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Why 18 Matters: A Rights-Based Analysis of Child Recruitment



As of April 2018, more than fourfifths (167) of states worldwide have now committed in law to ‘take all feasible measures’ not to use children under the age of 18 in armed conflict or any other hostilities. Two-thirds of states with armed forces have further committed to the socalled ‘straight-18’ standard: no recruitment of children for any military purpose. The remainder have yet to reach this standard, continuing to capitalise on the failure of international law to forbid recruiting children from age 16. Drawing on evidence from several countries, this report examines the impact of military employment on children in adolescence.
Child Soldiers International
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London, SE1 1EP
+44 (0) 20 7367 4110
A Rights-Based Analysis of Child Recruitment
On the cover: A British soldier, © Stephen Mulcahey/ Alamy
Child Soldiers International wishes to thank Derek Brett,
Pat Elder, Edwina Hughes, Stefan Mohrle, Bill Scheurer,
Wayne Sharrocks, Ralf Willinger and Renate Winter, whose
support made this report possible. We also gratefully
acknowledge the work of all those organisations campaigning
to end the military exploitation of children worldwide, whose
research we have cited here.
Published in 2018, by:
Child Soldiers International
28 Charles Square
London N1 6HT
United Kingdom
Printed by: Bowmans
Design: Design Corps, Pratt Institute;
Alyssa Klimo '18, Megan Lee '18, Dana Weiss '17
Glossary of Terms ........................................................ 2
Foreword ........................................................................ 3
Executive Summary ..................................................... 4
Introduction ................................................................. 8
Child Recruitment by State
Armed Forces: An Overview ................................ 12
Extent of Child Recruitment ......................................13
Child Recruitment and the Law ................................14
The Child Recruit's Journey .................................18
Targeting Children for Recruitment.........................19
Socioeconomic Targeting ........................................20
Fantasy Marketing ......................................................21
Cadet Forces ................................................................21
Recruiting in Schools .................................................22
Military Schools ..........................................................23
Enlistment and Consent ...........................................24
'Voluntary' Conscription of Children ......................28
The Military Training Process ..................................29
The Military Environment .........................................36
Participation in Hostilities .........................................40
Leaving the Armed Forces .......................................42
Quantifying the Impact ........................................ 44
Mental Health and Alcohol Use ..............................45
Aggression and Violence ......................................... 47
General Health ...........................................................48
Socioeconomic Outcomes .......................................48
Conclusion: The Case for 18 ............................... 52
The Harm of Child Recruitment ..............................53
The Positive Case for Change ................................54
Recommendations .....................................................55
Bibliography ................................................................56
Country Index ...............................................................61
AFFLUENT COUNTRIES For the purposes of this report, ‘auent’ refers approximately
to the richest third of countries globally, as measured by Gross
Domestic Product per capita per annum (equivalent to approx.
$15,000 or greater).
The principal military organisation of a nation state, comprising
a land force (army) and often also naval and air forces.
A military organisation or group not integral to the state
armed forces.
Per international law, this report defines a child as any person
under the age of 18.
A recruit who begins military employment by state compulsion.CONSCRIPT
Convention on the Rights of the Child.CRC
A recruit who begins military employment at the lowest rank
(typically with a background of socioeconomic disadvantage).
Non-commissioned Ocer. A common term for an enlisted recruit
who has been promoted to a position with varying degrees of
management responsibility.
A recruit who begins military employment in a senior position
(typically with a background of socioeconomic privilege).
Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child
on the involvement of children in armed conflict.
Post-traumatic stress disorder.PTSD
A person used by a military organisation or group for any military
purpose, not limited to participation in hostilities.
When I spoke with a warlord ‘General’ about why he recruited children he said, ‘Children
are abundant, stupid, they obey orders, don’t ask questions, and cost nothing. They are very
cheap! They never desert, cannot go home and I can get as many as I want immediately.
But it is dierent when children are recruited legitimately by State armed forces, isn’t it?
They can make an informed and responsible decision, guided by their parents, they can
get an education that their parents might not be able to aord, vocational training for future
employment, and they are medically insured. They get a good opportunity for life.
Is that so?
In one UN Member State judges tell boys in conflict with the law that they have a choice:
either prison or the army. This sounds like the army is equivalent to punishment rather than a
consideration of the best interests of a child - even though this should be mandatory!
Why are States still interested in enlisting children, even if there is no war, no pressing need?
Maybe because this way statistics for jobless youth look better?
Not all children are targeted by army agents. The overwhelming majority of child recruits are
from poor and/or troubled backgrounds, they don’t like school or have diculties there, and
are not able to read texts fluently - certainly not complex legal ones. They don’t see what
long term consequences are hidden in rather repressive contracts, and nor do their parents.
So much for informed and guided decisions!
Instead of finding the glamorous, heroic environment described to them in recruitment
advertising, they often find harsh conditions, bullying, humiliation used as a means of control,
restriction of freedom of movement, and, even more important, restriction of freedom of
thinking or expression. Is there anyone who really believes that a military school is a place
for discussion and individual development? Is it not rather a place to learn, above all, to obey
as a reflex? Is this not the reason why a judge gives the choice mentioned above? To learn to
function and obey without thinking? To have vocational training for the needs of the army, not
for a civilian career?
What about health? Bullying, sexual violence, peer pressure into violent behaviour, all
this leading to a high suicide rate. There is huge alcohol consummation to demonstrate
‘manhood’ and injuries in training with immediate discharge. Are these the ‘highest attainable
standards of health’ that a child has a right to?
But surely there is not only enlistment to the ranks for poor children – isn’t there also ocer
training for rather well-to-do children? There is. But when a child has a family member in the
army who tries hard to convince him to enlist, does he really have a free choice?
‘Why does 18 matter?’
Because ‘over 18s’ are more likely to believe less easily and think more critically.
This is ‘why 18 matters’!
Justice Renate Winter
Chairperson, UN Committee on the Rights of the Child
As of April 2018, more than four-
fifths (167) of states worldwide
have now committed in law to
‘take all feasible measures’ not
to use children under the age
of 18 in armed conflict or any
other hostilities. Two-thirds of
states with armed forces have
further committed to the so-
called ‘straight-18’ standard: no
recruitment of children for any
military purpose. The remainder
have yet to reach this standard,
continuing to capitalise on the
failure of international law to
forbid recruiting children from
age 16.
States that still allow child
recruitment in law tend to
be relatively auent and
democratically controlled; they
include five of the G7 states, for
example. States often suggest
that because parental consent
is required and child recruits are
not usually used in armed conflict,
their rights are unaected. To the
contrary, this report shows that
the practice causes material harm
to children and routinely violates
several of their fundamental
rights. This report catalogues
these violations, drawing on
evidence from epidemiological
research, ocial sources, and the
testimony of former child recruits.
The journey of a child recruit
begins long before they become
eligible for military employment,
and continues through their
enlistment, training, and ultimate
discharge from the armed forces:
Targeting Children
Children, particularly those from
low-income backgrounds, are
targeted for potential recruitment
from a young age. Marketing
presents military life in glamorous
terms, sanitises war as heroic
in the child’s imagination, and
frequently encourages children to
associate military life with action
adventure films and videogames.
Omitted from recruiters’ marketing
are the risks and trauma of war,
the harsh conditions of the military
environment, and the restrictive
legal obligations that follow
enlistment. In so misleading
children, military marketing is
Schools and Youth
Education settings are a major
site for promoting military
employment to children below
enlistment age. The US army
describes schools as the
‘cornerstone’ of its recruitment
strategy, for example.1 In addition,
many states subsidise cadet
forces and military schools to
immerse children in an apparently
risk-free simulation of military life
and begin to train them there
in the techniques of warfare. In
several countries, children in
military schools are liable for
an extended period of military
employment after graduation.
‘Clearly one of the most urgent
priorities is to remove everyone under
18 years of age from armed forces.
Graça Machel, Impact of armed conflict on children (2)
The Contract
New child recruits commit
themselves to absolute control
by the state, accept limitations
to fundamental rights, and face
markedly increased long-term
occupational risks. The contract,
which can bind enlistees to
serve for a period of years,
could not be imposed lawfully
on a civilian of any age in
most economically developed
countries. In restricting freedom
and suspending fundamental
rights, military terms of service
are unambiguously inimical to the
best interests of the child.
Adolescent Susceptibility
Neuroscientific research has
found that children in mid-
adolescence are markedly
more likely than adults to make
choices based on emotive
appeal, and less able to evaluate
the long-term consequences.
Accordingly, a child in mid-
adolescence is less able than
an adult to make an informed
and responsible choice about
enlisting. This developmental
susceptibility combines with
the underdeveloped literacy of
many child applicants and the
salesmanship of recruiters to
jeopardise a child’s legal right
to be ‘fully informed’ of the
consequences of enlistment.2
Each time a child enlists without
full comprehension of the risks
and obligations that follow, the
choice is not ‘genuinely voluntary’
as required by law.3
Parental Involvement
Most armed forces are required
by law to obtain the ‘informed
consent’ of parents or guardians
before a child can enlist. In
practice, the involvement of
parents may be only peripheral,
the information provided to them
aims to persuade rather than
inform, and recruiters need only
a signed form as evidence that
parents fully comprehend the
risks their child faces. Parental
consent, as a safeguard, assumes
unreasonably that parents who
have been abusive or neglectful
of their child are as capable
of defending his or her best
interests as those who have been
loving and responsible.
Child Conscription
Some states which operate
adult conscription systems
invite children to begin their
compulsory service early. Many
children opt for this to limit the
impact of conscription on their
civilian education and career
plans. Since conscription is not
‘genuinely voluntary’, it ought not
to involve children at all.
Training by Coercion
The primary purpose of initial
military training is to ensure that
child recruits will obey all orders
by reflex and without question.
It is a coercive process based
on sustained psychological and
physical stress, harsh discipline
including humiliation and physical
punishment, and tight restrictions
on contact with family and
friends. Abuses by instructors are
widespread. Research in the US
found that the rate of attempted
suicide in the 2000s among
army recruits (all ages) was four
times higher during initial training
than during deployment to Iraq
or Afghanistan. As such, military
training is wholly incompatible
with states’ legal obligation ‘to
protect the child from all forms of
physical or mental violence, injury
or abuse, neglect or negligent
treatment, maltreatment or
1. For the full quotation and source,
see “Recruiting in Schools,” p. 22
2. OPAC art 3.
3. OPAC art 3.
4. CRC art 19.
Cabo Verde
Dominican Republic
El Salvador
Myanmar, Netherlands
New Zealand
Papua New Guinea
Saint Kitts and Nevis
São Tomé e Príncipe
South Sudan
Trinidad and Tobago
United Arab Emirates
United Kingdom
United States of America
Insubstantial Education
It is common for armed forces
to describe training bases as
education institutions and argue
that child recruits enjoy an
ongoing education; for example,
the British army’s main training
site for child recruits is called
the Army Foundation College.
Typically, training centres for
low-ranking military jobs do
not operate to the standards
expected of civilian education,
basic skills education for child
recruits is rudimentary, and
the vocational training oered
has limited transferable value
to the civilian jobs market.
These conditions fall short of
states’ legal obligation to direct
education to ‘the development of
the child's personality, talents and
mental and physical abilities to
their fullest potential’.5
The Military Environment
Research in the UK and US
has found that bullying, sexual
violence, and heavy drinking are
substantially more common in
the armed forces than elsewhere,
and that the youngest personnel
(including child recruits) are the
most aected. In common with
findings from other countries,
an investigation into sexual
misconduct in the Canadian
armed forces noted that relative
immaturity is a ‘prominent factor’
in the elevated vulnerability of the
youngest recruits, and that various
military settings create ‘particular
conditions of vulnerability’.6
Participation In Hostilities
While most states do not routinely
use children in the military theatre,
some reserve the right to do so, or
may do so in error; the UK and US
have sent small numbers of child
recruits to Iraq and Afghanistan,
for example. Some armed forces
post child recruits as armed
guards at military sites, with the
expectation that they may open
fire in the event of an attack.
Even when child recruits are not
deployed in any way, their uniform
could attract an attack from any
hostile actor.
Child Trainee Attrition
Child recruits, especially those
from economically deprived
backgrounds, are more likely
than adults to drop out of their
training. A third of child recruits
to the British army either leave
or are dismissed during training,
for example, which usually leaves
them without work and out of
the education system. Extensive
research in the US armed forces
has found repeatedly that child
recruits from poorer backgrounds
are more vulnerable to stress
and more rebellious, which
combine to increase the risk
of early attrition. In addition,
British research has found that
child recruits are significantly
more likely than adults to be
discharged due to training
injury, because their bones
and musculature are not yet
Research findings, particularly
in the last decade, have begun
to quantify the eect of military
employment on young people,
including child recruits. Research
in the UK and US has shown that
military personnel and veterans
are more likely than civilians
to experience stress-related
mental health problems, drink
heavily, and behave violently,
and they have poorer general
health in later life. The extent
of these problems among
recruits under the age of 18 is
often not directly quantifiable
from the data, but the studies
examined for this report show
repeatedly that younger recruits
are most aected. In the UK,
for example, the suicide rate
among the army’s youngest
recruits is substantially higher
than both the same age group in
the civilian population, and adult
Although child recruits, who
commonly come from deprived
backgrounds, often have
elevated rates of mental health
and behaviour issues before
they enlist, the research shows
that military employment tends
to aggravate these problems.
Psychosocial vulnerabilities
associated with an adverse
childhood appear to combine
5. CRC art 29.
6. For full quotation and source,
see 'Sexual Violence, Assault and
Harassment', p. 37.
hazardously with the stress of
initial training (and often, later,
traumatic war experiences) to
increase the prevalence of stress-
related disorders and violent
behaviour. For example, research
in the UK and US has found that
young people are more likely
to commit violent oences after
they enlist than before. A popular
belief that joining the army
prevents anti-social behaviour is
not supported by the available
research, which points in the
other direction.
Another popular assumption is
that military employment is an
eective route out of poverty
for disadvantaged young people,
but the long-term socioeconomic
prospects of enlisted personnel
are relatively poor. Research in
the US has found that, since the
end of the Second World War,
veterans have been worse o
than non-veterans from
similar backgrounds. In the UK,
the unemployment rate among
infantry veterans – the main
role group for child recruits
– is substantially higher than
that among civilians, including
civilians with the lowest level
of academic attainment. While
some veterans testify that military
employment has enhanced
their socioeconomic status, the
evidence indicates that this is
the exception and, more often,
that joining the armed forces
prematurely disrupts children’s
education and career prospects.
Now that most states have
moved to end the recruitment
of children by their armed
forces, a global ban is at least
foreseeable, if not within reach.
It is striking that states which
still rely on child recruits to sta
their armed forces tend not to
be the poorest, but the most
prosperous. The reluctance thus
far of these powerful states to
embrace the straight-18 standard
themselves diminishes their
credibility when prescribing that
same standard elsewhere, and
so frustrates eorts across the
world to eliminate the use of child
On the evidence in this report,
the view that child recruits in
auent, democratic states
are protected from harm and
violations of their rights is widely
mistaken. From the misleading
marketing, cursory consent
arrangements and repressive
contract, to the sustained stress
of military training, multiple
risks of a military environment,
and a high rate of attrition, the
recruitment of children by state
armed forces is conspicuously
detrimental. The reality is that
the fundamental rights of child
recruits are violated repeatedly
throughout their engagement
with military institutions.
Adult-only armed forces are
slowly becoming the norm.
While some straight-18 states
still rely on adult conscription,
most do not, proving that
recruiting children is not a
strategic necessity, but a policy
convenience. Research has
shown that all-adult armed forces
are more viable: they benefit
from recruits who are more
mature and resilient, need fewer
safeguarding arrangements,
are trained more quickly and
are less likely to drop out,
can be deployed immediately
afterwards, and are more
financially cost-eective. If they
ever used to recruit children, they
do not regret that they no longer
do so.
‘If I was to have a child that was 15 who
wanted to join the army, I wouldn’t let
them. I know...the army and what can
happen. If they wanted to join at 18
that would be their own option.
Wayne Sharrocks, British infantry, 2006-2013 (3).
