Human Rights Law and International Humanitarian Law prohibit the recruitment of children as soldiers and the otherwise use of them in hostilities. Protocol II (which applies during conflicts of a non-international character), the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict and international customary law compose the protective grid around minor exploitation in the battlefield. The recruitment and use of children during conflict is one of the six grave violations of international law condemned by the UN Security Council.
However, the number of children soldiers has significantly increased on a global scale, with the total number of whom fluctuating between 30.000 and 100.000. As underlying reasons for this rising trend have been identified amongst others the ability of children to carry and use the simplified light weapons of the 21st century, the capability to intimidate them easier than adults and force them to execute orders, and their limited ability to demand salary or quid pro quo. At the same time, orphaned children might seek for a shield in the army as a way to survive, while others who have been living in long-standing conflicts, perceive conflict as a permanent way of life and they might just choose to fight.
In war-torn Syria, Human Rights Watch interviewed 25 children that had somehow gotten involved with the following armed groups: the Free Syrian Army (FSA); Ahrar al-Sham; Jabhat al-Nusra; the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS); and the Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (YPG) as well as the Asayish (Kurdish Peoples’ Defense Forces and police force). As reasons for doing so, they mentioned their wish for revenge after Government security forces had detained and/or tortured them; alongside with other family members or friends; because they had the desire to fight. In other cases, children were recruited by armed groups from local communities and refugee camps, or from neighbouring countries, such as Lebanon and Jordan.
In Yemen, more than 1000 children have been forced to fight in the civil war that convulses the country since 2012. Houthi rebels are reportedly responsible for the majority of use of children in the confrontations. However, according to the same source, government forces also used minor soldiers in their ranks. Saudi Arabia’s support to the government was also expressed by paying as much as 10,000$ to ‘’imported’’ Sudanese fighters, minors included, NY Times report. However, the Saudi-led coalition has denied the allegations.
The Islamist armed group Al-Shabaab, which means youth, in Somalia targets -not surprisingly considering its name- underage soldiers. Quranic schools play a significant role in minors’ recruitment since young boys are introduced to rational Islamic doctrines, or, occasionally they are forcefully taken from there to training camps. The group has reportedly demanded from local communities in rural areas to provide boys as young as 8 and announced reprisals against those who refused.
According to UNICEF, more than 3,500 children, aged between 13 and 17, were recruited by armed militant groups between 2013 and 2017 and have been used in hostilities in northeast Nigeria. The case of Nigeria is a reminder that not only boys become a target for armed groups. In 2014, Boko Haram abducted at least 276 schoolgirls in Chibok, creating an endless wait since many of them are still missing until today. Amnesty International commented that at least 2,000 women and girls have been abducted by Boko Haram since the start of 2014 and many have been forced into sexual slavery and trained to fight.