The existence of children enlisted in armed groups poses difficult questions to moral and political philosophers regarding our assumptions about what childhood is, or the relationship between victimhood and criminality, or autonomy, dependence and vulnerability. This post aims to briefly introduce how discourses on child soldiers can be morally problematic. The post is based on a forthcoming chapter (co-authored by Alexandra Echeverry) on child soldiers in Colombia.
In the movie Monos, a group of teenage guerrilla soldiers guard a kidnapped prisoner, and tend their cow. Through this simple plot, the film portrays the inner tensions, the plurality of roles, and the complex relationships between children in their condition as children, and their status as soldiers.
The recruitment and use of children in armed conflict is a practice prevalent in all continents. Around 20 percent of UN member states allow minors (of 16 or 17) to enlist to their armed forces, including the United Kingdom, Canada, France and the United States. Child soldiers are considered to be involved in at least three quarters of current armed conflicts around the world, and armed groups in Africa, Asia and South America use children in hostilities (in the Central African Republic alone, more 14.000 children have been recruited in the last 8 years alone. They play a variety of roles, from combatants, wives, and bomb planters, to nurses, cooks or spies. Determining the exact number of child soldiers is difficult due to lack of accessibility to the regions where they are most prevalent, but it is estimated that the are currently more than a 100.000 active child soldiers, with about 40 percent being girls. The database of the Child Soldiers World Index will be active in mid-2022.
The notion of a ‘child soldier’ challenges some of our deepest held conceptual intuitions. We tend to imagine ‘childhood’ as a protected space, one that reflects the dependence, vulnerability, naivety, and innocence of a child. However, the idea of a ‘soldier’ forces us to reimagine the child in a radically opposing manner: as self-reliant, resilient, aggressive and violent. How can an innocent, vulnerable and dependent being be, at the same time, violent, aggressive and resilient?
This seeming oxymoron affects our moral judgment. When deliberating over how to deal with child soldiers, we feel that we must choose between treating them as children, or treating them as soldiers. It’s a binary opposition: either they are victims of war or they are perpetrators of war. This tension opens difficult questions from a perspective of justice. Most child soldiers are enlisted in armed groups which can commit terrible atrocities against the civil population. ISIS in the Middle East, Boko Haram in North West Africa, guerrilla and paramilitary groups in Colombia (and many National Armies as well) are some examples of armed forces that have terrorised, murdered, kidnapped, raped and pillaged their own populations. What does justice require for child soldiers and children engaged with armed groups in cases such as these? Ought they be considered as perpetrators of crime, even if they may have been coerced to play an active role in hostilities? Or should they be understood strictly as victims of war, despite of the active role they may have played in conflict?
In this post, I aim to briefly present the binary discourses of child soldiers (as victims and as criminals), and to explore the reasons why this strict opposition between victimhood and criminality fails to grasp the complexity of child soldiering, neglecting the lived experiences and sundry realities of these children, and how these should influence our moral evaluation of the subject.
Children as Victims
Grounded on international law, and supported by most social activism on subject, the standard discourse and politics that deal with children engaged in armed conflict considers that child soldiers are children first: they are vulnerable, easily manipulated, exploitable, and innocent. Their enlistment in armed groups cannot be considered an autonomous choice; and if they are not autonomous, they cannot be held responsible for their actions. In other words: child soldiers ought to be considered as victims rather than perpetrators of crime during armed conflict.
Because of being children, child soldiers are necessarily faultless of any action committed during armed conflict as they are, by definition, incapable of understanding the consequences of their actions, and too immature to consent to the acts that they commit. Moreover, the circumstances under which they enrol into armed groups (usually tied to poverty, destitution, and threat of death to them or family members) implies that they are under vulnerable conditions in which they are not capable of dissenting from the behaviour expected by their superiors.
Moral agency is considered as entirely absent or “systematically subverted” in their circumstances (as Jeff McMahan states). Thus, regardless of the actions they may have carried out while enlisted as soldiers, and regardless of the voluntariness of their decision to take part in armed conflict, they are defined as unable to make a truly voluntary decision, nor to understand the risks and moral complications of their actions.
But, why is this narrative so predominant? In part, creating a blanket discourse of all children as victims is a necessary consequence of the binary opposition of adulthood and childhood. Clear and distinguishable categories are used as “legal fictions” to make more manageable the operationalisation of resources and policy. Coordinating international action, marshalling resources, and facilitating children’s reintegration to their communities requires a clear and straight narrative that admonishes them from blame or liability. International support for the reintegration of children formerly engaged in armed conflict depend on the image of the child soldier as ‘victim’ in order to accrue compassion and help. Moreover, local communities may be reticent of the return of demobilised child soldiers to their towns; victimhood attempts to convince the local population that these children are not at fault. It aims, not only at the community perceive them as ‘victims’, but for the demobilised child soldiers to believe it and sell it also.