Executive Summary
Dutch army performing a drill in the Netherlands, © Ton Koene/Alamy
Concerted international eorts to
end the recruitment of children
for military purposes began
after the publication of Graça
Machel’s major report in 1996,
The impact of armed conflict on
children (2). The report focused
on the plight of younger children
in poorer countries where they
were widely used as participants
in armed conflict. It found that
exploiting children as participants
in war was killing, maiming and
psychiatrically injuring thousands
of children every year.7 Further
research has since shown that
children who survive such war
exposure suer a radically
increased risk of mental illness,
behaviour problems, and
underdeveloped literacy and
numeracy, often leading to lasting
poverty in adulthood (4).
While the Machel study was in
process, work was under way
on an Optional Protocol to the
Convention on the Rights of
the Child on the involvement of
children in armed conflict, known
as OPAC. The initiative began
immediately after the adoption
of the Convention on the Rights
of the Child (CRC) in 1989, after
widespread frustration that the
Convention had not explicitly
outlawed the use of children for
military purposes (5).
Adopted in 2000, OPAC
prohibited the conscription and
routine deployment of children,
and outlawed their recruitment
by non-state armed groups.
Nonetheless, by allowing states
to recruit from age 16, it stopped
short of an outright ban on the use
of children for military purposes.
Despite strong support for the
so-called ‘straight-18’ standard
from many states, the International
Committee of the Red Cross,
the International Labour Oce,
the Committee on the Rights of
the Child, Graça Machel, NGOs
and others (1, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10), this
was prevented by a small but
influential group of states led
by the UK and the US. At the
time, both states were routinely
deploying military personnel
under the age of 18, and 43
per cent of British army recruits
were minors at enlistment (11).
Consequently, many thousands of
children continue to be recruited
and trained each year by state
armed forces across the globe.
‘In all actions concerning children,
whether undertaken by public or
private social welfare institutions,
courts of law, administrative
authorities or legislative bodies, the
best interest of the child shall be a
primary consideration.
Article 3 (1) Convention on the Rights of the Child
7. Since the Machel report, research
has deepened understanding of
the eects of armed conflict on
children. Psychiatric injury is very
common in children who have par-
ticipated in, or closely witnessed,
armed violence and other practices
associated with it, such as rape and
incarceration. Two-thirds of Pales-
tinian children who had frequently
witnessed military violence met the
criteria for PTSD (4). It is now un-
derstood that such military-induced
trauma damages the adolescent
brain, retarding normal develop-
ment (ibid.).
This report seeks to rekindle
international attention to the harm
caused by premature enlistment
and so help to reinvigorate eorts
to achieve a universal straight-18
standard for the benefit of all
children. It presents evidence to
show why recruiting and training
children for military purposes is
inherently and disproportionately
harmful, including to those who
do not participate in hostilities.
The report also argues that,
as currently conducted, the
recruitment of children by state
armed forces violates their rights
and may therefore be unlawful.
In so doing, the report challenges
the common assumption of a
double-standard: that the military
recruitment of children in poorer
states of the Global South is
harmful, but in economically
developed democracies is not.
Although the experiences of
children dier, this report will
show that recruiting them is
invariably harmful, regardless
of economic or political context.
To make its case, the report
focuses principally on auent
states subject to the rule of law.
Almost all such countries have
committed in principle not to
recruit children without their
consent or to routinely deploy
them into hostilities until they
reach 18, yet still the evidence
shows that military recruitment
has a detrimental impact.
Specifically, the report
outlines the growing body of
evidence that the enlistment
of minors in relatively auent
countries exploits adolescent
susceptibilities; is unambiguously
harmful to the health, wellbeing,
and socioeconomic trajectories of
young people; and violates their
legal rights as children under
the CRC and OPAC. The report
concludes by showing that states
can – and most do – successfully
sta their armed forces entirely
with adults; the recruitment of
children is a political choice,
not a military or demographic
The continuing recruitment of
children by some auent states
has global consequences. The
practice blurs what should be
a red line around children’s
involvement in military aairs, so
creating legal and ethical latitude
for others to exploit. Whereas
the international community has
committed to the straight-18
principle in its eorts to end
the use of children in armed
conflict, states compromise their
credibility as advocates when
their domestic practice falls short
of the same standard. Child
recruitment anywhere is a risk to
children everywhere.
Accordingly, auent states
which recruit under the age of 18
should consider both the direct
impact on their child recruits
and the indirect impact of their
policy in other parts of the world.
States are required to cooperate
towards achieving the universal
implementation of OPAC8, and the
Sustainable Development Goals
oblige them to take measures to
eliminate the recruitment and use
of child soldiers.9
8. OPAC art 7.
9. Sustainable Development
Goal 8.7: ‘Take immediate and
eective measures to eradicate
forced labour, end modern slavery
and human tracking and secure
the prohibition and elimination of
the worst forms of child labour,
including recruitment and use of
child soldiers, and by 2025 end
child labour in all its forms.’
17-year-olds enlisted by US
armed forces during 2015
1Socioeconomically deprived
children, including in some
cases those from ethnic minority
or migrant backgrounds, are
disproportionately targeted
for recruitment.
2Recruitment marketing mis-
leads children by sanitising
warfare in their imagination,
glamorising military life, and
obscuring its many risks.
3Young people are more
inclined in mid-adolescence
than as adults to make choices
based on emotive appeal; the
ability to weigh a major decision
against its long-term conse-
quences is not yet developed.
4As generally practised, the
recruitment of children does
not ensure that they are fully
informed of the risks and so is
not ‘genuinely voluntary’,
as required by law.
5Parental consent is an inad-
equate safeguard when
the information provided to par-
ents is incomplete or misleading,
or where parents themselves
have habitually neglected their
child’s best interests.
6Restrictions on children’s
right to leave the armed
forces before the age of 18 are
incompatible with the legal
requirement that their military
employment be ‘genuinely
7Military training makes use
of harsh discipline includ-
ing humiliation and physical
punishment, in order to secure
the unquestioning obedience of
recruits and to ensure that
they will kill on demand.
8Bullying and sexual miscon-
duct are substantially more
common in military environments
than in civilian employment or
education. The youngest recruits
are at highest risk of victimisation.
9Alcohol and substance mis-
use are substantially more
common in the military than in
civilian environments, including
in the younger age group.
10The military is com-
monly aorded exemp-
tions from national legislation
designed to safeguard the
welfare and fundamental rights
of children.
Military instructors are
not normally qualified as
teachers or social workers and
often have no prior experience
of working with vulnerable
young people.
12Research in the UK
and US has found that
the rate of violent oending by
young people increases after
military enlistment.
13Child recruits are more
likely than civilians of the
same age and background, and
more likely than older recruits, to
have problems with mental and
physical health, and self-harm
(including suicide).
14Education provided to
chidren in armed forces
training is typically more basic
and narrower in focus than main-
stream provision in civilian life,
limiting the scope for essential
academic achievement.
15Military employment is
incompatible with leg-
islation prohibiting minors from
hazardous labour (‘employment
that is likely to jeopardise health,
safety or morals’).
16Despite many states’
undertakings not to
use children in hostilities, some
reserve the right to do so. Even
when not deployed, as military
personnel they may become
targets of hostile action.
Socioeconomic outcomes
for enlisted children tend
to be poorer than outcomes for
demographically matched peers
who did not enlist.
18Recruitment of children
by state armed forc-
es anywhere, even if lawful,
weakens protection of children
everywhere against their unlaw-
ful recruitment and use.
Canadian soldiers during a training scenario
© Cpl Jasper Schwartz/Canadian Forces
Child Recruitment
By State Armed
Forces: An
As of April 2018, 152 of the
177 states with armed forces
worldwide, have ratified OPAC.
Approximately two-thirds of
these have also committed to
the straight-18 standard: the
commitment not to enlist children
at all. While some of these still
rely on conscripting adults to sta
their armed forces, most do not.
Nonetheless, almost 50 states
still rely on children to sta their
armed forces. Together these
countries encompass two-thirds
of the world’s children, since
they include the three most
populous countries: China, India
and the United States. Most
non-straight-18 states recruit
from age 17. Around 20 states
are believed to allow enlistment
in law from age 16, of which ten
are Commonwealth countries,
including Canada, India, Pakistan,
and the UK.10
Child recruitment is particularly
common among economically
developed states with substantial
military commitments. Perhaps
counterintuitively, among
professional state armed
forces the most auent and
technologically advanced tend
to rely the most on children to
make up recruit numbers. Four
of the five Permanent Members
of the UN Security Council still
permit the enlistment of children.
(Although the fifth – Russia
– does not enlist children, it
prescribes extensive combat
training in a network of militarised
schools.) Of the G7 states, only
two – Japan and Italy – no longer
rely on children to sta their
armed forces.
The total number of children
recruited for military purposes is
unknown and dicult to estimate.
Since a large minority of states
and at least 50 non-state armed
groups are known to rely on child
recruits, the number of children
drawn in to military organisations
annually is likely to be in the high
tens of thousands at minimum.
The extent of the practice in
some auent states is shown in
the table on the next page.
10. As of April 2018, states
believed to have a minimum
enlistment age in national law/
policy of 16 years or below were
Bangladesh, Brazil, Canada, Cuba,
Dominican Republic, Egypt, El
Salvador, Fiji, Guyana, India, Iran,
Mauritania, Mexico, Pakistan,
Papua New Guinea, Seychelles,
Singapore, Tonga, Trinidad and
Tobago, United Arab Emirates,
United Kingdom, and Zambia. See
‘The question at issue is not the
dierence between 16, 17 and 18
years of age; the fundamental point is
the distinction between children and
adults. No child under 18 should be
recruited into armed forces,
voluntarily or otherwise.
Mary Robinson, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (1)
Several regional and international
treaties relate to the recruitment
of children for military purposes.
Those most relevant to the
issues raised in this report are
highlighted below and should
be considered in conjunction,
since rights are independent and
indivisible; those enshrined in
one treaty cannot be ignored in
the implementation of another.
Where provisions may appear
to contradict each other the
higher standards of protection
should always take precedence.
In the context of an armed
conflict where both international
humanitarian law and human
rights law are applicable, the
most developed standards
for protection of children
should apply.
Convention on the Rights
of the Child
Recognising the ‘inherent dignity’
of the human person, and the
‘special care and assistance’
due to children under the age
of 18, the CRC has established
legally-binding safeguards for
their personal development,
education, and employment.
The CRC is binding on all states
except the United States, which
has yet to ratify it.
Among the rights of children
recognised in the CRC are:12
The right to have their best
interests recognised as a
primary consideration in all
actions concerning them,
including legislation.
The right to freedom of thought,
conscience, expression,
peaceful assembly and
association, and the right to be
heard in ‘all matters aecting
The right to a complete
education that supports
children’s development to the
‘fullest potential’, and the right
to be prohibited from work if it
interferes with their education
or development.
The right not to be exploited
for any purpose ‘prejudicial
to any aspects of the child’s
The right to the ‘highest
attainable standard of health’.
They must be safeguarded
against undue injury, and from
‘physical or mental violence’,
including sexual harassment or
The right, when in conflict with
the law, to a justice system
designed specifically for
Extent of child recruitment for military purposes by
auent states: illustrative examples (2013-2017)11
(n) (%)
AUSTRALIA 17 6,428 427 7% 2015
AUSTRIA 17 22,223 220 1% 2013
FRANCE 17 13,756 405 3% 2013
GERMANY 17 23,385 2,128 9% 2017
NETHERLANDS 17 1,514 82 5% 2014
NEW ZEALAND 17 428 49 11% 2016
UK 16 11,980 2,410 20% 2016
US 17 246,154 16,188 7% 2015
11. Sources: Australia, Austria, France, Netherlands, New Zealand (Letters from states to Child Soldiers International);
Germany (155,233); UK (221); US (220).
12. CRC arts 3, 12, 13, 14, 18, 19, 24,
28, 29, 32, 34, 36, 37, 38, 40.
Child recruitment by the state armed forces
examined in this report can be divided into
four types:
Recruitment by conscription
Some states operating adult conscription systems
(from age 18) encourage or allow children to
start military service early. Austria, China, Cyprus
and Mexico are examples. Children often opt
for this to complete the obligation early and so
minimise disruption to their education and career
development. In some cases, children are oered
incentives, such as privileged access to further
education or a reduced minimum service period.
Recruitment for ocer training
A few states recruit children in small numbers
for ocer training and paid-for passage through
university, followed by an obligatory minimum
period of adult military service. Canada operates
a scheme like this. These recruits are military
personnel, undergo military training, and are subject
to military law. Children recruited in this way tend to
be socioeconomically privileged by background.
Recruitment to the ranks
Enlistment to the ranks is the most common child
recruitment practice in auent states (including
the larger Western military powers: France, the UK,
and the US). Children recruited in this way typically
come from socioeconomically disadvantaged
The practice varies between states. In the
Netherlands, a relatively small number of children
aged 17 are enlisted as trainees; they can leave at
any time, cannot take up a formal role in the armed
forces until they turn 18, and do not continue in
service thereafter unless they agree in writing to do
so (143). In contrast, children in the UK are actively
targeted by recruiters and enlisted in large numbers
(140, 63). They may apply aged 15 and join as early
as their 16th birthday as full members of the armed
forces with a designated role, which they assume
as soon as they finish training (158). Child recruits
to the British army have to give up to three months’
notice to request discharge, cannot leave in the
first six weeks, and once they turn 18 lose their right
to leave for the next four years (158,159). A similar
system operates in the US, where children are
recruited from age 17 (125).
Recruitment through military schools
Military schools provide states with a further means
of recruiting children, including in states where the
enlistment age is ostensibly over 18 years. Children
in military schools (who may be under 16 years of
age) are not usually recognised as ‘recruits’ but
the boundary is frequently blurred. For example,
children at military schools may undergo extensive
military training, be classified in law or policy as
members of the armed forces, and be subject to
military law. Upon graduation, they are usually
obliged to complete a minimum period of formal
service in the armed forces, which may last several
years. Schemes such as these operate in Israel,
Russia and Tajikistan.
In whatever manner children are formally
recruited, they all:
Are military personnel subject to military law,
which suspends fundamental rights and includes
obligations and oences that civilian law does not
Undergo military training, which uses
psychologically coercive techniques to inculcate
obedience and remove instinctive barriers to
violence; and
Enter a military environment typically
characterised by elevated rates of stress, physical
and psychological bullying, sexual harassment,
and alcohol misuse.
Child Recruitment by State Armed Forces: An Overview
13. When states ratify or accede to
OPAC they must submit a declara-
tion specifying a minimum age for
enlistment into state armed forces,
which must be no less than 16
years. The declaration is binding;
enlistment practice is unlawful
if a state recruits below the age
specified. States may amend their
declaration to raise the minimum
enlistment age, but not to lower it.
14. OPAC arts 1, 2, 3.
15. ILO 138 art 3.
16. ILO 182 art 3.
Therefore, the rights of children,
as guaranteed by the CRC, are
violated when their recruitment
for military purposes: prejudices
mental or physical health;
interrupts the education in
which civilians of the same age
typically participate; entails an
elevated risk of bullying or sexual
harassment, involves physical
violence or is psychologically
coercive; restricts the right to
leave at will; limits or suspends
many of the civil liberties or
employment rights that civilian
children enjoy; or denies them
their right to a juvenile justice
This report will show that,
by these measures, military
employment violates the rights
of children set out in the CRC.
On this basis, child recruitment
as currently practised around the
world may be generally unlawful.
In its interpretation of the CRC,
the Committee on the Rights of
the Child has suggested that
military settings, which entail
restrictions on rights and the
promotion of violence as a tool,
appear to be fundamentally
incompatible with children’s rights
to an environment conducive to
learning and development. (12)
Optional Protocol on the
Involvement of Children
in Armed Conflict
OPAC stipulates that children
must not be recruited unless:
they are at least 16 years old; 13
it is their ‘genuinely voluntary’,
‘fully informed’ choice; and their
parents or legal guardians have
given their ‘informed consent’. In
addition, it requires states to ‘take
all feasible measures’ to ensure
child recruits do not participate
directly in hostilities until they
turn 18.14
To meet these safeguards,
military employers must ensure
that potential recruits and their
parents fully understand all
the risks and consequences of
their enlistment. These include,
for example: the psychological
coercion of military training; the
suspension of certain civil rights;
the risks and legally-binding
restrictions involved; and the
ethical quandaries inherent in
military work. They must also
endeavour to ensure that children
are not involved in hostilities.
