by Dr. Shelly Whitman
Today there are an estimated 420 million children and youth who live in conflict-affected countries, many of whom need urgent protection Save the Children, 2019). This is heightened by the changing nature of war. In the space of three decades, the number of children living in conflict zones at risk of being recruited and used in conflict has tripled – from 99 million children in 1990 (under 5% of children) to 337 million children in 2020 (more than 14%) (Save the Children, 2021, p. 4). While children are often viewed as innocent, passive victims of war, it must be recognized that children undertake roles during armed conflict that range from being frontline combatants, to sex slaves, human shields, detainees, spies, porters, cooks, and messengers (Brocklehurst, 2006).
If in the past children were involved in conflict despite their age, they are now being recruited because of their age (Conradi and Whitman, 2014). The use of children in war is not a new phenomenon. Since the end of the Cold War, it has been well-documented that the recruitment and use of children as soldiers represents a defining aspect of most modern conflicts (Achvarina and Reich, 2006). What is new is the strategic recruitment and use of children as a “tactical innovation” in war (Tynes, 2019). Tragically, there are several tactical and strategic incentives for armed forces and groups to recruit and use children and youth: they are susceptible to manipulation, able to pass through communities undetected, low cost, and able to fill the ranks of forces quickly. In addition, opposing forces often hesitate to react, under react or overreact, to encountering children who are used as soldiers, which in turn provides a tactical advantage to the opposing forces (Baillie Abidi and Whitman 2020, p. 35).
To progressively end the recruitment and use of children as soldiers, the world must focus on effective prevention (Baillie Abidi and Whitman, 2020, p.29).
Save the Children reported that in 2020, among the parties to conflict who recruit and use children, 22 are governments and 110 are non-state actors (Save the Children, 2020, p.6), Preventing violence in the context of children and armed conflict, and particularly in relation to children recruited and used as soldiers, requires explicit attention during times of peace and conflict (ICRC, 2020). Yet the fact remains that despite time, resources and well-meaning efforts by many non-governmental organizations and UN agencies, most efforts are focused on interventions to respond after conflict has begun. Trends have found that the number of state armed actors recruiting children to armed conflict over the last decade is stable at around 20, but the number of non-state actors has almost tripled, from 38 in 2010 to 110 in 2020 (Save the Children, op cit, p.6). The United Nations Security Council Resolution 2427 (2018) states that conflict prevention strategies must “address the root causes of armed conflict in a comprehensive manner in order to enhance the protection of children on a long-term basis.”
There is a need for a transformational shift to move from good intentions to preventative action (WHO (World Health Organization), 2014). In this context, the Child Protection Minimum Standards in Humanitarian Action (2019), outlines that we need to think of preventative and responsive actions. Preventative actions are primarily designed to prevent harm to children, while responsive actions address the needs of children who have already been harmed (Alliance for Child Protection, 2019). While many community-based, state-driven, and internationally supported programs have preventative effects, explicit and coordinated programming on conflict prevention, and particularly recruitment prevention, is lacking (Whitman, 2018).
Our approaches need to combine preventative and responsive actions that can be targeted to address this grave vilation. However, such approaches are missing from the international peace and security agenda. Preventing violence against children in the context of armed conflict requires a dual lens that is focused on prioritizing the protection of children’s rights, as well as understanding the significant operational impacts associated with the use of children in armed violence.
But it is February 2022, and when I reference the use of children in armed violence, I want us all to hear a few sobering thoughts.
We live in a time when technology has the power to make huge changes for good, yet we have social media giants who design these platforms with the intention of harming children in exchange for profit.
We see families divided over things such as vaccine mandates and neighbours who no longer talk to each other because of their political leanings for candidate A or B.
We have major powers sitting in the chambers of the UN Security Council who know their actions will never be punished because might triumphs over right every time.
We have organizations that don’t work together because our mandates don’t match, or we are competing for funds.
What the hell are we teaching our children about peace?
Today, as I write, we are witnessing the impacts of conflict on children’s mindsets, their belief systems and their perceptions of the “other”. We have sowed far too many seeds of division. If we fail to interrupt this pattern we will never see a world that attains sustainable peace and security. We will instead continue to have desires to rectify the wrongs of the past, to triumph individual freedoms and wealth over a greater common good. And the human rights that we have spent decades working to define, put into legislation and hold others accountable for, will mean nothing.
While the trends I have highlighted are alarming – given the significant and long-standing impacts of recruitment and use on children, their families, communities and the security sector actors responsible for their protection – there is hope. Preventing the recruitment and use of children is central to transforming and ending multi-generational cycles of violence.