Children as Perpetrators of Crime
In stark opposition to the ‘victim’ narrative, it is not surprising to find journalistic accounts, government declarations, and local responses that stand in radical denial of the claim of child soldiers’ victimhood; they are often portrayed as irredeemable, as rotten, as incorrigible, and, in short, as nothing but criminals.
The criminal narrative stems from various sources. First, child soldiers are regularly forced by their superiors to commit acts of atrocity within their ranks or on their local communities in order to prove their allegiance and their commitment to the group. This means that in many instances, the image that these children leave in their local towns are of violence and cruelty. Many former child soldiers themselves grapple with the ambiguity of their guilt and responsibility. Arn Chorn-Pond former child soldier enlisted in the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia reflects: “I continue to think that inside of me I am a perpetrator and a victim. And that inside of me I’ve never thought I’m a good person. I always think I’m a bad kid and I’m a bad person.”
Moreover, despite that official governmental discourses on child soldiers emphasise the victim narrative, this discourse tends to shift when needed, in order to justify military actions by the government forces on armed groups. For example, in two separate bombings of guerrilla and dissident bases in 2021 in Colombia (March and September), five minors were killed. Diego Molano, current Colombian Minister of Defence, in both instances has justified the act by putting the blame on the groups that have recruited children, and by appealing to the justifiability of the act due to the high profile of the other targets killed in the attack (El Espectador 2021). Molano went as far as to claim that children enrolled in armed groups have been transformed into “war machines”, which made them legitimate government targets (Turkewitz and Villamil 2021).
Portrayal of child soldiers as villainous criminals can work as a strategy to justify certain government actions, but it also reflects the relationship and fear that many local communities have regarding the return of former child soldiers. Many child soldiers have to pass through gruesome initiation processes in which, in many cases, they ought to prove their allegiance to the armed group by burning their bridges with their communities. This means that their return may not be as simple, as local communities may be reticent of accepting their return.
The Problem with Binaries
Strict narratives of child soldiers, be them as victims or as perpetrators serve particular political purposes. As to victimhood, this discourse aims to improve community support, funding and backing for organisations that support the reintegration processes of former child soldiers (Salamanca Sarmiento 2019: see chapter 4). On the other hand, criminal narratives serve a fundamental political purpose: governments use them to justify violent action against armed groups. A first issue, thus, with this strict construction of narratives is the strategic selectivity inherent in their use.
While victimhood serves a valuable strategic purpose (gathering support and funding for the reintegration of former child soldiers into society), its focus on highlighting the vulnerability, trauma, and need for protection tends to work against an acknowledgement of children’s agency, and the potentially active role they should play in their reintegration into their communities, and in dealing with their own actions and past (see Derluyn et al. 2015). In an interview with Salamanca Sarmiento (see 2019: 106), a demobilised Colombian child soldier, after watching a documentary on the impact of armed conflict on a civilian population, mentioned his feeling of guilt and responsibility over the actions he had done while in conflict, and that he wanted to make amends and deal with his responsibility. Experts in charge of his reintegration process denied him from acting on his responsibility by claiming that “He is a child, he needs to study, that’s his only responsibility.” By being labelled exclusively as victim of conflict he was barred from actively engaging with his responsibility and his feeling of guilt.
Strict constructions can lead to “narrative tensions” for the former child soldiers themselves, and for the social workers and other people working with them. The simplification of the diverse realities and lived experiences of individual child soldiers into binary categories restricts children’s capability to engage with their lives, their past and their futures as active agents. It demands from them to accommodate to and internalise their status.
Former child soldiers reintegration process requires accounting for their subjective experience, and their age, gender, disability, ethnicity and etc. The reasons why children and adolescents take part in armed conflict, their experiences while in conflict, their relationship with their local communities and their past all differ to such a high extent, that attempting to box them into neat categories does not benefit them.
This phenomenon, as applied to child soldiers, reflects the wider problem on how children and childhood are categorised and homogenised more generally. The fact that we determine how children ought to be treated based on strict age categories traps actual children’s lived experiences into idealised, and sometimes corrosive categories.
In the case of child soldiers, assuming the absolute victimhood of minors fails to perceive them as active agents who, in many cases, have enrolled voluntarily and willingly into armed conflict. In his memoire, Santiago L., a demobilised child soldier enlisted in the FARC-EP (Revolutionary Armed Forced of Colombia) when he was 12 years-old, portrays a picture of the engagement of children in armed conflict very different from the pure victimhood discourse. Despite some family issues and an unstable home environment, before enlisting with the FARC-EP, Santiago had sufficient opportunities in life. He had access to an education, he had guardians who took care of him, fed him, gave him work. He had trouble, however, staying in one place and keeping a routine, so he moved from aunt, to uncle, to brother, to friend, till he ended up going to a FARC-EP meeting in town, and requested to enlist in the guerrilla army. He was not forced to do so, he was not even asked to enlist; Santiago went to the woods out of his own accord, and, despite the hesitance of the officers to recruit someone that young, he insisted that he wanted to be a soldier.