As will be explored later,
information provided to child
recruits and their parents
typically presents military life
in glamorous terms, omits
its risks and diculties, and
provides perfunctory details on
legal obligations. Sophisticated
marketing techniques are used
to exploit vulnerabilities particular
to the adolescent psyche. Full
details of the recruit’s legal
commitment are often provided
only at the moment he or she
signs up, with no time to analyse
and absorb their implications.
Often, applicants have yet
to develop sucient literacy
or maturity to comprehend
for themselves their complex
terms of service and their
lasting consequences. In these
circumstances, child recruits and
their parents are denied their
rights under OPAC to be ‘fully
informed’, and so their choice
cannot be considered ‘genuinely
International Labour
Organisation (ILO)
Conventions 138 and 182
ILO Conventions 138 (Minimum
Age Convention) and 182 (Worst
Forms of Child Labour) also have
implications for the legality of
child recruitment.
ILO 138 reserves for adulthood
only ‘any type of employment
or work which by its nature or
the circumstances in which it is
carried out is likely to jeopardise
the health, safety or morals of
young persons’.15 It is left to states
to determine which types of
employment are ‘hazardous’ for
the purposes of the Convention,
which allows them to exempt
their armed forces. The principle
remains, however, that those
under 18 should not be employed
in hazardous work, and it is clear
that military employment carries
several significant hazards to
the health and wellbeing of child
ILO 182 requires states to prohibit
and end the worst forms of
child labour, including ‘forced
or compulsory recruitment of
children [under the age of 18]
for use in armed conflict’.16 Like
OPAC, ILO 182 does not prohibit
‘voluntary’ recruitment of children
under 18, but it does reinforce
that this is only permitted insofar
as it is strictly voluntary. Where
this is not the case, the practice
violates the convention.
Child Recruitment by State Armed Forces: An Overview
The Child
Recruit's Journey
Israeli youth dressed in army uniforms
during a boot-camp simulation,
© Sebastian Scheiner/AP
17. CRC art 38 also imposes a legal
obligation on states which continue
to recruit children ‘to give priority
to those who are oldest’ amongst
18. In contrast, producers of
tobacco and alcohol are required
to advertise their health risks, and
nutritionists have called for this to
be extended to junk food.
The preceding section has shown
how military recruitment can be
harmful to children and violate
their rights, even where it may
be lawful in principle. Since the
best interests of children must
be a primary consideration,
which includes regard for all
their fundamental rights, states
do not enjoy unlimited discretion
in recruiting them for military
purposes. The Committee on the
Rights of the Child has repeatedly
expressed concern to states
which enlist large numbers of
children, recommending they
increase eorts to recruit adults
and/or raise their enlistment age
to 18 (14).17
In practice, however, many states
target children as potential
recruits long before they become
eligible to enlist. Research by UK
and US armed forces finds that
most recruits commit to signing
up before they are old enough
to do so; and young people are
less likely to join up unless they
have become actively interested
in military life by their mid-teens
(15, 16, 17). The former head of
recruitment for the British army
characterised his recruitment
strategy as ‘drip, drip, drip’ from
about the age of seven (18). The
US Army’s ‘School Recruiting
Program Handbook’, instructs
recruiters to target children
below the minimum enlistment
age because ‘if you wait until
they’re seniors, it’s probably too
late’ (234). In Australia, children
can register their details from
the age of 10 with Defence
Jobs Membership to receive
recruitment information and news
from the armed forces (20).
Germany’s main newspaper
for schoolchildren runs
advertisements for the armed
forces in most editions. Armed
forces ‘Adventure Camps’ for
children aged 16 and above
are advertised in an online
teen magazine for children
aged from 10 years (21), while
online marketing is targeted at
14–17-year-olds, who are invited
to play online games linked to
recruitment (22). The advertising
does not mention risk, death or
injury, focusing instead on ‘good
training, promotion prospects,
comradeship and plenty of
‘The Committee expresses deep
concern about the fact that adolescent
boys and girls are being recruited,
including through the use of social
media, by State armed forces.
CRC General Comment 20 on implementation of the rights of the
child during adolescence. (13)
adventure’ (21). In defence of
this approach, a spokesperson
stated that ‘the German armed
forces did not broach the issue
of overseas military missions
in their advertising just like
advertising for chocolate does
not mention the risk of getting
fat’ (21).18 Experts testifying
to the German parliamentary
committee criticised this as ‘false
‘In view of what is involved
in the military profession, the
potential to be killed and all the
dangers associated with this,
this is irresponsible to young
people and in no way fulfills
the protective function and the
protection mandate which the
Bundeswehr as a parliamentary
army ultimately has.’ (22)
In seeking child applicants, it is
usual for recruiters to focus on
economically depressed areas
where employment opportunities
are limited (23). Described as
‘skilled salesmen’ by the former
head of recruitment for the British
army (18), recruiters promote
enlistment to disadvantaged
youth as a gateway to personal
power, social purpose,
camaraderie, and socioeconomic
mobility. The army promises to
put money in children’s pockets:
Age 16? Earn over £1,000 a
month while you train’ [$1,300]
– and congratulates its new
16-year-old recruits for earning
more than their civilian friends
who stay in college to enhance
their qualifications (24,25). The
2017 army recruitment drive,
entitled ‘This is belonging’, was
targeted specifically at 16-24
year-olds from families with
an average annual income
of £10,000 [$13,000] (26). In
Israel, an extracurricular military
training programme targets
socioeconomically deprived
children, promising social mobility
and a better quality of life through
skills acquired in military service
Concerns have been raised in
some countries about targeting
of ethnic minority children for
recruitment. The Canadian
Coalition for the Rights of
Children has protested the
targeting of economically
deprived aboriginal youth
through advertising on aboriginal
and multilingual television
stations (28). The proportion
of New Zealand armed forces
personnel who identify as Maori
is double that in the general
population.19 In the US, about
half of participants in the main
school cadet programme, the
JROTC, are reportedly people
of colour (19). In Chicago, 93
per cent of JROTC cadets are
African American or Latino, and
more than 70 per cent of JROTC
programmes are in high schools
located in post code districts
with predominantly African
American or Latino populations
(236). Young African American
males are over-represented
among new armed forces
recruits, particularly in the army.20
Reports indicate that some young
Latinos who enlist do so in the
hope of helping relatives with
irregular immigration status (19).
Similarly, in Israel a programme
specifically for unaccompanied
migrant children encourages
19. In 2012, 30 per cent of the New
Zealand Defence Force identified
as Maori, versus 15 per cent in
the general population in 2013
20. As of 2014, 19 per cent of the
US armed forces intake identified
as black non-Hispanic, versus 16
per cent in the general population;
the greatest disparity was seen in
the army (215).
21. The significance of cadets’ use
of military uniforms and insignia
should not be underestimated, as
under international humanitarian
law this is one of the factors distin-
guishing lawful combatants from
them to enlist. The Israel Defense
Forces (IDF) are presented as
‘a major socialising framework
for those who wish to stay and
become citizens’, and includes
inducements such as help with
obtaining a high school diploma
and driving licence (29). Practices
such as these disregard the
clear recommendations of the
Committee on the Rights of the
Child to ensure that military
recruiting eorts do not exploit
children from marginalised or
vulnerable groups.
‘Furthermore, the Committee is
concerned that the ADF active
targeting of schools for recruits
through ‘work experience programs’
may unduly put pressure on young
persons, especially from marginalised
populations and from dierent
linguistic backgrounds to volunteer,
without full informed consent.
CRC Concluding Observations: Australia 2012 (27)
Recruiters frequently associate
military life with the idealised
warrior-hero of action films and
videogames. In the US, scenes
from Hollywood blockbusters
(including Behind Enemy Lines
and X-Men: First Class) have been
spliced into military advertising.
In Israel, the UK and the US,
recruiters encourage children to
play ocially scripted videogames
which conflate a fantasy narrative
with real military life (31, 32). In the
US, for example, young children
are oered the chance to sit at
a drone operator’s console and
simulate attacks in Afghanistan,
as if it were a game, and play the
army’s ocial 3D virtual reality
videogame (33). In a similar vein,
children aged 13–15 visiting a
military training site in Germany
were told that the shooting
simulator ‘was a thousand times
better than any game on your
console at home’ (34).
Conversely, a selling point of
war-based videogames is the
realism of their first-person-
perspective. To reach the
younger market, however, game
designers strip any graphic
brutality from the violence they
depict. When military life is
compared favourably to these
games, children are encouraged
German army at Gamescom, the world’s largest trade fair
for video and computer games, © Jochen Tack / Alamy
‘The Committee… recommends that
the State party… [p]rohibit all forms of
advertising campaigns for the German
armed forces targeting children.
CRC Concluding Observations: Germany 2014 (30)
to assume that a soldier’s life is
one of intense excitement with no
moral ambiguity, gore or trauma.
Despite the fanciful nature of
action adventure films and
videogames, the British army’s
research has found that they
inspire many younger recruits to
sign up (16). It is a striking irony
that the same children are barred
from seeing graphic portrayals
of warfare in certain films and
documentaries, which are rated
for adults only due to their
disturbingly realistic depictions of
mass violence and the suering it
causes. The Deer Hunter and the
documentary Cry Freetown are
examples. Perhaps most strikingly
of all, in 2016 a British television
channel broadcast a four-part
documentary series following
16- and 17-year-old army recruits
through initial training. To watch
the series online, viewers had to
tick a box confirming they were
over 18 years of age as the content
was considered unsuitable for
younger viewers (241).
Military youth organisations
such as cadet forces, many
of which are embedded in
schools, step up the state’s
engagement with children
once they reach adolescence.
With their participation usually
subsidised by the Ministry of
Defence children in cadet forces
typically wear military-style
uniforms and many undertake
weapons training.21 The uniform
is one of many ways in which
cadet systems immerse children
in a simulacrum of military life,
in which the soldier’s role is
dissociated from its risks and
moral ambiguities. Despite this,
research has found that children’s
repeated exposure to cadet
systems plays an important role
in their later choice to enlist (16).
Canadian and US cadet systems
oer scholarships and other
financial incentives. For example,
Canadian cadets can be awarded
a scholarship of up to $5,000 for
The Child Recruit's Journey
post-secondary education, and
are oered small payments for
participating in marksmanship
courses on summer camps (237).
In the US, the Department of
Defense encourages contact
between cadet instructors and
military recruiters (19).
The ‘Follow Me’ (‘Aharai’) military
training programme in Israel is
run by a civilian organisation in
collaboration with the Ministry of
Defence and high-ranking ocers
(29). The initiative is targeted at
young people in underprivileged
areas, promising to enhance
participants’ social mobility (29).
The Paris Principles and
Guidelines on Children
Associated with Armed Forces or
Armed Groups state that:
‘Measures must be taken to
prevent propaganda or active
recruitment taking place in
or around schools and to
protect children in the school
environment.’ 22
Yet the education system
remains a major site for the
direct and indirect recruitment
of children. Recruiters commonly
visit schools with military
hardware ranging from rifles to
attack helicopters, and teachers
are encouraged to take their
class on free away-days with the
armed forces (18, 21, 35, 36, 37).
In some countries, such as
Germany and the US, the
armed forces have a legal
right of access to all children’s
contact details, which are sent
automatically to recruiters (21,
22, 39). Thereafter, all children
nearing enlistment age receive
military marketing materials.
The US army describes schools
as the ‘cornerstone’ of its
recruitment strategy (38). In
2015, 1,021 schools in the US
required 47,360 children to take
the ASVAB (military aptitude)
test, without seeking the child’s
or parents’ consent (239).
Recruiters, who have a legal right
of access (39), are instructed to
be ‘so entrenched in the school
scene that the Army is in constant
demand’ (38). In some areas,
soldiers become a daily presence
in the lives of American children,
riding the school bus, turning up
at school dances, and coaching
sports teams after hours (37).
In the UK, the armed forces
make over 11,000 school visits
each year (40). The army’s main
schools presentation shows
soldiers scuba-diving but not at
war (41). The Ministry of Defence
provides teachers with curricular
aids presenting a glossy
history of the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan, and schools can win
additional funding for adopting a
‘military ethos’ or starting a cadet
group (41,42,43).
Similar arrangements apply
in Australia, where secondary
schools receive visits from
armed forces career teams to
‘provide information to potential
candidates and influencers’
(44), and in Canada, where high
school students are encouraged
to attend navy recruiting events
at their schools (238).
In Israel, military culture is
embedded in the education
system. Uniformed soldiers are
present in state-run schools,
often teaching classes even
when they are not qualified to
do so (29). Conversely, many
teachers, and especially those
in management positions, are
former ranking military ocers,
and do not always have teaching
qualifications. ‘Youth Guides’
are stationed in schools by the
armed forces to encourage
young people to enlist. Most
high schools also incorporate
compulsory ‘youth battalions
training’ into the curriculum,
which entails a week of military
training for children aged 15–17
at a military site, including the
use of semiautomatic weapons
(29). There is also a wider,
compulsory school-based military
curriculum for children in years
10 – 12, intended to prepare them
for conscription and promote a
positive perception of the military.
While most military visits are
at secondary level, primary
schools are also visited. In New
Zealand, the army takes assault
rifles into primary schools and
teaches children to assemble
the weapons and hold them in
the fire position (45). According
to one 11-year-old student,
holding an assault rifle for the
first time felt ‘amazing and cool
… it’ll just be something that’s
imprinted on your brain’ (45). A
corporal involved in one such visit
commented, ‘The kids just love
the guns, you know what kids
are like… Most of the children’s
questions were about the kit, not
what the higher ideas are.’ (45)
Even kindergartens can become
a site for soft recruitment, based
on symbolically militarised
activities. In Israel, military
personnel can join kindergarten
‘graduation’ ceremonies, which
include parades performed by
the soldiers and children together
(29). Kindergarten children are
also taken to visit military bases.
Sahar Vardi remembers:
‘In kindergarten you bring gifts
to soldiers. And then later there’s
worksheets to teach children
how to count: you have on one
hand the numbers 1 to 10, and
on the other dierent numbers
of symbols like tanks and
aeroplanes. You have to join
them up.’ (46)
In addition to military activities
inside civilian schools, in many
countries some schools are run
by, or in conjunction with, the
Ministry of Defence or armed
forces. OPAC permits this, but
only if the schools comply with
the detailed requirements for
children’s education laid out in the
CRC’s articles 28 and 29.23 These
include education on human
rights and humanitarian principles,
and the prohibition of degrading
The Committee on the Rights of
the Child has further indicated
that a military institution would not
qualify as a 'school' where:
Children are categorised as
military personnel under military
legislation or other statute and/
or can be mobilised in case of
national emergency (48, 49).
Children are subject to military
law (47).
Children have a legal liability
for formal military service upon
graduation (47).
Children are not permitted to
leave the institution at will, and/
or their initial enrolment at the
institution is compulsory (47).
Military training and activities
dominate the curriculum to the
detriment of subjects normally
studied by children of the same
age group in civilian life (50).
Such conditions are detrimental
to the wellbeing of children for
many of the same reasons as
formal recruitment, and can be
tantamount to military enlistment
by the back door. As the examples
below show, the parameters of
‘military’ and ‘school’ are often
blurred in practice, leading to
the de facto recruitment and/or
military training of children below
the recognised national minimum
age of enlistment.
In the Netherlands, several
military-vocational training
programmes are available in
civilian schools as a study option
for children from the age of 15
years, 6 months (51). One, the
Security and Craftsmanship
course lasting between 18
and 48 months, is designed
as a preparation for military
employment, and includes one
week per month at a military
site (51). Students who complete
the course have a shorter basic
training programme once they join
the military. Many of the instructors
are current or former military
ocers, supplied by the Ministry
of Defence. Former students have
described being subjected to
harsh discipline and abuse:
‘One time, during military self-
defense, we were blindfolded.
