Last month junior defence minister Andrew Robathan owned up to Parliament that the armed forces had “inadvertently” sent four under-18s to war in Iraq and Afghanistan since April 2008 in direct contravention of government policy and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Minors should not go to war.
Britain recruits the youngest soldiers in Europe
On Monday this week the Ministry of Defence rejected fresh calls to review its policy on deploying underage soldiers, and in a special debate today, MPs are expected to criticise the Ministry of Defence for sending underage soldiers to war.
Fabian Hamilton MP (Labour) said, “On the eve of Remembrance Day, it is remarkable and tragic that the Ministry of Defence insists on recruiting and deploying teenagers who would have been ruled out as too young to join the British forces even in the most desperate hours of the First World War. It is unacceptable that standards are lower now than they were a century ago.”
Throughout the First World War the official minimum age for enlistment or conscription was 18 years, and 19 was the minimum age to be sent to the frontline.
The UK now recruits the youngest soldiers in Europe, with a minimum recruitment age of just 16 years. Despite a general policy not to send soldiers into war until they are 18, the Ministry of Defence has always reserved the power to deploy younger recruits in certain circumstances. The United Nations has called for this policy to be reviewed. When challenged by MPs on Monday, Andrew Robathan insisted that he “saw no need” to prohibit the use of underage British soldiers. International law prohibits the deliberate use of soldiers aged below 18 in hostilities.
Despite plans to make 11,000 armed forces personnel redundant in order to save money, the Ministry of Defence recruited another 2,760 minors last year. In response to questioning from MPs, the Ministry of Defence recently admitted that minors are almost twice as expensive to train as adult recruits. This revelation indicates that annual wasted expenditure on the large number of minors who drop out of training is even higher than the £46 million previously estimated.
The Ministry of Defence is under growing pressure from Parliament concerning its policy on minors. Former Navy Minister Lord Judd (Labour) was among those expressing concerns about high suicide rates and the poor educational provision for minors in the armed forces during recent House of Lords debate on the Armed Forces Covenant. The recruitment of minors was raised repeatedly during parliamentary debate on the Armed Forces Bill over the summer and in the past few weeks the Ministry of Defence has been challenged by MPs on a range of related issues from underage deployment to the lack of age limits on training with live ammunition.
Children’s rights groups including Child Soldiers International, UNICEF UK, the Children’s Society, the Children’s Rights Alliance for England, and Children in Scotland are campaigning for the Ministry of Defence to raise the armed forces’ recruitment age to 18, in line with standard international practice.
“The Ministry of Defence justifies recruiting minors by claiming they won’t be deployed until they reach 18. In reality that’s not always true but even if it was, at a time of redundancies and frontline manning shortages, you have to question the logic of deliberately recruiting large numbers of children who are too young to go to war”, said Martin Macpherson, interim director of Child Soldiers International.
“As long as the Ministry of Defence continues to target minors for recruitment, they will continue to be at risk of unlawful deployment”, he said.