International Standards

Child Soldiers International promotes the adoption and implementation of international legal standards protecting children from military recruitment or use in hostilities. The following is a summary of the main international and regional legal standards relating to child soldiers:

1. International Human Rights Law

Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict (OPAC): Adopted by the UN General Assembly on 25 May 2000, entered into force on 12 February 2002. OPAC sets 18 as the minimum age for direct participation in hostilities and for compulsory recruitment by state armed forces. States may accept volunteers from the age of 16 but must deposit a binding declaration at the time of ratification or accession, setting out their minimum voluntary recruitment age and outlining certain safeguards for such recruitment. OPAC also prohibits the recruitment or use in hostilities of under-18s by non-state armed groups.

For the full text of OPAC see: Optional Protocol.

Convention on the Rights of the Child: Adopted by the UN General Assembly on 20 November 1989, entered into force on 2 September 1990. The Convention on the Rights of the Child generally defines a child as any person under the age of 18. However, Article 38 uses the lower age of 15 as the minimum for recruitment or participation in armed conflict. This language is drawn from the two Additional Protocols to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 (see below).

Article 38 requires state parties to prevent anyone under the age of 15 from taking direct part in hostilities and to refrain from recruiting anyone under the age of 15 years. OPAC was drafted in order to raise the minimum ages set out in the Convention.

Visit the UN treaty dabatase for the full text of the Convention.

Implementation by State Parties of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and of its optional protocols to the Convention, including OPAC, is monitored by the (UN) Committee on the Rights of the Child.

Visit the (UN) Committee on the Rights of the Child website.

2. International Criminal Law

Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court: The Rome Statute establishes a permanent criminal court to try persons charged with committing war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

In its definition of war crimes the statute includes "conscripting or enlisting children under the age of fifteen years into national armed forces or using them to participate actively in hostilities" (Article 8(2)(b)(xxvi)) in international armed conflict; and in the case of an internal armed conflict, "conscripting or enlisting children under the age of fifteen years into armed forces or groups or using them to participate actively in hostilities" (Article 8(2)(e)(vii)).

The statute also defines sexual slavery as a war crime (Article 8(2)(b)(xxii) and Article 8(2)(e)(vii)) and a crime against humanity (Article 7(1)(g)). The treaty came into force and the court came into being on 1 July 2002.

Visit the International Criminal Court website.

3. International Labour Law

International Labour Organization (ILO) Minimum Age Convention 138: This convention was adopted on 26 June 1973 and came into force on 19 June 1976. States ratifying the convention are bound to: pursue a national policy designed to ensure the effective abolition of child labour; and raise progressively the minimum age for admission to employment or work to a level consistent with the fullest physical and mental development of young persons (Article 1). It also sets 18 years as “the minimum age for admission to employment or work which by its nature or circumstances in which it is carried out is likely to jeopardise the health, safety or morals of young persons” (Article 3).

International Labour Organization (ILO) Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention 182: This convention was adopted on 16 June 1999 and came into force on 19 November 2000. It commits each state which ratifies it to "take immediate and effective measures to secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour as a matter of urgency". The term "child" applies to all persons under the age of 18 years, and the worst forms of child labour include forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict (Article 3a).

The text of ILO Conventions 138 and 182 can be found on the ILO website.

4. International Humanitarian Law

Additional Protocols to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 (1977): The protocols set 15 as the minimum age for recruitment or use in armed conflict. This minimum standard applies to all parties, both governmental and non-governmental, in both international and internal armed conflict.

Article 77(2) of Additional Protocol I: applicable to international armed conflicts, states:
“The Parties to the conflict shall take all feasible measures in order that children who have not attained the age of fifteen years do not take a direct part in hostilities and, in particular, they shall refrain from recruiting them into their armed forces. In recruiting among those persons who have attained the age of fifteen years but who have not attained the age of eighteen years the Parties to the conflict shall endeavour to give priority to those who are oldest.”

Article 4(3)(c) of the Additional Protocol II: applicable to non-international armed conflicts, states: “Children who have not attained the age of fifteen years shall neither be recruited in the armed forces or groups nor allowed to take part in hostilities”.