The military instructor passed us
by and beat people up, punching
them in the stomach. Why? Just
so we are in pain. He thinks that’s
funny.’ (51)
In Canada, ocer cadets from age
16 are paid to study at university;
they must render five years’
service as ocers afterwards,
or re-pay their fees and bursary
in full (52). Until 2014, when the
law was changed, students at
military schools in Mexico were
subject to military law, and had
to serve in the armed forces as
adult conscripts for at least twice
22. Principle 6.26.1.
23. By extension, military schools
should also comply with the Com-
mittee on the Rights of the Child
General Comment No.1: ‘The aims of
'The Committee is concerned that
children who study in military schools
have military status and... are subject
to the Military Code of Justice.'
CRC Concluding Observations: Mexico 2011 (47)
the period spent in the school
(47). Students in these schools
also participated in operations to
combat drug tracking.
The UK’s Defence Sixth Form
College is a fee-paying pre-military
school managed by the Ministry
of Defence; school fees and the
subsequent university bursary
are waived on condition that
students complete at least three
years’ service as an ocer after
graduation (53).
Military-operated schools are
common in Russia. In many of these
institutions, children are required to
undergo military training exercises
as part of the curriculum from the
age of 10 (46, 54). Russia also runs a
system of ‘military training colleges’
for children from age 16, in which a
third of the curriculum is devoted to
military practices. (54)
In Israel, some military high
schools admit children from the
age of 13 (29). Children typically
wear military uniform, undergo
military training including the use
of firearms, and study a curriculum
designed as a preparation for
later military employment. Sta
are usually military personnel
and some schools are located on
military bases. The stated aim of
the Military Boarding School of
Command, for example, is to train
ocers for the army; children have
a career plan laid out for them
upon enrolment which extends
beyond graduation. Students at the
Air Force Technical schools have
a commitment to serve in the Air
Force upon graduation. Students
on military vocational courses at
the Amal High School carry out
work at the air base, for which they
are employed and paid by the
military (29).
The Child Recruit's Journey
OPAC requires that any military
recruitment of children is
‘genuinely voluntary’, recruits
are ‘fully informed’, and their
parents or legal guardians have
given their ‘informed consent’.24
To meet these requirements,
military employers must ensure
that potential recruits and their
parents fully understand the
consequences of their enlistment.
These include, for example:
the risks and legally-binding
restrictions involved; the lasting
psychological impact of military
training; the suspension of
certain civil rights; and the ethical
quandaries inherent in military
In particular, the putatively
voluntary nature of child
recruitment depends on two
conditions, which must be met
That recruits have the
psychological capacity
required to comprehend the
nature of military employment
in full, including its potential
consequences, and are free
from undue external influence
or other coercive conditions.
That comprehensive
information is provided to
recruits and their parents
which fully informs them of the
nature of military employment,
including its risks, hardships,
legal obligations, and rights.
Decision Making Biases
in Adolescence
Recent neuroscientific and
psychosocial research has
improved understanding of
the developmental needs and
vulnerabilities of adolescent
children. Adolescence —
approximately between ages
10 and 20 — is an exploratory
period, when young people
begin to understand their world
on their own terms and make
their mark on it. Psychologists
have described this transition as
a ‘window of vulnerability’, when
rapid and complex changes in the
brain aect decision-making and
responses to stress (55).
The Committee on the Rights of
the Child has reflected this in its
General Comment on health in
adolescence, noting that:
Adolescence is a period
characterised by rapid
physical, cognitive and social
changes… the gradual building
up of the capacity to assume
adult behaviours and roles…
adolescence also poses new
challenges to health and
development owing to… relative
vulnerability and pressure from
society.’ (56)
Consequently, states have an
obligation under the CRC to have
regard to adolescents’ particular
vulnerabilities, including by taking
‘eective measures to ensure that
adolescents are protected from all
forms of violence, abuse, neglect
and exploitation’ (56). Targeting
An Australian recruit during a training exercise
© Sgt Rachel Ingram/Commonwealth of Australia
adolescents for recruitment
is incompatible with this duty
insofar as military employment is
characterised by harsh discipline
including physical punishments,
and an elevated rate of bullying.
In auent countries, the primary
target group for recruitment are
children in mid-adolescence. Two
vulnerabilities are salient when
children of this age are recruited:
a heightened susceptibility to
emotive persuasion; and an
underdeveloped capacity for
complex decision-making.
Susceptibility to
Emotive Persuasion
in Mid-Adolescence
Compared with adults, children
in mid-adolescence are more
susceptible to persuasion by
marketing messages based on
emotive appeal (57, 58). They are
also more self-conscious, and
their sense of self is malleable
under external influence (57, 59).25
Crucially, the stressful conditions
of an economically deprived
background, which is typical
of many enlistees, amplify this
bias in adolescent decision-
making. That is, young people
who experience daily stress
are markedly more likely than
relatively unstressed individuals
to make choices based on
emotive appeal without rational
evaluation (55, 60, 61, 62).
Whether knowingly or not,
military marketing capitalises on
the adolescent’s impressionable
search for an eective
mature identity. In particular,
by associating military roles
with a traditionally masculine
warrior who saves but never
hurts, marketing messages
appear to promise a fast track
to adulthood, characterised by
power, attractiveness, belonging,
and purpose (63, 64, 65, 66, 67).
For example, an American army
slogan is ‘There’s strong. Then
there’s army strong’. Similarly, the
Israeli infantryman is ‘discovering
all your strengths’; the Russian
is ‘beyond fear’, working for the
‘safety’ of others (68, 69, 70);
the British is ‘harder, faster, fitter,
stronger’, ‘helping people’, and
has a deeper sense of belonging
than a civilian (71, 72).
Researchers at the University of
Tübingen told a parliamentary
committee that such slogans
target the psychological
insecurities of young people,
presenting the armed forces
‘as a solution to problems and
deficits which young people
might experience in adolescence’
(22). For the same reasons,
British public health experts
have criticised military marketing
as ‘designed to appeal to
adolescent decision-making
biases’ (59).
Capacity for Complex
Decision-Making in
Public health experts have
argued that changes in the brain
during adolescence are likely to
incline younger people to enlist
without critical awareness of what
military life involves (17,59).
In this respect, two structures
in the brain are particularly
important (55). The first is a
24. OPAC art 3.
25. In particular, adolescents can
struggle to distinguish ‘identity’ from
‘role’: who a person is appears to be
defined by the job a person does,
so it can appear that adult maturity
is achieved by doing the job one
associates with it (59).
socio-emotional system in the
limbic region, which develops in
younger childhood and drives
short-term, emotionally-driven,
reward-oriented behaviour,
including sensation-seeking and
risky actions. A second structure, a
cognitive system in the prefrontal
cortex, provides the capacity to
anticipate the consequences of
choices over the long term, and
so regulate emotionally driven
behaviour. This cognitive control
system develops relatively late in
adolescence (55). Until it does,
young people are more inclined
to take risks to explore the
world around them, but remain
susceptible to making complex,
consequential choices unwisely.
Certain functions in the brain’s
cognitive control system which
are critical for complex decision-
making, such as long-term
planning and the capacity to
defer gratification, only begin to
develop from around age 16 (55,
73). For this reason, it is more
dicult for a young person at
16, than as an adult, to weigh
the potential down-sides of an
appealing career option. The
developmentally limited ability
to make consequential decisions
is particularly marked among
those living in conditions of
stress (55, 60, 61, 62).
‘The lure of ideology is particularly
strong in early adolescence, when
young people are developing personal
identities and searching for a sense of
social meaning.
Graça Machel, Impact of armed conflict on children (2)
The Child Recruit's Journey
Literacy in
The underdeveloped literacy
of many child applicants further
prejudices their capacity to
make an informed choice
about enlistment. Literacy is
critical for complex decisions,
particularly when far-reaching
legal obligations, which suspend
certain fundamental rights, are
Three-quarters of the British
army’s 16-year-old recruits have
the literacy normally expected of
a child aged 11 or less, and some
have a reading age as low as
five (74). These recruits would be
unable to read and comprehend
for themselves the technicalities
of the written enlistment papers,
which are typically provided
to recruits only at the point of
Recruitment Information
As noted earlier, in signing up
for military employment, child
recruits commit themselves to
absolute control by the state,
accept limitations to some
fundamental civil and political
rights, and face a markedly
increased long-term occupational
risk of serious injury or death.
Child recruits enter a legally
binding contract, the terms of
which could not be imposed
lawfully on a civilian of any age
in most economically developed
countries. If potential recruits are
to be ‘fully informed’ before they
enlist, they are entitled to be told
without equivocation of these
risks and obligations.
In practice, even once the formal
process of recruitment has
begun, evidence from several
countries shows that recruiters
continue to present military
life in glamorous terms, omit
its risks and diculties, and
sanitise warfare in the applicant’s
imagination. For example,
British recruitment brochures
are described as ‘guides’ to
military life, but they omit the
full terms of service and include
no information to support a
child to form a balanced view of
military life (76). The brochure
provided to potential young
recruits to the army’s ‘junior
entry’ training site (for soldiers
aged 16–17.5) does not mention
any risks or legal obligations,
nor does it mention that a
third of the youngest enlistees
leave or are dismissed during
training,26 or explain that child
recruits cannot leave the army
for four years from the day they
turn 18 (76). It emphasises sport
and recreational opportunities,
and does not include the words
‘armed conflict’, ‘war’, ‘death’, ‘kill’
or ‘injury’.
Children in the Australian armed
forces interviewed by the
Commonwealth and Defence
Force Ombudsman ‘commented
on the poor quality of advice
provided at recruiting interviews’
and ‘complained that the
information given to them about
life in the military was unrealistic,
focusing only on exciting aspects’
In some cases, recruiters lie.
In 2006, US recruiters were
caught telling school students
that ‘the US was not at war’ and
‘that recruits could just leave the
military after enlistment if they
didn’t like it’ (78). In 2005 the
US Government Accountability
Oce reported that recruiter
irregularities were frequent; 20
per cent of recruiters themselves
agreed (78).27
Unlike the duty of care required
of medical professionals when
working with children (see
‘Legal Standards of Consent’,
p. 28), military recruiters are
not accountable to the ethics
of impartiality and may be
incentivised by recruitment
quotas. Their role is to influence a
child to enlist.
In combination, the risks and
legal obligations that follow
enlistment; the superficial
and misleading nature of
recruitment marketing; and the
developmental vulnerabilities of
adolescence, mitigate against an
assumption of informed consent
when child recruits are enlisted.
That is to say, when the choice
to enlist is dicult to reverse;
when recruitment marketing
is misleading; and/or when
enlistees are not yet suciently
mature to make consequential
decisions responsibly, the armed
forces deny their recruits the right
to be sure that enlisting is in their
own interests.
‘In addition to being forcibly recruited,
youth also present themselves for
service. It is misleading, however,
to consider this voluntary. While
young people may appear to choose
military service, the choice is not
exercised freely. They may be driven
by any of several forces, including
cultural, social, economic or political
Graca Machel, Impact of armed conflict on children (2)
Parental Consent
As a safeguard, recruiters must
also obtain the informed consent
of parents, but many of the same
problems apply. Parents are often
only peripherally involved in the
recruitment process and may not
be involved at all if the child is
under the care of the state. Like
their child, parents are provided
only with material intended to
promote a military career rather
than provide objective and
comprehensive information.
Consequently, they may be no
better placed than their child to
appreciate the consequences of
enlistment in full.
In the UK, recruiters are not
obliged to meet or call parents at
any point (79,80). Instead, they
give potential recruits a guide
for their parents, which is silent
on the risks and obligations of
military life, and the consent form
is usually processed by post (81).
Parents of child recruits have
reported great reluctance to sign
consent forms, and in some cases
only did so for fear of their child
running away from home or, in
the case of separated parents,
seeking a transfer of custody
(82).28 One mother, whose son
subsequently died in training,
described the feeling that she
had ‘signed my own son’s
death warrant’ on the day she
consented to his enlistment (82).
Although the Australian Defence
Force now ‘widely acknowledges
that it stands in “loco parentis”
regarding recruits under the age
of 18’,29 the Commonwealth and
Defence Force Ombudsman in
Australia has noted that both
children and parents have been
confused about the nature of the
armed forces’ legal responsibility
towards minors:
‘There was little understanding
or agreement about what might
be regarded as acceptable
expectations of them, or
behaviour towards them, as
minors... This confusion has
caused great distress for some
parents, particularly for those
who have not understood that the
ADF [Australia Defence Force]
would not always be supervising
their child’s non-training activities.
(77) In such cases, the parental
consent obtained by recruiters
cannot be considered ‘fully
informed’, as required by OPAC.
In many countries, recruiters
market military careers to children
without parental consent, such as
in schools and online. In Germany
and the US, children’s personal
details are supplied to military
recruiters without the express
consent of parents (21, 39). In
some instances families have
complained to school authorities
for failing to notify them of the
right to opt out (37, 78). Evidently,
these cases reveal not only an
absence of parents’ informed
consent, but also their active
opposition (78).
Once given, parental consent
to enlistment cannot always be
revoked. In the UK, for example,
withdrawal of parental consent
after enlistment can result in
termination of a minor’s service
in the armed forces, but only
26. British army intake of minors,
2008-09 to 2012-13 inclusive:
15,395; of whom dropped out
during training: 5,310 (34.5%). Adult
intake, same period: 41,480; of
whom dropped out during training:
9,700 (23.4%). (212,221).
27. The report defined ‘recruiter
irregularities’ as ‘wilful and unwilful
acts of omission and improprieties
perpetrated by a recruiter to
facilitate the recruitment process
for an applicant, including coercion,
falsification of documents giving
false promises, failing to disclose
disqualifying eligibility criteria, and
sexual harassment’. Between 2004
and 2005, 6,600 allegations of
such irregularities were recorded, of
which 630 were later substantiated
and 68 involved criminal violations.
28. In the UK, a child living with
only one parent does not need the
formal consent of the other parent,
which can incentivise a child intent
on enlisting to live with whichever
parent is more willing to allow the
enlistment to take place (82).
29. Communication from Australian
Government Department of
at the discretion of the chain of
command (84); parents have no
legal right to withdraw consent
after enlistment.
Some states reserve the right
to waive the requirement for
parental consent altogether.
‘The Committee remains concerned
that... [s]afeguards for voluntary
recruitment are insucient,
particularly in the light of the very
low literacy level of the majority of
under-18 recruits and the fact that
briefing materials provided to child
applicants and their parents
or guardians do not clearly inform
them of the risks and obligations
that follow their enlistment.
CRC Concluding Observations: United Kingdom 2016 (75)
The Child Recruit's Journey
In New Zealand and the US,
17-year-olds can be recruited into
the armed forces without parental
consent if they are, or ever
have been, married (85, 86).30 In
the UK, a child can be enlisted
without the consent of a parent
or guardian if none can be
found (87).
OPAC requires that ‘States Parties
shall ensure that persons who
have not attained the age of
18 years are not compulsorily
recruited into their armed
forces.’31 In fact, some states
which operate adult conscription
from age 18 allow 17-year-olds
to opt to begin their compulsory
service early (e.g. Austria, Cyprus,
Israel). When children choose
this, it is usually to limit disruption
that conscripted service
causes to their post- secondary
education and civilian career
plans. The Austrian government
describes its early conscription
arrangements as a ‘service’,
allowing those who finish school
aged 17 to find employment in
the year before adult conscription
would begin (88).32
Where citizens are liable for
conscription from age 18, a
pragmatic decision to bring
this forward – possibly under
pressure from parents or
teachers – cannot be considered
‘genuinely voluntary’ recruitment.
In light of the recent death of an
Austrian conscript in training (see
'The Military Training Process'
p. 29), and the allegations of
widespread abuse and bullying
(see 'Sexual violence, assault
and harassment' p. 37), it is also
questionable whether children
can, or should be allowed, to give
consent to expose themselves to
such risks.
As noted, an essential requisite
of genuine consent is the
freedom to withdraw it. Yet
children who have opted to begin
their conscription early can be
compelled to remain in service
against their will, which amounts
to the forced recruitment of
minors, and is prohibited by
OPAC article 2. In Israel, for
example, children can opt for
early conscription at age 17. At
this point they become subject
to the full force of military law, as
if they had been conscripted as
adults, and have no right to leave
until they complete their service
(36 months for men, 24 months
30. The minimum age for marriage
in New Zealand is 16 years, with
parental consent. There is no
minimum age for marriage in many
US states.
