Puzzles About Child Soldiers Bans
Representatives of fifty-eight nations met in Paris to sign a non-binding accord on child soldiers. The signatory states pledge to not use anyone under the age of 18 in hostilities. The statute of the International Criminal Court treats the use of soldiers 15 and under as a war crime.
Given the supposedly global international law norm against capital punishment those under 18, I’m surprised that so few nations have signed the new “Paris Principles.” If it morally repugnant, if it is incompatible with civilized practice, to execute a 17-year old who deliberately committed brutal murders, why is it any better to send an entirely blameless 17-year old to be killed, or maimed, or tortured? To be sure, sending a minor to the front lines does not gaurantee that he will be killed, but nor does sending him to death row. And I would expect that in absolute numbers, far more minors will die in combat than through capital punishment. However, only a small fraction of nations that have pledged to end capital punishment for those under 18 have made the same promise about their use in hostilities.
One thing does seem to make a child soldiers ban different and thus may explain the large difference in participation between it and the juvenile death penalty ban. As in any limitation on war, reciprocity is crucial; if one potential belligerent forgoes child soldiers while its enemy does not do so (either in promise or in practice), the former is placed at a disadvantage. Not executing juveniles, by contrast, is a purely internal matter that cannot change any balance of strength. This is not the kind of moral, humanizing considerations that inspire such bans, but the difference in participation suggests they still play a role in states’ thinking about sending their children to die.
Enforcing child soldier bans will be quite difficult, even for well-intentioned countries, and especially in areas where record-keeping of age is not well organized. The Internatioanl Criminal Court’s first trial will be of an African warlord for using child soldiers. Tragically, this is a common feature of African civil wars, as powerfully dramatized in the recent movie “Blood Diamond.” Needless to say, at least half the parties to a civil war have not made any treaty committments in this regard. The biggest effect of these agreements may be be to reduce the already miniscule number of under-18 soldiers from European states that might participate in combat.
While in many conflicts, the leaders prefer children in the first instance, in many conflicts child soldiers are used as a last resort. If I recall my history lessons, even Nazi Germany only started throwing 15-year old Hitlerjugen into battle in the last months of the war, as Germany was being overrun and devestated. Such desperate measures are hard to deter.
The African civil wars, characterized by a purposeful kidnapping and mass conscription of youth without regard to age is one paradigm of the use of child soldiers. Allowing 17-year-olds to volunteer with parental consent, as the U.S. does, seems to be an entirely different phenomenon, and it is not clear how it is helpful to lump them together.
Another interesting thing about child soldier agreements is that their impact may wary greatly depending on a nation’s demographics. Iran, for example, has an extremely young population, with 26% being under 15 and the median age being 25; in France, it is 18% and 39. “Old” Europe gives up relatively little in these agreements, and will probably abide by them more.
Finally, if there is any area where uniform international standards seem to make the littke sense it is in defining when childhood ends — i.e., a specified global age of adulthood. If anything is culturally constructed as well as biologically based, it is childhood/adulthood. Indeed, some have argued that the very notion of adolescence is a modern invention. But certainly the social expectations and social role, and thus the developmental maturity, of 16-year olds varies greatly around the world. It is a function of economic circumstances, social conventions, religious norms, and more. A 15-year old in an agricultural economy may be more adult in many ways than a 21-year-old American college kid. The Declaration on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women recognized that women’s roles are socially constructed. So too with adulthood. This is not in any way to advocate the use of child soldiers, only to suggest that little can be gained by stipulating one-size-fits all interantional standards in this regard. Nor can one say that a bright-line rule helps enforcement, as there will probably be little of that in any case.
(At the same Paris conference, the nations signed a treaty against using secret detentions in the war on terrorism. Enforcement of such norms will of course be difficult, since the detention are presumably — secret.)