As Mark Drumbl argues, reflecting on the ICC trail against former child soldier and one of the leader’s of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda, Dominic Ongwen, “There is great diversity in how children enter conflict and, once in conflict, what they do. Recognizing this diversity is essential to the success of individual reintegration.” Ogwen was abducted by the LRA when he was around 12 years-old, later to become a leader of the group, committing the same crime of abducting and recruiting child soldiers as he suffered in his preteens. Is he simply a criminal? Or should he count as a victim of the system that created him?
The discourses that conceptualise child soldiers in a particular way have a strong impact on how society perceives them, on how policy-makers and politicians deal with them, how they are treated by the legal and judicial systems, and, very importantly, how former child combatants perceive themselves, their past and their role in their reintegration process. Strict distinctions between victims and perpetrators, between vulnerable and autonomous individuals, and between guilty and innocent parties clash with the reality that children live in armed conflict. While appealing to the vulnerability, innocence and victimhood of children ensures they are provided with safeguards and special protections; these discourses omit an important part of what these children and youths have lived through, and how they deal with their own life and choices. They incapacitate these individuals in an important way; they restrict an individual’s capacity to affront their actions, and it limits their understanding of themselves as active and autonomous agents capable of making choices, making mistakes, and working to amend the errors in their past.
This feeling of being silenced is very prominent in reflections of former child soldiers. Take the case of Jazmín, a 16 year-old girl demobilised from an armed group in Colombia:
“Everyone judges me without knowing my past […] When I talk and unburden myself, people judge me. I cry for my childhood. When I want to share what I live they don’t listen because they say I’m strong. I want someone to listen. I don’t want pity, I don’t want compassion, I don’t want to be that person who’s alive but dead; I don’t want these pills that make me keep quiet.” (translated by the author).
This silencing and incapacitating of child soldiers is particularly concerning as it relates to girls. Gendered assumptions abound regarding the roles and attitudes of girl child soldiers. Research by Nabuco Martuschelli and Bandarra (2020) with girl soldiers in Colombia portray the obstacles (the triple silencing) that affect demobilised girl soldiers due to them being stereotyped and homogenised to traditional gender expectations in the media, by public authorities and in their communities. Asking the girl soldiers, and various other groups in civil society (students, teachers and police officers) about the reasons why children enlist in armed groups, showed that while almost half of the girl soldiers (46 percent) considered their enrolment as a voluntary choice made because it suited their interests, goals and desires, around 70 percent of the individuals from civil society assumed them as necessarily being involved as victims (i.e. due to coercion, poverty or domestic violence) (Carmona Parra et al. 2012). See a concise and clear reflection by Rose Khan on the impact of gendered stereotypes and norms on how girl soldiers are presumed and treated.
On the other hand, discourses of full autonomy, of guilt, and of child soldiers as fully conscious and voluntary perpetrators of crime omit to consider the conditions under which many of these children and youth came into armed conflict. They neglect (sometimes on purpose) the social and economic conditions which force many children to take part in armed conflict, and they are blind to the plural roles that children may play in armed groups, and the most often exploitative, oppressive, and harmful conditions with which they have to coexist while in conflict. As Bandy Brian, another demobilised child soldier in Colombia reflects:
All my life I’ve been criticised for my past but no one understands that I had only one bifurcation in my path. I had to choose, and I chose the path I chose because I thought it was the best for me at the moment. But I was mistaken, and that’s when my horrible past (that I wish to forget) began.
15-year-old former child combatant, Bandy Brayan (translated by the author)
Even if testimonies from demobilised child soldiers point towards a more autonomous and self-assertive understanding of their relationship and enrolment with armed groups, the fact that many of these choices tend to be made under duress, and in a context of poverty, need and violence, must make us take any absolute statement with a pinch of salt.
This post’s objective was very humble. Namely, to provide a first point of reflection on the issues surrounding child soldiers, and how assumptions about who a child is can reflect and effect strongly how they are treated and recognised as moral subjects. The case of child soldiers opens up important questions about our assumptions of what characterises children, how our assumptions about childhood affect their treatment, or the difficult relationship between autonomy, dependence, victimhood and criminality evolve in particular scenarios.
NOTE: I’ve consciously only provided links to sources which are accessible to everyone: either open-access papers, or public sources. I’ve thus omitted all sources which are only accessible to the academic community (such as paywalled academic publishers). This is done in order to ensure that everyone can follow the debate.
This research was funded by the British Academy through the Newton International Fellowship funds.