31. OPAC art 2.
32. It should be noted that there is
an alternative civil service in Austria
that can be chosen instead of
military service, including for those
who start their national service early
(before age 18).
for women) (89). The same
applies in Cyprus, where 17-year-
old ‘voluntary’ conscripts cannot
discharge themselves ‘regardless
of any change of opinion either
by him or his parents’ (90).
The standards of consent used for the military enlistment of
minors dier markedly from those established by the medical
profession, which recognises that a child’s wish to pursue a risky
course of action does not itself imply his or her informed consent.
The profession appreciates that a person is less able as a child
than as an adult to provide consent, and more vulnerable to any
consequential harm.
In Australia, New Zealand, and the UK, the law requires that
children under 16 can only consent to medical treatment if they
have achieved (as worded in British law) ‘sucient understanding
and intelligence… to understand fully what is proposed’ (Gillick
vs. West Norfolk). This principle is commonly known as Gillick
Competence and is a pre-requisite for genuinely informed consent.
Health professionals must ensure that a child patient is fully aware
of the risks of treatment, has the maturity to comprehend them
suciently in his or her own interest, and is not under persuasive
pressure (208). The child must also retain the freedom to withdraw
consent at any point.
By these standards, informed consent to a course of action has
four components:
Full comprehension of the benefits and risks;
 Sucient maturity and intelligence to evaluate the probable
consequences over time;
Freedom from the persuasive influence of others; and
Freedom to withdraw consent.
In contrast, some or all of these conditions are typically absent
when children are recruited into state armed forces, despite the
substantial risks and obligations involved.
Obedience by Coercion
Military training is a coercive
process. It makes use of
sustained stress and harsh
discipline, including physical
and psychological violence, in
preparation for the violence of
armed conflict (see ‘Army Training
Methods,’ p. 32).
Training practices are widely
shared between economically
developed states, with some
variation between the army,
navy and air force, and between
recruitment for ocers and for
the ranks. Stressors, such as the
denial of sleep and comfort, and
humiliations, are routine. The
right to contact civilian friends
and family is normally denied or
tightly restricted. The training
regime controls every aspect
of daily life; trainers demand
obedience in every detail and
any mistake is punished. To
ensure that recruits will kill on
demand, adrenalised aggression
is stimulated repeatedly, and
their opponents in war are
depersonalised as ‘targets’, which
will ‘fall when hit’ (63). Whereas a
civilian has the right to complain
or leave their job at will, a recruit
who leaves without permission is
arrested and returned to training,
even if still under the age of 18
(21, 81). In contrast, the army may
dismiss any recruit at any time
and for any reason.
A 2017 report from the UK which
draws on over 200 studies of
army training from the last half-
century, mainly from the UK and
US, characterises initial training
as a process of psychological
conditioning, which ensures that
recruits obey all orders by reflex,
enables them to kill other people,
and secures their loyalty to the
military system (63). It shows that
initial military training can have
a profound impact on the mind,
altering fundamental beliefs and
habitual behaviours and leading
to lasting problems with mental
health and re-adjustment to
civilian life. It identifies specific
changes in the psyche that the
training process aims to eect:
A healthy person’s innate
aversion to killing other people
must be dulled, as must the
natural tendency to appraise a
course of action on its merits
before committing to it. To ensure
that the military group will work
as a unit, personal individuality
must be suppressed and loyalties
realigned until recruits assume
military culture as their own and
accept the supremacy of its
demands. In sum, the military
expects to gain dominance over
their thoughts, feelings, and
behaviour.’ (63)
The training process has been
described by US military ocers
with expertise in military training
as ‘intense indoctrination’ under
sustained stress (92).33 A former
Austrian conscript explained
that ‘[the army] is violent anyway.
It is all about discipline, and
breaking human beings and
re-shaping them.’ (93)
© Austrian Armed Forces
The Child Recruit's Journey
Since the capacity of adolescents
for rational evaluation and
decision-making is compromised
in conditions of high stress
(59, 60), initial military training
capitalises on a specific
developmental vulnerability
to re-shape their attitudes and
behaviours for military use.
Through Violence
The CRC obligates states to
‘take all appropriate legislative,
administrative, social and
educational measures to protect
the child from all forms of
physical or mental violence, injury
or abuse, neglect or negligent
treatment, maltreatment or
exploitation, including sexual
abuse, while in the care of
parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any
other person who has the care of
the child’.34
There are no exceptions to
this duty; no form of legalised
violence against children is
permitted. In elaborating what
this means in practice, the
Committee on the Rights of the
Child has clarified that states are
required to ‘take the necessary
actions to prevent and prohibit
all forms of violence and abuse,
including sexual abuse, corporal
punishment and other inhuman,
degrading or humiliating
treatment or punishment in
school, by school personnel as
well as among students’ (56).
The Committee’s condemnation
of corporal punishment has
been repeated in judgements of
the European Court of Human
Rights, the European Committee
of Social Rights, and the Inter-
American Court of Human Rights
However, military training regimes
routinely incorporate – either as
a formalised aspect of training
techniques or informally as part
of the wider military environment
– most of the forms of violence
explicitly prohibited in CRC article
19, including:
Psychological maltreatment,
mental abuse, verbal abuse and
emotional abuse.
Scaring, terrorising and
Insults, name-calling,
humiliation, belittling, and
Psychological bullying and
hazing35 by adults or other
Corporal punishment, including
hitting, punching, kicking, and
stress positions.
Physical bullying and hazing.
A former Austrian conscript
described his experience of
entering military training:
‘The first day at the Bundesheer
[army] was terrible. After we got
our things, we were told to get
into buses. No one told us where
we were going. They shouted at
us and said we should keep our
mouths shut and look straight
ahead, no one was allowed to
smoke or look at his cell phone.
We were driven to Horn. I will
never forget the arrival...
33. ‘The intense workload and
sleep restriction experienced by
military recruits leaves them little
attention capacity for processing
the messages they receive about
new norms… Therefore, recruits
should be less likely to devote
their remaining cognitive eort to
judging the quality of persuasive
messages and will be more likely to
be persuaded by the messages…’
(92) Other military ocers and
academics have characterised
initial training as ‘re-socialisation’,
‘assimilation’, ‘psychological
conditioning’, ‘programming’, and
simply ‘control’ (63)
34. CRC art 19.
35. ‘Hazing’ is defined as ‘rituals
and other activities involving
harassment, violence or humiliation
which are used as a way of initiating
a person into a group’ (96).
‘The mood was depressed, and
no one spoke to each other, and
they ordered us to stand in line.
It was late in the evening, we had
10 minutes to prepare the room,
and then had three or four hours
of lessons. We were all very tired
and some were asleep. Those
who were asleep had to spend
the rest of the time standing.
They even slept while standing.
After the class, my mother called
me. I couldn’t stop myself from
crying when I heard her voice,
although I was already 21 then.
After a few weeks you get used
to the everyday life. You get
up, stand in line, get screamed
at and cursed, have to stand,
sometimes eight hours... You just
have to get used to the fact that
you are always screamed at and
humiliated.’ (93)
Although this individual was aged
21 at the time, 17-year-olds who
opt to be conscripted early go
through the same regime.
Wayne Sharrocks, who enlisted
for the British infantry at age
17 in 2006, describes similar
‘If you get called into the oce
you don’t know if you’re going
to get punched or made to do
press-ups or humiliated – they’ll
think nothing of humiliating you
in front of everybody, just for a
laugh, or brutally punishing you
until you’re sick. These are all
things they use to make you stay
in line...
‘Bayonet training is teaching
you to kill a person with a blade
on the end of a rifle. You’ll be
put through loads of physical
punishments – you’re crawling
through mud, screamed at and
shouted at, kicked, punched
while you’re on the floor, anything
to get you angry – they want
you to release this insane
amount of aggression, enough
to stab another man when they
say, basically, on the flick of a
switch.’36 (63)
Routine basic training for the
British army parachute regiment
includes an exercise called
‘milling’. According to army policy
documents, ‘[m]illing consists
of 60 seconds of controlled
aggression, whereby two
opponents of equal size and
weight, wearing head guards,
gum shields and 18oz boxing
gloves... aim to dominate [their]
opponent with straight punches
to the head. No ducking, parrying
or other boxing defence moves
are allowed.’ (95) In other words,
recruits, who may be only 17
years old at the time, must
withstand being repeatedly
punched in the head and face for
one minute in order to progress
in training. Graphic footage of
milling exercises can be found
Children enrolled on military-
vocational courses in the
Netherlands undergo much
of the same basic military
training as adult recruits, despite
having not formally enlisted (51).
‘Military self-defence’ training
forms a significant part of all
the vocational courses, some of
which is carried out on military
bases. One child (enrolled in the
course for children aged 15 years,
6 months) reported:
‘We are often being belittled
to see whether we can take it.
During running exercises, all of
a sudden they [instructors] are
running right behind you and
start screaming “God-damn it,
asshole” or “Son of a bitch, run
harder!” and then they push you
in the neck.’
Students commonly described
the training as including ‘scaring
students, screaming at students,
belittlement of students,
combined with sleep deprivation,
physical exhaustion and food
deprivation’ (51).
In Australia, a report by the
Commonwealth and Defence
Ombudsman into the care of
minors in the armed forces
36. Other examples of ill-treatment
during British army training are
published in The First Ambush
report (63).
37 For example, (
(accessed 28 October 2017).
38. CRC preamble and art 1.
noted ‘the tension between
Army’s acknowledged training
objective – to produce soldiers
who are tough and can cope
– and the need to protect and
encourage more vulnerable,
younger soldiers as they develop
these capacities’ (77). Army sta
advised the Ombudsman that
‘soldiers are trained to kill face-
to-face and must be able to do
their jobs eciently in hardship
conditions... Soldiers, according
to Army [sic], are expected to be
able to cope with more and they
need to get used to this early.
Some also commented that ‘if
minors did feel uncomfortable
or confused, that was simply
part of the process of being
“acculturated” into the military...
this was the only way for training
to be eective.’
As these remarks indicate, the
conflict between the needs and
priorities of the armed forces
as an institution and minors as
individuals in need of ‘special
care’38 will always be problematic,
and appears to be irreconcilable.
At the least, such violent methods
are unambiguously incompatible
with states’ ‘immediate and
unqualified obligation’ to eliminate
the violent and humiliating
treatment of children (96).
‘Once recruited as soldiers, children
generally receive much the same
treatment as adults – including the
often brutal induction ceremonies.
Graca Machel, Impact of armed conflict on children (2)
The Child Recruit's Journey
Based on research focused on the British and US
armed forces (63), the training of army recruits,
including those aged under 18, can be understood
in three parts:
1Recruits are ‘stripped’ of their civilian identities
and dominated by the army’s demands:
Civilian ties are suppressed. For the first few
weeks, all contact with civilian friends and family is
prohibited or heavily restricted and recruits are not
allowed to leave the military estate.
Individuality is suppressed. Most obviously, all
recruits must wear the same uniform, but also the
head is shaved, the use of first names is forbidden,
and time and space for privacy are denied.
Personal aairs are controlled. The army controls
every aspect of recruits’ behaviour, from how
they stand to how they fold a t-shirt. Any minor
deviation is punished, which makes recruits
anxious to conform.
Recruits’ psychological resistance is depleted.
The army applies stress continuously by depriving
recruits of sleep and comfort, and ‘beasting’
them. (Beasting includes shouting insults into a
recruit’s face, giving orders intended to humiliate
or exhaust a recruit, disrupting a recruit’s personal
aairs [e.g. emptying their wardrobe across a
room], and varying degrees of physical force.)
Conformity is enforced through punishments.
Recruits are punished collectively for an
individual’s shortcoming, who may then be
punished again by peers.
2The army uses operant conditioning
techniques to mould individual civilians into
soldiers who act with collective obedience. Wayne
Sharrocks, who joined the British infantry at 17,
At the start of training, if they told you, for
instance, “Take all your clothes o and run around
the block naked...” you’d probably question it...
but six months down the line for some reason you
want to get into this thing so much... that you will
just do whatever they say whenever they say it.’
3Recruits learn to kill on demand. Their
opponents in war are depersonalised as
‘enemy targets’, which will ‘fall when hit’. If training
is eective, then the soldier imagines his or her
enemy without the humanity of a real person.
Recruits in close-combat roles are taken a stage
further. Their acute stress response (the fight-
or-flight mechanism) is stimulated repeatedly
to summon adrenalised aggression (animal
aggression) as the primary means to overcome a
situation of stress. Child recruits for infantry roles
are made to conjure furious aggression and direct
it lethally by driving a blade into an egy of their
enemy. A short film of British infantry recruits from
age 17 is available online (240):
I wanna see it in your eyes that you wanna kill
these fuckers. Imagine these dummies are the
fucking Taliban and they’ve just killed some of
your mates. You wanna fuckin’ kill them. Show
me your war face! [recruits yell] You need some
fucking more aggression, show me your war face.
[louder] Show me your war face! [recruits roar]
What do we wanna do to the enemy? [recruits yell
as one – ‘Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill!’ – and charge at the
Even when not overtly violent,
the physical demands of military
training can be harmful to young
people who are still developing
physically. Research on the UK
armed forces has found that
child recruits are more likely than
adults to be discharged due to
training injury, because their
bones and musculature are not
yet fully developed (63, 97, 98).
Death in training is also a
risk. Between 2000 and
2016, 131 British armed forces
personnel died during training
or on exercise, equivalent to
approximately one death in
training every six weeks (99). A
US study found that between
1989 and 1992, ‘at least 700’
armed forces personnel
died while engaged in such
training activities as swimming,
parachuting, weapons training,
and physical fitness exercises
(100). In 2013 two British army
recruits died from heatstroke
during training marches; three
American recruits died in the
space of one week in 2016,
apparently from heat-related
problems during training
exercises; and in 2017 an Austrian
recruit died from heatstroke
caused by training exercises
(101,102,103). Although none of
these deceased were aged under
18, their deaths indicate some
of the physical risks to children
in military training, particularly
where there has been no
modification of training exercises
to accommodate their physical
Psychological Eects
Research into the mental eects
of military employment has
historically focused on veterans
returning from deployment,
but psychological stressors are
present long before this, from
the start of training. US research
has found that between 2004
and 2009, the peak rate of
attempted suicide during basic
training was four times higher
than the peak rate of attempted
suicide during deployment to
Iraq or Afghanistan (104). Indeed,
some veterans state that their
initial training was more traumatic
than deployment and blame
its psychological manipulation
techniques – which are not
‘de-programmed’ when they
are discharged – for diculties
adjusting to civilian life afterwards
A measure of stress in
adolescence is healthy, but a
high-stress environment becomes
harmful (55). Relative to adults,
adolescents are temperamentally
more anxious, and more likely
to experience depressed mood
and emotional volatility (58,73).
Crucially, they are also more
reactive to stressors (58,73).
That is, adolescents react to
stressors with a greater anxiety
and then remain anxious for
longer (55,105). Accordingly,
under stress they experience
greater strain and are more likely
than adults to be overwhelmed
(58). Under stress, adolescents
are also more likely than adults
to develop anxiety-related
mental health problems, such as
depression (55,73,105). A high
stress environment can even
disrupt the development of the
brain, which during adolescence
is sensitive to repeated or
prolonged stress. Under chronic
stress, the brain’s transition to
full maturation is compromised,
particularly systems involved
in the regulation of emotions
(73,105). There is some evidence
that this can lead to lasting
problems with anxiety in
adulthood (55,105).
‘The Committee is also concerned
that ... early enlistment is allowed for
16- and 17-year-old children who wish
to leave the country at the time when
they would be required to undertake
military service, and for “those who
are obliged to request early enlistment
because of their studies”.
