, some kill to survive, others murder to thrive. Some are brought to armed groups by their own families. Others join willingly, often traveling long distances of their own volition. They deceive their loved ones in order to enlist.

This latter point was underscored most recently by the case of three British schoolgirls who are alleged to have left the United Kingdom last month in an effort to join ISIS. The girls -- all midteens -- appear to have shown significant enterprise in traveling from London to Turkey and then to the border with Syria.

Why do these misconceptions about child soldiers matter? Well, in the case of girl soldiers, the fact is that existing policies stemming from stereotypes serve them particularly badly. By focusing on boys, the specific challenges of reintegrating girl soldiers can be overlooked, notably girls who suffer sexual violence before and after recruitment.

Should a civilian who has been tortured, raped or had a limb amputated by a child be denied a remedy to what would otherwise be a war crime? If someone's family has been wiped out by a group of child soldiers, should he or she be refused justice because of the age of the perpetrators? The international community is reluctant to prosecute child soldiers. While this move may be readily understandable, is it productive to insulate such children from involvement in restorative processes such as truth commissions, community service or traditional reintegration ceremonies?

How should a trained soldier fight a child in the event that nightmare comes to pass? What are the appropriate rules of engagement? Rules must of course respect international law and seek to protect children, but they must also recognize the realities of self-defense.

While mental health therapies are important after conflict, it is also important not to underestimate the resilience of young people and their ability to bounce back from adversity if policymakers are equally willing to invest more in their education, training and conflict resolution, among other things.

The crude images of psychological devastation (the victim) or psychological deviance (the demon) divert attention away from what former child soldiers may most acutely need. With this in mind, if the international community really wants to assist, then it must move beyond clicktivism, shock-value and convenience. It must be willing to tackle difficult truths head on. Long-term prevention and healing require coherent answers to tough questions. We can't simply deny or wish away awkward realities.

Once a conflict ends, child soldiers have just as much right as adults to be reintegrated into communities. Society owes them a chance to contribute to peaceful transition and build their lives. But how is it best to do that? For certain child soldiers, a healthy path to transition may involve them fulfilling some kind of obligation to society. Dismissively (and patronizingly) telling them their violent actions weren't their fault isn't helpful. Neither, of course, is locking them away in prison -- this is especially the case for children who have suffered horrid brainwashing as is the case for ISIS and Boko Haram.

All this suggests the shortsightedness of bunching child soldiers -- and the challenges they create -- into a single category that doesn't take fully into account the radically different nature of their individual experiences in conflict. Instead, we should recognize the diversity among child soldiers -- not helpless victims or demented perpetrators, but as individuals with promise, potential, entitlements and reciprocal obligations.

Until we make these changes to our thinking, we will hinder our own efforts at preventing something we all ultimately want to stop: children ending up in war.

Mark A. Drumbl is the Class of 1975 Alumni Professor at Washington & Lee University, School of Law, where he also serves as director of the Transnational Law Institute. He is author of Reimagining Child Soldiers in International Law and Policy. The views expressed are his own.

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