Child Soldiers and the CAR

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

On February 7th, the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda said that she had opened an investigation into possible war crimes occurring during the ongoing instability in the Central African Republic (CAR). According to the United Nations, more than 6,000 children may now be fighting in the ongoing conflict in the CAR. On January 16th, 23 children, including six girls, were released from the ex-Seleka/national forces, and more are expected to be released soon.

The Use of Child Soldiers

CAR, unfortunately, is not an isolated case. UNICEF estimates that around 300,000 children are currently involved in more than 30 conflicts around the world, and the 2013 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report lists 10 governments (including CAR and neighbors Chad, the DRC, Sudan, and South Sudan) that recruited or used child soldiers in governmental armed forces or government supported armed groups in the previous year. The TIP report also suggests that since at least 2007 the CAR has been a source, transit, and destination country for child soldiers recruited or abducted by rebel groups including The Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR) and the Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace (CPJP) .

While children’s role in conflict might be increasingly visible in countries like the CAR and uniformly decried, using children in war is not a new phenomenon. Over twenty-three centuries ago the Spartans trained children as young as seven as soldiers, and thousands of children fought on both sides of the US Civil War. In recent decades the term “child soldier” often evokes images of Sierra Leone youthsbrutally maiming and killing while high on drugs and wielding comically large machine guns. However, as the 1997 landmark multilateral Cape Town Declaration of Principles makes clear, children also serve as porters, cooks, messengers, and spies in conflicts stretching from Colombia to Afghanistan and Myanmar to Iraq. They have even recently been used as suicide bombers in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine (before 2004), Sri Lanka, and Yemen (Coalition to Stopthe Use of Child Soldiers 2008). Clearly, child soldiers are not only a Sub-Saharan phenomenon. 

As a means of addressing the continued use around the world of child soldiers 129 countries have signed on to the 2000 Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict and the ICC has actively prosecuted leaders of groups that have allegedly used child soldiers. The first conviction ever reached at the ICC in 2012 was of Thomas Lubanga for using child soldiers younger than fifteen, and on March 26, 2013 Bosco Ntaganda the leader of the DRC’s rebel group M23 appeared in front of the ICC accused of rape, murder, and the use of child soldiers. The evidence against him will be presented next week in the Hague.


The Comparative Study of the Use of Child Soldiers

Why do groups use child soldiers? In the words of a Congolese rebel officer: “They obey orders; they are not concerned with getting back to their wife and family; and they don’t know fear,” (The Economist 1999, 22; quoted in Gates 2011: 34). In interstate wars with heavy and expensive machinery, children are less useful. However for a suicide bombing, guerrilla warfare or other asymmetric and lengthy campaigns there are roles for children to play that are feasible. In addition, there are different levels of assistance and joining behavior from failure to provide information on one end to actively fighting on the other, and there are also distinct reasons for retention and staying in a group that Gates (2011) and others are starting to explore.

As part of my human trafficking book project, I have been conducting some research (first presented at the International Studies Association’s annual meeting last year) on the correlates of the use of child soldiers.  Recent research including that by Beber & Blattman (2013) focus on why rebel groups use child soldiers, the costs of doing so (Blattman & Annan 2010 [gated]) how to reintegrate child soldiers back into society (Bettancourt et al. 2010), however others like Hyeran Jo are looking at the use of child soldiers by rebel groups and governments. And my ISA paper urges scholars to look beyond simply a rebel group’s supply and demand calculations to try and better understand the interaction of structural and strategic considerations (for both the rebels and governments).

My HTI data suggest that the use of child soldiers is relatively rare (less than 10% of countries with trafficking in the TIP reports have reported child soldiers), but their use has not declined over the last decade (see figure below). My preliminary empirical findings (holding other things constant like a rebel group’s strength and other conflict characteristics) suggest that a rebel group is significantly more likely to use child soldiers if the government also uses child soldiers. These are preliminary findings, but they like other recent political science research on civil conflict dynamics suggest that the use of child soldiers is a strategic tool for increasing capacity.

Data source:

The CAR crisis, meanwhile, continues despite the December 5th deployment of over 1,500 French troops and 6,000 African Union troops to Bangui. The ICC’s investigation might have just begun, but the conflict (and the use of child soldiers in it) appears unlikely to end in the near future.


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