CRC Concluding Observations: Mexico 2011 (47)
The Child Recruit's Journey
While adult recruits can also be
aected by the same risks, the
neuroscientific research indicates
that the brain changes so rapidly
in mid-adolescence that the
reduction in vulnerability between
the ages of 16 and 18 is typically
critical. According to a report by
public health experts on child
enlistment in the UK:
‘The actual pace and pattern of
physical, psychological and social
development varies not just from
one individual to another, but also
across dierent socio-cultural
settings. However, there is
evidence that significant changes
occur between the ages of 16
and 18 years, and that further
change continues for several
years beyond the age of 18 years
in many individuals.’ (59)
It should also be noted that the
youngest recruits tend to be
concentrated in the riskiest army
roles (particularly the infantry),
for which training is particularly
stressful and coercive. Whereas
in civilian settings, the presence
of family and established friends
can mitigate the eects of stress,
military rules prohibit or tightly
restrict contact outside the base
In addition to loading child
recruits with toxic levels of stress,
military training also influences
attitudes and behaviours. Studies
have shown that the impact on
recruits is profound:
‘[Recruits'] aversion to violence
is reduced, such that acts
normally considered wrong
are now deemed legitimate
for military purposes. They
have been trained to react to
adversity antagonistically with
aggression. They have also been
encouraged to valorise military
culture as superior to the civilian
life they left behind. They carry
their soldier programming with
them at work and at home, and
it persists after they leave the
army. Its marks are seen in, for
example, elevated levels of
anxiety, a greater likelihood of
violent behaviour and, for many,
debilitating feelings of shame
once actions on the battlefield
are evaluated humanely, in their
wider moral complexity.’ (63)
In particular, training to kill
chronically stimulates aggression,
depersonalises opponents, and
makes a virtue of violence as
an eective conflict tactic. An
analysis of the available British
and American research has
found that enlisting in the army
increases the propensity of
personnel to behave violently at
home and in the community (63).
In summary, although intense
physical and psychological
conditioning may be an essential
part of armed forces’ training, its
harmful impact on young people
in mid-adolescence is clear.
The objective and subjective
evidence of psychological harm
inherent in modern military
training appears irreconcilable
with the right of children to an
environment conducive to their
development, in which the risks
of undue harm are minimised.
Evidently these training
conditions aect thousands of
young recruits who may never be
exposed to armed conflict itself.
Consequently, the prohibition
on deployment of under-18s,
whilst important, does nothing
to protect child recruits from the
permanent psychological harm
that military training can cause.
Occasionally, military personnel
responsible for training
acknowledge the harm it can
cause to the younger age group.
A review of arrangements
‘The actual pace and pattern of
physical, psychological and social
development varies not just from one
individual to another, but also across
dierent socio-cultural settings.
However, there is evidence that
significant changes occur between
the ages of 16 and 18 years...
The recruitment of children by the UK armed forces: A critique from health
professionals (59)
for minors in the Australian
armed forces recorded the
view of some training sta that
‘the requirements of some
employment categories may
be inappropriate for minors.
The emotional, psychological
or physical maturity required to
undertake training, or in fact to
perform in the field on completion
of training, may simply be too
much for someone under the age
of 18 years’ (77).
Other sta at the infantry training
course shared this view, noting
that ‘apart from the very heavy
physical requirements of the
course, the psychological and
emotional maturity required
are unlikely to be found in a
minor’ (77).
Insubstantial Education
The CRC requires that education
for children reflect ‘the spirit of
understanding, peace, tolerance,
equality of sexes, and friendship
among all peoples...’ 39 The
Committee on the Rights of the
Child is clear that the education
environment also matters,
stating that ‘children should also
learn about human rights by
seeing human rights standards
implemented in practice,
whether at home, in school, or
within the community. Human
rights education should be a
comprehensive, life-long process
and start with the reflection of
human rights values in the daily
life and experiences of children.
[...] A school which allows bullying
or other violent and exclusionary
practices to occur is not one
which meets the requirements of
article 29(1).’ (12)
The promise of ongoing
education and vocational training
is a prominent message in
recruitment literature provided to
potential child recruits and their
parents. It is common for states to
define military training centres as
education institutions, and then
use this in defence of enlisting
children. For example, the British
army training site for its youngest
recruits, aged from 16, is titled the
Army Foundation College.
In practice, military training
centres do not operate to the
standards expected of civilian
education. Unlike civilian
teachers, military instructors are
not recruited on the strength of
their experience of working with
children and young people, nor
does their basic training prepare
them for it. They do not normally
apply to be instructors, but are
posted to a training centre by
order of the chain of command.
A non-commissioned ocer
at Deepcut barracks in the UK
stated in a television interview
that many of the instructors at
the site ‘were actually put there
because nobody else wanted
them. It sort of had a bit of a
reputation of being a dumping
ground to get rid of unwanted
NCOs [non-commissioned
ocers]’ (106).40 Similarly, the
Australian Commonwealth
Ombudsman has noted that
postings in a training role are
generally unpopular due to the
long hours involved, intense
course content, public scrutiny,
lack of status and boredom. (77)
Where child recruits are oered
formal education as part of
their training, it is rudimentary,
determined by the needs of
the military institution, and has
limited transferrable value to
recruits after they leave the
armed forces and re-join the
jobs market (140). Child recruits
are aorded little time for such
education during their intensive
military training.
These arrangements stand in
contrast to the requirements for
education set out by the CRC. In
its General Comment on the aims
of education, the Committee on
the Rights of the Child stated:
‘Education must also be aimed at
ensuring that essential life skills
are learnt by every child... Basic
skills include not only literacy
and numeracy but also life skills
such as the ability to make well-
balanced decisions; to resolve
conflicts in a non-violent manner;
and to develop a healthy lifestyle,
good social relationships and
responsibility, critical thinking,
creative talents, and other
abilities... [It must] reflect an
appropriate balance between
promoting the physical, mental,
spiritual and emotional aspects
of education, the intellectual,
social and practical dimensions,
and the childhood and lifelong
aspects... [It should be] designed
and provided in such a way that
it promotes and reinforces the
range of specific ethical values
enshrined in the Convention,
including education for peace.’
The Child Recruit's Journey
39. CRC art 29.
40. Between 1995 - 2002 four
young recruits, including three teen-
agers, died from gunshot wounds
at Deepcut army barracks. The
deaths were recorded as suicide
but the original investigations were
criticised as deeply flawed and two
new inquests were ordered in 2014
and 2016. Bullying, harassment and
sexual assault were alleged to be
commonplace at the site.
Risk of Abuse
Once enlisted, children are
treated as adults and lose
many of the protections that
are normally due them by right.
For example, many practices
which are routine in the armed
forces would be unlawful and/or
criminal in civilian life if applied
to the care of children. The legal
exemptions which permit armed
forces to circumvent these
safeguards exist solely for the
convenience of the institutions
concerned. They do not support
the best interests of the child.
In many countries, legislation
requires adults working closely
with children to be vetted
(including criminal record
checks) to ensure they are
suitable for the role. However,
in some countries (such as the
UK) although the law defines
a ‘child’ as anyone under
the age of 18, the legislation
on criminal vetting does not
apply to children who are in
employment. Consequently,
there is no legal requirement
for armed forces personnel to
be criminally vetted for their
suitability to work with children,
despite the fact adult personnel
live and work alongside child
recruits in a degree of proximity
rarely encountered outside the
family in civilian life, and which
substantially increases the risk of
abuse. Australian Defence Force
instructions acknowledge that
armed forces accommodation
puts minors at ‘risk of exposure
to alcohol, drugs, unacceptable
behaviour and/or inappropriate
relationships’ but does not
require them to be housed
separately from adults (242).
Counterintuitively, child recruits’
vulnerability to abuse may be
higher in countries where they
are recruited in relatively small
numbers. Where a few children
are mixed with a large number of
adults their particular needs can
A US Marine Corps drill instructor screams at a Marine recruit during a
boot camp assault course, © US Marines Photo / Alamy
be overlooked and safeguarding
arrangements may be weaker.
This applies in particular to
girls, who are invariably a small
minority among recruits and
especially vulnerable to abuse.
Many aspects of the military
environment increase the risk
of abuse, including the rank
hierarchy, a hyper- masculine
culture, high stress, physical
demands, isolation from family,
powerful group loyalty dynamics,
and the subjugation of the self
required by initial military training
(63). Researchers in Canada have
highlighted ‘the deep-seated
hierarchical nature of military
cultures, and the degree to
which emphasis on the values
of obedience, conformity and
respect for superiors can lead
to abuses of power, [and] the
susceptibility of junior members
to negative social influence’ (243).
These factors aect all recruits,
but children are more vulnerable
because, in an environment
which regards civilian social
norms as inferior, children may
lack sucient life experience
to recognise unreasonable
behaviour or to respond
appropriately (63). This is
exacerbated by the fact that,
as seen above, military training
makes use of coercive methods
in degrees which would not be
tolerated in a civilian workplace
or educational setting, making
it dicult for recruits — and their
superiors —to recognise when
‘robust’ training is abusive.
Ill-treatment also thrives
when recruits are deterred
from complaining by a fear of
retribution or being branded
‘weak’ in an environment
where perceived weakness is
Accounts of physical and
psychological bullying and
ill-treatment in the military are
common internationally. For
example, in 2017, following the
death of an Austrian conscript in
training, the German language
edition of Vice published
numerous testimonies from
conscripts, exposing a culture of
institutional abuse (93):
‘I still have nightmares of my time
with the Bundesheer [army]. I
wake up screaming every time. It
has cost me several relationships.
... At night, I was beaten up
by groups downstairs. Two
instructors came to me regularly
and told me how they would
celebrate my expected suicide,
urinate on my grave and make
jokes with the survivors.
‘In forums to this day, names are
still spreading, which instil fear
and horror. A lieutenant, who has
since passed away, left recruits
under the ice-cold showers for
hours. I have experienced many
things myself. The fact that the
Bundesheer is not beautiful, of
course, is clear to everyone,
but the first weeks are hell
on earth. Fear and panic rule,
spread by the instructors. At
the time, I thought this must be
how people in the internment
camps in the 1930s and 40s
felt. The Bundesheer has three
advantages despite all this: one
learns to drink and how to sell
and buy drugs under constant
observation. And if I feel bad
today — because of work or a
relationship — then I think of
that bad time and I feel better
‘I lived in constant fear for the
four weeks of basic training. Fear
of what shit would come next.
Sexual Violence,
Assault and Harassment
The military institution remains
pervasively masculinised, despite
the minority presence of women
and girls. British, American
and Australian army doctrine
encourages personnel to cultivate
Adolescence is a life stage characterized
by growing opportunities, capacities,
aspirations, energy and creativity, but
also significant vulnerability.
CRC General Comment 20 on the implementation of the rights of the child during
adolescence, 2016. (13)
The Child Recruit's Journey
the traditionally masculine
attributes of a ‘warrior spirit’ or
‘warrior ethos’ as the making of
an eective soldier, irrespective
of their gender (107, 108, 109).
Several studies have found
that a soldier’s competence is
routinely equated with masculine
potency and a willingness to
dominate adversaries using
violence, whereas incompetence
is associated with impotence
and femininity (110, 111, 66). In
2017, a female British ocer
advised women considering an
army career to be mindful of
the dominance of men and their
‘You are going into a male
dominated environment. You
should all be aspiring to meet the
male standard. If you want to be
respected by the males you are
going to be working alongside,
this is what you need to do.’ (112)
One consequence of a
masculinised military culture is
the frequent denigration of
women by their male co-workers.
One of many published examples
is that recorded by British
researchers in 2006: a group of
men grabbed a female ocer
while on exercise and ‘ducked
her head in a bucket of water and
each time she came up for breath
she had to repeat “I am useless
and I am a female”.’ (113)
Confirming anecdote (114),
research in the UK and US has
found that the sexual harassment
of women by men is substantially
more common in the armed
forces than in civilian life (115,
116). British research has found
that the youngest female recruits
are the group most at risk of
sexual harassment and violence,
exceeding the civilian rate by a
large margin (113). The research
also finds that the early exposure
of boys to a heavily masculinised
culture leads to an increased risk
of violent behaviour, particularly
against women (117, 118, 119, 120,
121, 122).
An investigation into sexual
assault and harassment in the
Canadian armed forces also
noted the elevated vulnerability
of younger recruits:
‘With respect to the prevalence
of sexual harassment and
sexual assault, age, linked with
a lack of maturity, appears to
be a prominent factor, given
that young persons are “still
exploring their sexuality” and
feel “invulnerable”. Further,
the unique circumstances of
training, operational deployment,
and career courses, may
create particular conditions of
vulnerability.’ (243)
Similarly, in 2016 the head of
the British army acknowledged
its ‘overly sexualised’ culture
(123). In France, in response
to an ocial report into sexual
harassment in the armed forces
in 2014, the controller-general
of the armed forces observed
that ‘the great majority of cases
involve relatively young recruits
– both male and female – from
relatively poor and uneducated
backgrounds’ (124).
Despite widespread recognition
of the elevated risk of sexual
violence in the armed forces,
particularly against younger
personnel, child recruits can lack
confidence to report it, for fear
that they will not be listened to
or that their career will suer
as a result (77, 115). Their fears
are reasonable when sexual
violence and harassment are so
routine that they have become
normalised in military culture.
‘States parties shall take all appropriate
legislative, administrative, social and
educational measures to protect the
child from all forms of physical or mental
violence, injury or abuse, neglect or
negligent treatment, maltreatment or
exploitation, including sexual abuse.
Article 19 Convention on the Rights of the Child
The Child Recruit's Journey
Recent years have seen numerous investigations
into serious and widespread sexual harassment and
bullying in the armed forces in Australia, Canada,
Germany, Israel, UK and the US. Many of the victims
were child recruits.
In Australia, a royal commission has investigated the
physical and sexual abuse of teenage recruits in the
armed forces since the 1960s (216). Recruits from
the age of 15 were subjected to regular, repeated
violent sexual assault, including anal and oral gang
rape; some child recruits were forced to rape each
other. Victims who reported the abuse were not
believed by sta, dishonourably discharged, or told
it was a ‘rite of passage’. The Commission found
‘widespread physical and sexual abuse of child
recruits’, which was ‘tolerated’ by senior sta (217).
The Commission’s report found that the ‘institutional
environment was such that abuse was allowed to
occur.’ (217)
In 2016, an anonymous survey of women in
the Israel Defense Forces found that one in six
reported experiences of sexual harassment, with
most reporting multiple incidents (213). A survey
of 43,000 Canadian armed forces personnel also
published in 2016 found that 27 per cent of female
military personnel reported having been sexually
assaulted at least once during their military career
(defined as ‘sexual attacks, unwanted sexual
touching, or sexual activity to which the victim is
unable to consent’). Of female recruits aged 24 or
younger, 54 per cent had been assaulted in the past
year (218).
In Germany, an investigation began in 2016 into the
sexual abuse of army recruits, including children,
at Pfullendorf barracks. ‘Sadistic sexual practices’,
which were filmed, were alleged to be widespread
(230). Criminal charges were subsequently filed
against seven soldiers for grievous bodily harm,
sexual assault and false imprisonment. At least four
soldiers were dismissed as a result of the incidents
but the criminal case was eventually dropped as
the court was unable to establish definitively who
was responsible for the abuse (244). In a separate
case in 2017, 14 military personnel were under
investigation in relation to the sexual harassment of
a soldier (age unspecified) (229). In November 2017
two female recruits (aged 18 and 22) were allegedly
raped at the Toderdorf barracks in north Germany
(245). In total at least 187 allegations of sexual
assault were recorded by the German armed forces
in 2017, and 11 allegations of rape (245).
In the UK, a second inquest was held in 2016 for
Cheryl James, one of four young recruits who died
in suspicious circumstances at Deepcut Barracks
between 1995 and 2002. The inquest revealed
evidence of widespread abuse, bullying, physical
assault and sexual harassment at the base, where
many adolescent recruits were trained. Recruits
were afraid to complain because the instructors in
charge of their welfare were often also responsible
for the abuse (106). One recruit who trained with
Cheryl James told the inquest, ‘We would tend to
ourselves, there was no accountability… [sta] had
a power trip and they got a buzz o it. They were
corporals or sergeants and we were recruits and
they thought they could take advantage.’ (210) The
head of army personnel conceded at the inquest
that the barracks had been ‘highly sexualised’ and
‘morally chaotic’, where the pressure on young
recruits could be ‘intolerable.’ (210) In 2015, an
ocial, anonymous survey of UK armed forces
personnel found that 13 per cent of women had had
a ‘particularly upsetting’ experience of sexualised
behaviour directed at them in the previous 12
month, equivalent to approximately 1,000 women
aected each year (115).
