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Beating the Retreat: how much longer for Britain’s child soldiers?

As the Armed Forces Bill reaches its final stages, we have one last chance to stop Britain recruiting under 18s

Rachel Taylor
14 June 2011

As the word “infantry” suggests, child soldiers have been around for as long as armed forces have existed. In recent decades, however, the international community has come to reject the use of children in warfare as morally repugnant. Deliberately sending a child (defined in national and international law as any individual below the age of 18) to participate in hostilities is now considered unlawful under an international treaty relating to children in armed conflict.

Having ruled out the use of children in battle, there is no logical or ethical justification to continue recruiting them into armed forces before they reach legal adulthood. For this reason, the large majority of states worldwide (more than 130 as of June 2011) have now set the minimum recruitment age for their armed forces at 18 years or above. This figure continues to rise year on year.

Where is the UK in all of this? Remarkably perhaps, the UK has been consistently unenthusiastic about ending the military recruitment of children. When an international treaty to end the use of child soldiers (known as the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict) was drafted, the UK was one of the few states which argued against a global minimum recruitment age of 18 years. The UK ratified the Protocol in 2003 but has subsequently refused to raise its own recruitment age from the absolute minimum the treaty permits, despite repeated calls to do so by its own parliamentary committees and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (the expert body which monitors states’ implementation of the Protocol). It has also refused to implement a blanket ban on deploying its own child soldiers into hostilities, insisting instead on a number of caveats which have resulted in at least 20 underage British soldiers being deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since those conflicts began.

One might reasonably expect the British government to be embarrassed to find itself lagging behind alongside Iran, North Korea and Zimbabwe in a group of fewer than 20 states still allowing recruitment at 16. Yet so far it has appeared oblivious to such disgrace. Indeed, figures published at the end of May 2011 show that last year the proportion of 16-year-olds recruited into the British Army rose dramatically for the first time in a decade. When both 16- and 17-year-olds are included, children constituted 29.8 per cent of all new British Army recruits in 2010. Far from ruling children out, the Ministry of Defence is actively drawing them in.

The perennial justification given by the Ministry of Defence for recruiting children — that it provides them with unique educational opportunities — is increasingly weak. It’s true that many of the skills new recruits learn in the armed forces are unique, but as a consequence they have very limited transferable value to civilian employment. As one former paratrooper recently told a meeting in Parliament, “When I left the forces, I found not many employers were looking to hire someone who knew how to fire a gun and sleep rough in enemy territory”.

What really counts in obtaining long-term employment and a career for life is having a good range of recognised academic or vocational qualifications. For this reason, 94 per cent of 16-year-olds chose to stay on in education in 2010 and by 2015 the remaining six per cent will be obliged to join them, as the school-leaving age rises to 18 years.

If the Ministry of Defence were genuinely concerned about young people’s education and long term career prospects, it would welcome these figures. But its reaction to date has been somewhat more sinister. Far from welcoming the fact that more young people than ever are choosing to complete their education, policy documents on recruitment strategy have explicitly described this trend as a “challenge” and “risk” to recruitment. Such an attitude casts doubts on their true motivation.

In a time of drastic budget cuts and overstretched troop deployments in active conflicts overseas, taxpayers might reasonably ask when and why the Ministry of Defence unilaterally decided to take on the responsibility for providing education for teenagers. This task lies firmly within the mandate – and the budget – of the Department for Children, Schools and Families. Yet in 2010, the Ministry of Defence spent more than £46 million on training the 1,485 16- and 17-year old soldiers who quit the armed forces the same year. 

All this may soon have to change. In a poll earlier this year for the UK-based website Defence Management, more than half of respondents thought the recruitment age should be raised to 18 years. Since last October more than 40 MPs have signed a motion in parliament (Early Day Motion 781) calling for the recruitment age to be raised. The question of recruitment age has also come up repeatedly during the current passage of the Armed Forces Bill (today is committee stage in the Commons; the third reading will take place on Thursday). In its scrutiny of the Bill, parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights voiced serious concerns regarding current policy on under-18s and called for a number of reforms. An amendment (New Clause 11) has now been tabled to the Bill, which, if adopted, would raise the minimum age to 18 years. Concerned readers should contact their MPs immediately, urging them to support this amendment, as the Armed Forces Bill reaches its final stages in the Commons this week. If the amendment were to succeed, the UK’s armed forces would finally become adults-only.

Rachel Taylor is project manager, Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers.

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