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Child Soldiers: Justice, Myths, and Prevention

By Mark A. Drumbl


Because of the Kony 2012 campaign, everyone is talking about the Lord’s Resistance Army, its deranged leadership, and its many victims in northern Uganda, notably child soldiers. Talk is intense.

Amid the constant chatter, however, two crucial issues remain neglected. First, what does justice mean for child soldiers? Second, what contribution does Kony 2012 make to the prevention of child soldiering world-wide?

The Kony 2012 campaign encourages LRA leader Joseph Kony’s capture and transfer to the International Criminal Court in The Hague to face a slew of charges. Included among these charges is the war crime of unlawful recruitment, enlistment, or active use of children under the age of fifteen in hostilities. Coincidentally, last week the ICC entered its first conviction. The defendant, Thomas Lubanga, is a rebel warlord from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Notwithstanding his implication in systematic killings and sexual torture, Lubanga faced only one charge, namely, unlawful recruitment of child soldiers.

Although it remains a war crime to recruit children younger than fifteen, international law increasingly understands child soldiers as being under the age of eighteen. Most child soldiers, after all, are not young children. Most are adolescents, with many aged between fifteen and seventeen. The very young child soldier is an extreme case. Focusing on the extremes, however compelling, also sensationalizes.

Criminally prosecuting and convicting commanders who unlawfully recruit children into armed forces or groups is a step towards justice. But it is only a small step. It is easy to blame a handful of crazed commanders for child soldiering. But the ease of blame fails to uproot the many factors that conspire to facilitate child soldiering. These factors include the small arms trade, state political alliances, poverty, and illegal export of pilfered natural resources. The criminal law presents the allure of the quick-fix — if a couple of evildoers are convicted, the job is done, and justice has been achieved. Such closure, however, is premature. Justice entails much more. It requires reintegrating child soldiers into their communities and supporting local actors. It requires listening to former child soldiers and their priorities, which often include education, reconciliation, and jobs — not distant trials. It requires restoration for persons affected by the violent acts of child soldiers. At times, ironically, long-term justice may depend on short-term injustice. In Uganda, generous use of amnesties from criminal prosecution has helped weaken the LRA by encouraging fighters to abandon the group.

The Kony 2012 campaign and the Lubanga conviction are catalyzing events, to be sure. But these catalyzing events also have a shadow side. The image of child soldiering that they communicate to the public is not representative of the complexities of child soldiering as a whole.

The image du jour of the child soldier is Africanized. Yet only about 40% of child soldiers world-wide are in Africa. Child soldiering is a global phenomenon. The image du jour is of the abducted child soldier barely able to carry automatic weaponry and ammunition belts slung across shoulders and waists. Although this may be the case for LRA child conscripts, world-wide most child soldiers are neither abducted nor forcibly conscripted. Overall, approximately two-thirds of child soldiers exercise some initiative in coming forward to enroll. Frequently, this volunteerism is chimerical. But, at other times, it is quite real. Young people sign up to achieve political goals, topple dictators, acquire training, achieve economic gains, serve their community, and make the best of a bad situation. They suffer terribly in conflict, but it can be counterproductive to stylize child soldiers as dehumanized tools of war. Treating them as automatons programmed to kill disparages their humanity, resilience, and potential. Defining them as devastated and damaged victims may morph into a self-fulfilling prophecy that, in turn, underachieves rehabilitative programming and juvenile rights.

The image du jour also tends to portray child soldiers as boys. Yet it is estimated that nearly 40% of child soldiers are girls. Regardless of their gender, child soldiers often do not carry weapons. Only a few are implicated in serially committing acts of atrocity. The focus on militarized youth, in turn, should not distract from the need to develop remedial measures for youth associated with criminal syndicates and youth imprisoned for criminal offenses in harsh conditions, a theme addressed at the Youth and Justice blog.

The way we imagine a challenge determines how we go about solving it. At present, what we imagine child soldiers to be reflects a partial print of what child soldiering actually is. When it comes to preventing child soldiering and delivering justice, capturing Kony and convicting Lubanga represent only a starting point, not an endgame.

Mark A. Drumbl is the author of Reimagining Child Soldiers in International Law and Policy. He is the Class of 1975 Alumni Professor of Law, and Director of the Transnational Law Institute, at Washington and Lee University. He has held visiting appointments with a number of law faculties, including Oxford, Paris II (Pantheon-Assas), Trinity College-Dublin, Melbourne, and Ottawa. Drumbl has lectured and published extensively on public international law, international criminal law, and transitional justice. His first book Atrocity, Punishment, and International Law (CUP, 2007) has been widely reviewed and critically acclaimed. He initially became interested in international criminal justice through his work in the Rwandan genocide jails. Drumbl holds degrees in law and politics from McGill University, University of Toronto, and Columbia University.

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  1. [...] piece originally appeared in OUPblog, the blog of Oxford University Press Tweet This entry was posted in Updates by John [...]

  2. John Wilson

    There are plenty of books about child soldiers who served voluntarily in the American Revolution. Many of them died, mostly due to disease and exposure. But those stories aren’t really Newberry Award winners.

  3. [...] most certainly did not know this (from the Oxford University Press blog): Because of the Kony 2012 campaign, everyone is talking [...]

  4. [...] of 1975 Alumni Professor of Law and Director of the Transnational Law Institute, posted on the Oxford University Press Blog about child soldiers. The piece addresses the two points that Prof. Drumbl believes are overlooked in the recent [...]

  5. Laura

    This blog was very informational and brought up a few points that had never occurred to me. Even though I am glad the whole Kony idea was brought into the lives of this country, I was surprised to read that only 40% of the child soldiers are from Africa. It really shows how much someone can really be oblivious to the big issues that are going on in this world. Also, the information on the girl child soldiers is very surprising because I would feel like they would see girls as incapable of a soldiers work. Then again, I also fail to acknowledge the fact that the girls are sexually abused and done such by much older men. I am looking forward to properly educating myself on the topic of children soldiers so that these facts are not missing from my understanding and so that I can fully understand the injustice children soldiers really is.

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