A major study in 2014 estimated that 26 per cent of
female armed forces personnel in the US military
experienced sexual harassment in the previous
year, and 5 per cent had suered one or more
sexual assaults. It further found that a higher
proportion of the youngest female recruits – 7 per
cent – had been sexually assaulted (219). In 2016,
the US military received 6,172 complaints of sexual
assaults, ranging from groping to rape; 58 per cent
of victims said they had ‘experienced reprisals
or retaliation’ for reporting (211). Senator Kirsten
Gillibrand commented that ‘the scourge of sexual
assault in the military remains status quo.’ (211)
Until the adoption of OPAC,
no international law prevented
states from sending children to
war. British personnel under the
age of 18 fought and died in the
Korean War of 1950-1953 and
the Falklands War of 1982, and
participated in peacekeeping
operations in the Balkans. In the
1990s, the US deployed 17-year-
old children to the Persian Gulf
War, Bosnia and Somalia (246).
By ratifying OPAC, more than
two-thirds of states worldwide
have committed in principle
‘to take all feasible measures
to ensure that members of
their armed forces who have
not attained the age of 18
years do not take a direct part
in hostilities’.41 The change
has helped to protect many
thousands of children from the
consequences of participating in
war, but this protection remains
While some states which still
recruit children, such as India,
have committed not to deploy
them to any ‘operational area’
(126), others interpret OPAC
narrowly. Cyprus, for example,
reserves the right to deploy
armed forces personnel,
regardless of age, where there
is a ‘genuine military need’.43
Similarly, Australian Defence
Instructions oblige the armed
forces to ‘take all feasible
measures to ensure that Defence
members under 18 do not
participate in hostilities’ but
only ‘where it will not adversely
impact on the conduct of
operations’ (242).
The UK does not routinely
deploy children, but reserves the
right to use them in hostilities
if ‘operational eectiveness’
depends on it. The US believes
the treaty allows it to deploy
underage personnel to any
‘forward’ (i.e. frontline) area
where a firefight is not currently
ongoing; if one breaks out,
child recruits may remain if
‘military considerations’ make it
impractical to remove them (247).
Such reservations subordinate
the best interests of the child
to military expedience.
Between 2003 and 2004, the US
deployed nearly 60 17-year-olds
to Iraq and Afghanistan (128);
between 2003 and 2010 the UK
deployed at least 22 children
to the same conflicts, although
the Ministry of Defence has
committed to prevent this in the
future (129, 130). The Committee
on the Rights of the Child has
judged that both states’ positions
do not meet the requirements of
the treaty (125, 131).
France, another major military
power, does not allow recruits
under 18 to participate in military
operations overseas, but has not
expressly ruled out deployment
within France, for example in
relation to counter-terrorism (132).
Similarly, the Committee on the
Rights of the Child has expressed
concern that New Zealand
Defence Force orders only
prohibit ‘active service outside
New Zealand and therefore
implicitly allow active service
inside New Zealand by soldiers
below the age of 18’ (133).
There is also wide discrepancy
between states in relation to
children performing armed
guard duties. This matters
because the eectiveness of
an armed guard as a deterrent
depends completely on his or
her readiness to open fire in
the event that a military site is
A British soldier patrols a street in Iraq, © Shawn Baldwin/EPA
attacked by a hostile force. As
such, armed guard duty can
become active participation in
hostilities at a moment’s notice.
In view of these risks, some
states prohibit the use of child
recruits as armed guards (e.g.
Germany) whereas in others it is
routine (e.g. UK). Israel Defense
Forces (IDF) training requires
recruits, including those under
18, to patrol and guard military
bases, some of which are in the
West Bank (29). Children from
age 15 also participate in the
Israeli Police Force ‘Civil Guard’,
whose activities include acting
as border guards, searching
for explosives, operating
checkpoints, and preventing acts
of terrorism. Child volunteers in
the ‘emergency squad’ section
of the Civil Guard keep firearms
in their home and are on standby
for immediate deployment in
event of emergency, such as an
attack on a settlement, and work
in collaboration with the IDF (29).
Even where states do not use
their child recruits to participate
in hostilities, protection from the
eects of armed conflict remains
incomplete. As members of a
state’s armed forces they ‘remain
lawful targets for enemy forces
who, in many cases, may be
unable to distinguish them from
their older comrades’ (134).
Outside of situations of armed
conflict, military sites, such as
barracks, are particular targets
for some armed groups, putting
child recruits at risk. In 2010,
for example, three men were
convicted of plotting an attack
on an army base in Sydney,
intending to cause as many
casualties as possible (135). In
2012, rocket propelled grenades
were fired at the Pakistan Military
Academy in Abbottabad, causing
damage to the building but no
casualties (136). In 2013, a soldier
was killed outside his barracks
in London by two men targeting
soldiers in retaliation for British
military action in Afghanistan
and Iraq (137). Recent years have
seen multiple attacks on Indian
army bases and troop convoys
in Kashmir, killing at least 46
soldiers (138). All four of these
state armed forces recruit below
the age of 18, such that child
reruits remain at risk from attacks
of this kind.
‘The Committee remains seriously
concerned that the current policies and
regulations, despite certain safeguards,
do allow for the deployment of
17-year-old service members to such
areas where they can be requested
to perform inherently dangerous
duties and may be at risk of direct
participation in hostilities.
CRC Concluding Observations: USA 2017 (125)
41 .OPAC art 1.
42. At the World Humanitarian
Summit in 2016, states were en-
couraged to ‘enact and implement
national legislation prohibiting
members of their armed forces
who have not attained the age of
18 years from taking a direct part in
hostilities’ (emphasis added), which
would be a stronger safeguard than
the requirement of OPAC to ‘take
all feasible measures’ to prevent
participation in hostilities (209).
43. Cyprus, OPAC Declaration.
44. A probable factor is the
over-representation of minors in the
infantry. The study found no statis-
tical dierence in the risk of fatality
among those who joined at age 17.
Not withstanding the fact child
recruits are not deployed until
they have reached the age of 18,
the common practice of assigning
them roles that are most
exposed in war subjects them
to disproportionate risks across
the course of their armed forces
career. In the UK, for example, it is
a matter of policy to enlist 16- and
17-year-olds ‘particularly for the
infantry’ (139), which suers the
army’s highest fatality rate and in
which child recruits are over-
represented (140). Thus, even
though children enlisted by the
UK are not normally sent to war
until they turn 18, they face higher
war risks than adult recruits
across their military career as a
whole. A study by ForcesWatch
and Child Soldiers International
in 2013 found that soldiers who
had joined the British army at 16
and completed their training were
approximately twice as likely to
die or be injured in Afghanistan
as those who enlisted aged 18
or above (141).44 Although the
eect of this elevated risk is not
experienced by soldiers until they
reach adulthood, the risk itself
was assumed when the recruits
were still minors.
The Child Recruit's Journey
Early Attrition
As reported in France, Germany,
the UK and the US (142), the
youngest military trainees are
more likely to leave the armed
forces during training or shortly
afterwards. A third of British army
trainees aged under 18 drop
out during training, for example;
similarly high attrition rates for
minors are found in Germany and
the Netherlands (22, 143).
Notably, research in the UK
and US shows clearly that
younger enlistees from poorer
backgrounds face the highest
risk of early attrition (81, 144, 145,
146, 147, 148, 149, 150, 151). In
general, they are less tolerant of
frustration, more rebellious, more
anxious, and more vulnerable to
stress, all of which combine to
increase the risk of attrition (150,
152, 153). Research in the US
found that they are more likely
than other recruits to struggle
during training, resist military
authority, and have debilitating
mental health problems that
prevent them from continuing.
Minors are also significantly
more likely than adults to be
discharged due to training injury,
according to British research (63,
Rapid disillusionment with military
life is undoubtedly an important
factor in attrition amongst
child recruits, resulting in part
from unrealistic expectations
encouraged by recruitment
marketing. The adverts’ promises
of self-development, fulfilment,
excitement and camaraderie
prove false for many young
The Right to Leave
As explored in detail above,
recruiting children for military
purposes is unlawful under
OPAC unless it is, among other
conditions, ‘genuinely voluntary’.45
On the principle that, insofar as
consent is freely given it may be
freely withdrawn, the requirement
for recruitment to be voluntary
prevents military authorities from
retaining a child recruit against
his or her will. Otherwise, one of
the main purposes of OPAC – to
prevent the forced recruitment
of children – would mean little.
Consequently, it is logical to
interpret the requirement for
recruitment to be ‘genuinely
voluntary’ to mean that their
military employment is not lawful
unless their consent to it is
ongoing. In practice, this means
that child recruits must retain the
right to leave the armed forces
at any time of their choosing,
without penalty, as long as they
remain children in law.
British soldiers at Fort George, Ardersier in Scotland
© David Lichtneker/ Alamy
45. OPAC art 3.
Statutory human rights bodies
have supported this conclusion.
The UK Parliament Joint
Committee on Human Rights,
in reviewing the provisions for
child recruits to leave the armed
forces on request, stated that
‘without special provision for
discharge (other than at the
discretion of the commanding
ocer), there is a risk that
continued service may not be
considered voluntary in the
sense required by the Optional
Protocol’, and recommended
the introduction of a legal right
of discharge for minors (154). A
German parliamentary committee
report similarly referred to expert
evidence that ‘the obligation
for recruitment to be voluntary
for minor recruits, enshrined
in the Optional Protocol, is
circumvented... when individuals
who have enlisted at the age
of 17 and whose six-month
probationary period ends before
their 18th birthday are no longer
able to leave the Bundeswehr
voluntarily and without facing
sanctions’ (155).
Similarly, in relation to
eliminating forced labour, the
ILO Committee of Experts on
the Application of Conventions
and Recommendations has
‘requested that minors engaged
in a military career be able
themselves to terminate their
engagement’ (156).
In practice, the right of enlistees
to withdraw consent to enlistment
afterwards is normally denied or
severely restricted. After an initial
period, usually a few months, a
child recruit may have no right
to leave the armed forces for
several years. In Australia, for
example, recruits are bound for
at least two to four years; in the
UK, army recruits are bound for
four years from the day of their
18th birthday (157, 158, 159).
Harsh penalties are applied for
attempting to leave the military
without authorisation (i.e. going
Absent Without Leave, which is a
serious military oence).
In Germany, military legislation
allows recruits of any age to
request discharge within the first
six months of training, but child
recruits have no ongoing right to
leave after this point even if they
are still below the age of 18 (21).
Children who attempt to leave
without authorisation can be
prosecuted under military law.
In Canada, child recruits who
enlist in the Regular Ocer
Training Plan or Reserve Entry
Training Plan must pay a financial
penalty if they seek a discharge
after the start of their second year
of training. Those who remain in
the programmes are obliged to
provide a minimum of two months
service in the armed forces for
every one month of subsidised
education they received under
the training programme (160).
Since 2011, all child recruits in the
British armed forces have had a
legal right of discharge until the
age of 18, but the process is still
subject to a three-month ‘cooling
o’ period and at least two
children were prosecuted at court
martial for going absent without
leave after the right of discharge
had been introduced (161).
In the US, 17-year-olds can sign
up for the Delayed Entry Program
(‘DEP’) which allows them to defer
reporting for duty for up to a year,
while undertaking pre-military
preparation. Although children
who have enlisted under the DEP
are allowed by law to withdraw,
many child recruits have reported
being harassed, verbally abused
and threatened with fines or
imprisonment for seeking to do
so (248). Recruiters are prohibited
from making such threats, but
also instructed ‘to make every
eort to resell [service in the
armed forces to] those individuals
who request separation [release
from enlistment contract]’ (162).
Applying this type of pressure
to children, or 18-year-olds
who enlisted as children, is
incompatible with the concept of
a voluntary choice made freely
without coercion or duress.
Whilst formal administrative
procedures may be required to
implement a discharge request,
these should be processed
as a matter of right and with
minimal delay. Allowing a
child’s discharge only at their
commanding ocer’s discretion,
or complicating release with
undue administrative hurdles,
delays, or penalties, restricts the
child’s ability to leave the armed
forces at will and undermines the
principle of consent.
The Child Recruit's Journey
the Impact
A member of the New Zealand Defence Force, © New Zealand Defence Force
Research has shown that military
employment increases several
risks to health and wellbeing,
with the youngest recruits most
aected. Data fully disaggregated
by age, with minors as a distinct
category, is rarely available
but the studies examined for
this report show, in general, a
clear linear trend correlating
decreasing age with increasing
risk. The American Public Health
Association has found that
‘military service is associated with
disproportionately poor health
for those in late adolescence.’ (17)
Similar findings have been made
elsewhere (63, 163).
UK and US research over the last
decade has found that, compared
with civilians, military personnel
and veterans are more likely
to have anxiety-related mental
health problems, drink heavily,
behave violently in everyday life,
and experience poorer long-term
health (163, 164, 165, 166, 167, 168,
169, 170, 171, 172,).
Relative to UK civilian rates, for
example, anxiety/depression46
and harmful drinking are at least
twice as common in the armed
forces (63, 164, 165). Studies
have found that post-traumatic
stress disorder (PTSD) is only
slightly more common in the
armed forces than in the general
population, but twice as common
among infantry personnel,
which is the major role group
for the youngest recruits aged
16-17 (140, 173, 174). (British PTSD
studies of military groups are not
usually carried out in anonymous
conditions, which is likely to lead
to under-reporting (163).)
These problems in military
populations are partly due to
traumatic war experiences,
which are a major factor, but
46. In the studies, anxiety and de-
pression are grouped as ‘common
mental disorders’ (CMDs), which
include a range of anxiety disorders
experienced as mild or severe.
not the only one. Pre-existing
vulnerabilities associated with
a troubled childhood – more
common among those who enlist
youngest — contribute strongly
to later problems associated
with military employment. These
factors combine hazardously with
the stress and indoctrination of
initial training (63, 104, 163, 175,
176, 177). Even before they are
sent to war, military personnel in
the UK and US are more likely
than civilians to drink at harmful
levels, smoke, commit drug-
related oences, and suer from
stress-related mental health
problems (91, 104,
164, 165, 167, 177, 178, 179, 180, 181).
The prevalence of these
problems increases after veterans
leave the forces. Those who were
‘States parties shall protect the child
against all other forms of exploitation
prejudicial to any aspects of the child's
Article 36, Convention on the Rights of the Child
in the British armed forces in
2003 but had left by 2013 have
been between two and three
times as likely as the general
population to have problems
with anxiety/depression, harmful
drinking, and PTSD. Over the
same period, even ex-forces
personnel who were not sent to
Iraq or Afghanistan have been
2.5 times as likely as civilians to
screen positive for PTSD (163).
Research in the US has also
found that military employment
has an adverse mental health
impact before recruits are sent
to war. The prevalence of both
depression and attempted
suicide increase during basic
training (104).
There appears to be no evidence
to suggest that enlistment
improves the mental health of
the youngest recruits, but there
is much to show the opposite. In
the UK, the youngest personnel
and veterans are more likely
than both older recruits and the
same-age general population
to experience PTSD, to drink
heavily, and to commit suicide,
(182, 183, 184, 185). Compared
with civilians aged 16-24, British
personnel aged 18-24 are three
times as likely to drink at harmful
levels (164, 184).47
Although suicide is generally
less common in the military
than in the general population,
this is often not the case for the
youngest recruits. In the UK,
the rate of suicides among the
youngest army recruits over the
last two decades has exceeded
that of same-age civilians by 45
per cent (185).48 Over a similar
period, the suicide rate among
male ex-forces personnel
aged 16–19 was three times
that for the same age group in
the general population (186).49
Similarly, the Australian National
Mental Health Commission
has found that whilst serving
armed forces personnel have a
lower suicide rate than civilians,
the rate among male veterans
aged 18–24 is approximately
double that of civilians with the
same demographic profile (187).
Canadian research also found
an elevated suicide rate among
army personnel (all ages),
compared to the general
population, particularly those
with lower levels of education,
and those assigned to combat
roles, as is typical among the
youngest recruits (188).