Customary International Humanitarian Law
Customary international law is made up of rules that come from "a general practice accepted as law" and that exist independent of treaty law.

Rules of customary international humanitarian law provide that “children must not be recruited into armed forces or armed groups” and that “children must not be allowed to take part in hostilities”. These rules apply to both international and non-international armed conflicts.

Additional Protocols I and II and the Rules of Customary International Humanitarian Law can be found on the ICRC website.

5. Regional Standards

African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child: The Charter is the only regional treaty which addresses the issue of child soldiers. It was adopted by the Organization of African Unity (now the African Union) and came into force in November 1999.

It defines a child as anyone below 18 years of age without exception. It also states that: "States Parties to the present Charter shall take all necessary measures to ensure that no child shall take a direct part in hostilities and refrain in particular, from recruiting any child" (Article 22.2).

The text of the Charter can be found on the African Union website.

6. Principles relating to child soldiers

The Paris Commitments and Principles (2007): The Paris principles and guidelines on children associated with armed forces or armed groups (Paris Principles) and Paris commitments to protect children from unlawful recruitment or use by armed forces or armed groups (Paris Commitments) were formally endorsed by 58 states in 2007 at a meeting in France in February 2007. Their drafting followed a review of the "Cape Town Principles and Best Practice on the prevention of recruitment of children into the armed forces and on demobilization and social reintegration of child soldiers in Africa", which had been the guiding principles on child soldiers since their adoption in 1997.

The aim of the Paris Principles and Commitments is to combat the unlawful recruitment or use of children by armed forces or armed groups. Their specific objective is to prevent the occurrence of this phenomenon, to secure the release of children concerned, to support their social reintegration and to ensure that they are afforded the greatest protection possible. In adhering to the Paris Commitments, states agree to uphold certain basic principles which will allow them to achieve the set objectives. The Paris Principles give more detailed guidelines on the implementation of the Commitments. As at September 2011, 100 states had endorsed the Paris Commitments.

Text of the Paris Commitments and Principles can be found in the website of the ICRC.

7. UN Security Council children and armed conflict framework 

The UN Security Council has passed a series of resolutions condemning the recruitment and use of children in hostilities. These are resolutions 1261 (1999), 1314 (2000), 1379 (2001), 1460 (2003), 1539 (2004) and 1612 (2005), 1882 (2009) and 1998 (2011) on children and armed conflict. Resolutions can be found on the UN Security Council website.

Security Council Resolution 1379 (2001) called upon the UN Secretary-General to list parties that recruit and use children in the annual report on children and armed conflict. Killing and maiming and sexual violence in conflict (Resolution 1882 in 2009) and attacks on schools and hospitals (Resolution 1998 in 2011), were later added as criteria for listing.

Security Council Resolution 1460 (2003) requires listed parties to enter into talks with the United Nations to agree clear and time bound action plans to end child recruitment and use. The concept of action plans is now also applied more broadly to other grave violations against children for which parties can be listed.

To date, 17 listed parties have signed action plans, including five government forces and 12 non-state armed groups. Of these, five have fully complied with the action plan and were subsequently de-listed.

Security Council Resolution 1612 established the monitoring and reporting mechanism (MRM) on grave violations against children in armed conflict. The purpose of the MRM is to provide for the systematic gathering of accurate, timely and objective information on grave violations committed against children in armed conflict.

Security Council Resolution 1612 (2005) also established the Security Council Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict which consists of the 15 Security Council members. The Working Group reviews UN Secretary-General reports on children in armed conflict in specific country situations and makes recommendations to parties to conflict, Governments and donors, as well as UN actors on measures to promote the protection of war-affected children.

For information on action plans, MRM and the Security Council Working Group see the website of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict.

8. Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict

The Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict serves as an independent advocate for the protection and well-being of children affected by armed conflict, working with partners to enhance their protection and facilitating through diplomatic and humanitarian initiatives the work of operational actors on the ground. The mandate of the SRSG was first established by UN General Assembly of resolution 51/77 of 12 December 1996.

The current SRSG is Leila Zerrougui, who was appointed by the UN Secretary-General in July 2012