47. The figures for the military group
are extrapolated from Table 1 in
Head, et al., 2016 (164).
48. For details refer to Table 3 in
source cited.
49. For details refer to Table 1 in
source cited.
Increased suicide rate among
UK army’s youngest recruits
compared to their civilian peers
Contrary to the common
assumption that joining the
army reduces delinquent violent
behaviour in young people,
research in Canada, Germany,
the UK, and the US has shown
that military training and culture
reinforce several known risk
factors for violent behaviour.50
Research in the UK and US in
the last decade has found that
violent oending became more
prevalent after enlistment, even
before personnel were sent to
war in Iraq or Afghanistan (167,
189); and that violent oending
was substantially more common
among military personnel
than among civilians (167, 168,
171, 177). The British research
further discovered that the rate
of violent oending increased
again after personnel were sent
to war, reaching double the pre-
enlistment rate (167).
It is not known why enlistment
is accompanied by an increase
in violent behaviour before
personnel are deployed, but it
is likely that initial training plays
a role. The training process
stimulates aggression and
rewards dominance behaviours,
and studies based in Canada,
Germany, and the US have
found that antagonistic attitudes
increase during army training and
persist afterwards (190, 191, 192).
Military culture, by valorising the
‘warrior hero’ ideal, is also likely
to contribute, since research
into the influence of dominant,
traditionally masculine norms
has found repeatedly that they
contribute to an increased risk
of violence (117, 118, 119, 120, 121,
The studies show that younger
recruits and those from poorer
backgrounds are more likely
than others to behave violently
(166, 167, 168, 177). American
and British studies have found
that pre-existing problems,
such as a history of anti-social
behaviour, combine with military
factors, such as being trained for
a combat role, to drive up the
prevalence of violent behaviour
among personnel (168, 177, 193,
194)51. Since child enlistees are
less mature than their older
counterparts, typically come from
poorer backgrounds, and are
over-represented in infantry jobs,
they carry more of the major risk
factors for violent behaviour (63).
Psychological development in
adolescence may also be a factor
50. For details and sources, refer to
The First Ambush, Tables 2 and 3,
pp. 41-42 (63).
51. For a discussion of the associ-
ation between violent behaviour,
pre-enlistment history, military role
assignment, and deployment, refer
to The First Ambush, section 8 (63).
in increased violence among
young recruits. The same brain
development processes which
incline adolescents towards
risk-taking (see 'Capacity for
Complex Decision Making in
Mid-Adolescence' p. 25) also
influence how violence is
perceived. Studies have shown
that young age is a risk factor
for developing a fascination with
violence, and also that fantasy
portrayals of violence in popular
culture can inspire young people
to sign up (16, 22). According
to evidence given to a German
parliamentary committee:
‘[C]ompared with adult recruits,
recruits who are minors
report more of this fascination
with violence. This develops
fundamentally into a vicious
circle of violence, that is to say,
the experiencing of violence is
always also associated with the
perpetration of violence and this
can manifest itself in the form of
domestic violence.
‘Child soldiers may find it dicult to
disengage from the idea that violence
is a legitimate means of achieving
one’s aims. Even where the experience
of participating in ‘the cause’ has
been positive …the transition to a non-
violent lifestyle will be dicult.
Graça Machel, Impact of armed conflict on children (2)
Quantifying the Impact
This association is explained by
the symptoms of post-traumatic
illness in which a higher degree
of alertness can also lead to
more aggressive behaviour and
at the same time a fascination
with violence leads to more
violence being perpetrated.
To sum up, in principle brain
development in adolescence
means that young people make
more risky decisions and these
risky decisions help to explain
the risk factors in adolescence
frequently described in research
for both post-traumatic illnesses
and aggressive behaviour, as
well as for the fascination with
violence which young people
describe.’ (22)
Although new recruits begin their
military careers healthier than
their civilian counterparts, in later
life veterans are more likely to
have poorer general health and
die prematurely (169, 170, 195,
196). One wide- ranging review of
the US research since the Second
World War concluded that:
‘...we find very little evidence to
support the notion that there are
any benefits that accrue to men
and materialise in their lives as
a lower likelihood of dying as a
consequence of military service
overall or at any particular age at
[the point of] enlistment.’ (195)
In the UK, government statistics
show that 74 per cent of veterans
reported being in good or very
good health in 2015, vs. 78 per
cent of non-veterans; and 40 per
cent reported at least one long-
term health condition, vs. 35 per
cent of non-veterans (169).
One reason for this is that,
even before recruits are sent
to war, they run a substantial
risk of incurring a career-ending
musculoskeletal injury during
initial training, and again during
pre-deployment training (97, 197).
Veterans’ higher rates of mental
health problems, heavy drinking
and smoking, combined with their
relatively poor socioeconomic
outcomes, are also likely to
contribute to poorer general
health in later life.
Research has shown that
camaraderie and the intense
physical exercise during initial
training could buer the health
impacts of military employment,
but there is no systematic
evidence of a health advantage
over civilian alternatives (63).
Although there appear to have
been no studies exploring the
long-term health outcomes of
child recruits in auent countries,
they are more likely than adult
recruits to carry the major risk
factors. For example, British
research shows that the youngest
recruits are more likely than
the older: to sustain a training
injury (because their bones are
underdeveloped) (97, 98); to drink
at harmful levels (163, 183, 184);
and to be discharged within a
few months or years, struggling
to find a new job afterwards (140,
The Paris Principles and
Guidelines on Children
Associated with Armed Forces or
Armed Groups state that:
‘Viable alternatives to joining
armed forces or armed groups
should be available for children,
including adolescents. This
will include educational and
vocational programmes, income
generating activities, and access
to livelihood opportunities.’52
Yet in contrast to this principle,
states which actively recruit
‘Viable alternatives to joining
armed forces or armed groups
should be available for children,
including adolescents. This will
include educational and vocational
programmes, income generating
activities, and access to livelihood
The Paris Principles and Guidelines on Children Associated with Armed
Forces or Armed Groups, Principle 6.3
children routinely present
enlistment as an opportunity
to gain education, training, and
a salary. These are significant
incentives for young people
and their parents, particularly
those living in economically
deprived areas, as is typical of
child recruits in many countries.
However, contrary to the popular
image of the military as a route
out of poverty for disadvantaged
young men, the long term
socioeconomic prospects of
enlisted personnel are relatively
poor. Research in the US has
found that, since the end of the
Second World War, veterans
have been worse o than
non-veterans, including those
from economically deprived
backgrounds (196, 198, 199).
In this context, it is important to
recognise that many children
who join the armed forces leave
school to do so; they do not,
as is popularly assumed, enlist
having dropped out of education.
Recruitment campaigns which
present military employment as a
glamorous alternative to school
risk enticing children to leave full-
time education before they have
gained essential qualifications
to enhance their job prospects
throughout their working life.
Indeed, British research
has found that veterans are
substantially more likely than
non-veterans to be unemployed,
particularly infantry veterans.
In financial year 2015/16,
for example, 16 per cent of
veterans from across the armed
forces who had left before
completing four years’ service
were unemployed six months
afterwards, which was three
times the national unemployment
rate and greater also than the
13 per cent unemployment rate
for civilians aged 16-24 (200). A
study in 2013 found that 30 per
cent of infantry veterans who had
left the army within four years
of enlisting – a disproportionate
number of whom enlisted as
minors – were not in work,
education or training 18 months
afterwards (201). The national
unemployment rate that year
was 8 per cent (21 per cent for
16-24-year-olds) (200).53
British research indicates that
recruits who stay in the armed
forces for a full career can
outstrip the earning power of
their civilian counterparts, but
these are the minority; most
recruits leave the armed forces
within a few years (with a large
minority leaving after just a few
months) (63).54 The average
career length of a British infantry
recruit who enlists below 18,
completes training, and does
not drop out of service early
is 10 years (202). Although by
current standards this is a long
period for most young people
in their first job, the average
trained infantryman re-joins the
jobs market in their mid-20s,
trained for a highly specialised
profession which has little
transferability to civilian life. One
young British veteran described
life in the armed forces as ‘a
pause on normal life’, and that
on leaving ‘you’re just back at
where you was to begin with’, as
an adolescent before enlistment
52. Principle 6.3.
53. As of 2017, Australian armed
forces veterans also have an
elevated unemployment rate: 30
per cent, compared to a national
rate of 6 per cent (232). For further
analysis of the eect of early
enlistment on young people’s long
term socioeconomic status, see The
First Ambush, section 10.1 (63).
54. For details and discussion, refer
to The First Ambush, sections 10.3
and 10.4 (63).
Quantifying the Impact
Veterans’ relatively poor
socioeconomic outcomes are
partly explained by some of
the reasons for their relatively
poor health in later life: a higher
probability of living with physical
injury, mental health problems,
and/or alcohol misuse. Another
factor is the high rate of turnover
in the armed forces, particularly
during initial training.
British research indicates that
early enlistment puts child
recruits at a clear disadvantage
relative both to their civilian
peers and to older recruits. This
is because enlisting adolescents
from age 16 takes young people
out of full-time education while
subjecting them to a high risk
of attrition from their military
training. Specifically, while
83 per cent of young people
from economically deprived
backgrounds in the UK now
continue in full-time education
after they turn 16, those who
enlist in the armed forces do not
(204).55 By the time the army’s
initial training course comes to
an end, a third of recruits aged
under 18 have left (either by
choice or because the army has
dismissed them); their attrition
rate is 50 per cent higher
than that for adult recruits.56
This leaves many former child
recruits struggling to re-join
full-time education or looking for
another job on the strength of
qualifications they gained up to
age 16.
Recruits who enlist at a young
age will not experience adulthood
as civilians until they leave the
forces, typically in their mid-
20s. Veterans often report that
re-adjusting to civilian norms
is very challenging after their
military training enculturated
them to denigrate civilians,
take orders uncritically, and
value traditionally masculine
attitudes of dominance, for
example (63). British research
shows that exit from the military
community is marked by a loss
of social support networks and
fewer social activities, which are
important buers for stress (205).
For these and other reasons,
the prevalence of stress-related
mental health problems increases
markedly once veterans leave
the forces,57 especially those who
leave within the first few months
or years (206).
Many veterans overcome
these challenges to manage
the transition to civilian life
successfully. However, according
to research focused on the UK,
the group most likely to struggle
are ex-soldiers who enlisted at a
young age (163). Multiple factors
increase this group’s vulnerability
to post-discharge socio economic
problems. As noted above,
younger recruits are more likely
to be prematurely discharged
from service (including during
initial training) which, in itself, is a
risk factor for increased stress-
related mental health problems.
Similarly, having joined young
and with few qualifications,
the youngest recruits are more
likely to enlist for army roles
that oer the least continuing
education and training and carry
the highest risks of physical
55. Here, ‘disadvantaged’ is de-
fined by eligibility for free meals at
school, which applies to around 15
per cent of children (204).
56. British army intake of minors,
2008-09 to 2012-13 inclusive:
15,395; of whom dropped out
during training: 5,310 (34.5%). Adult
intake, same period: 41,480; of
whom dropped out during training:
9,700 (23.4%). (212, 221).
57. For a referenced list of stress-re-
lated mental health problems which
gain in prevalence after discharge,
see The Last Ambush, p. 25 (163).
and psychiatric trauma in war,
particularly the infantry (140).
This in turn increases the risk of
ongoing mental health problems.
An early entry into the military
environment reduces children’s
opportunities to build mature,
supportive social networks in
civilian life, meaning younger
recruits have more limited
support structures to return to
when they leave the forces.
These recruits do not ‘resettle’ in
civilian life in the same manner
adult recruits do – rather, they are
building an independent adult
identity and social structure from
Recruitment advertising
targeted at adolescents typically
emphasises opportunities for
self-development, training and
career progression. Experts have
criticised these claims as not
only inflated but fundamentally
unfulfillable (22). Commenting
on the German army’s claim,
‘We will make you fit for your
future in society’ a psychologist
argued this cannot be the case
as ‘the military functions in a
fundamentally dierent way from
civil society’ (22). Military life is
founded on absolute hierarchy,
control, and unquestioning
obedience which is atypical of,
and undesirable in, civilian life.
Most soldiers struggle with the
eects of institutionalisation
when they are discharged but the
impact is much more profound
among recruits who entered
training during adolescence
when personality and identity are
at key stages of development. It
is sometimes suggested that an
adverse childhood background
– and not military employment –
accounts for the psychological,
social and economic problems
found among young recruits
and veterans. Yet the evidence
points clearly in the other
direction.58 Research in the UK
and US confirms that an adverse
background is both common in
children targeted for recruitment
and an important independent
contributor to their relatively
poor mental health as military
personnel (176, 177). However, it
also shows that military culture,
especially the intensity of basic
training, tends to exacerbate prior
mental ill-health and behaviour
problems, and undermine the
socioeconomic prospects of
disadvantaged young people in
the long-term (63).
58. The First Ambush (2017)
explores the eects of military
training and culture, while The Last
Ambush (2013) explores the eect
of traumatic war experiences (63,
163). Both reports also discuss the
influence of pre-enlistment factors,
such as a troubled childhood and
anti-social behaviour. Together,
the reports draw on around 250
academic studies, as well as ocial
statistics and veterans’ testimony.
Quantifying the Impact principle brain development in
adolescence means that young people
make more risky decisions and these
risky decisions help to explain the
risk factors in adolescence frequently
described in research for both post-
traumatic illnesses and aggressive
behaviour, as well as for the fascination
with violence which young people
Evidence given to a Germany parliamentary committee (22)
A national holiday celebration with French army soldiers
and the public, © Directphoto Collection/Alamy
This report has reviewed the
recruitment of children under the
age of 18 for military purposes
in auent, democratic states,
subject to the rule of law. All of
the states discussed here have,
in principle, committed not to
use child recruits in hostilities,
or to recruit them without their
consent, and yet this report has
shown how drawing children into
military employment, wherever
and however it is practised,
is pervasively harmful and
fundamentally detrimental to their
best interests.
Although the voluntary enlistment
of 16- and 17-year-olds by state
armed forces is not prohibited
in international law, as currently
practised it contravenes the legal
obligations conferred on states
by the CRC, OPAC and other
Child recruitment is inherently
detrimental for two main reasons.
First, it exploits the
underdeveloped capacity of
adolescents to make complex,
consequential decisions in
an informed and responsible
manner. And second, military
employment exposes children
to multiple hazards, even before
they turn 18 and may be sent to
war. On these two points alone,
there is a clear legal basis in the
rights recognised by the CRC to
set the threshold for enlistment
no lower than 18.
Specifically, the report has
shown why the risks of military
employment, recruitment
practices which obscure these
risks, and the developmental
vulnerabilities characteristic of
adolescent decision-making,
are incompatible with the state’s
duty to ensure that all potential
recruits fully comprehend the
consequences of enlistment. It
summarised evidence from the
last decade showing that child
recruits, relative to their civilian
peers and to older recruits,
face a higher risk of mental
health and behaviour problems,
and of poorer general health
and socioeconomic outcomes
in later life. The report also
illustrated some of the reasons
why a military environment
compromises adolescent
development and exposes
children to disproportionate risk.
On all these counts, evidence has
pointed to the underdeveloped
maturity of child recruits as a
critical vulnerability.
Many of the risks associated with
military enlistment cited in this
report also aect adult recruits,
yet there is a clear inverse
relation between age and risk,
such that the youngest recruits
are the most adversely aected.
Although rates of maturation
vary between individuals of the
same age, often widely, research
has shown clearly that adults
and older adolescents are more
resilient to risk, and better able
to make complex decisions,
than they were as younger
‘[Y]oung people are a vulnerable group,
young people go on developing and their
development is not yet complete… [T]he
main focus should be on protecting those
in need of protection. What is important
to bear in mind is not the interests of
the Bundeswehr [army] but rather the
interests of children and young people.
Dr Tobias Hecker, Department of Psychology, Psychopathology and Clinical
Intervention, University of Zurich 2017 (22)
do not
states worldwide still
recruit children
Furthermore, even where the
risks faced by adult and child
recruits are the same or similar,
the standards of protection
required by law are not. States