The armed forces should stop recruiting children under the age of 18, according to an open letter to the Ministry of Defence from national children’s organisations and rights groups.

The children’s rights alliances for England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are among the signatories of an open letter to the Ministry of Defence, made public today, calling for an immediate end to the recruitment of under-18s. The signatories, which also include the Children’s Commissioners for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, call on the MoD to raise the recruitment age in line with the recommendations of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child. (The Children’s Commissioner for England has previously indicated her support for this issue). The letter points out that the UK is the only country in Europe to allow enlistment from age 16 – most countries worldwide now only allow adults from age 18 to join military forces, recognising that enlistment at younger ages is not appropriate in modern armed forces.

The letter has been made public on the same day that the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child begins its periodic examination of the UK’s record on child rights. The last time the UK appeared before the Committee, in 2008, it was urged to raise the enlistment age to 18. The Committee also expressed concern about the MoD’s deliberate targeting of children from economically deprived areas. (i)

The letter recognises the appeal of an armed forces career for many young people but argues that “in view of the risks and legal obligations involved, the choice to enlist should be fully informed and only made once young people have reached the age of legal majority”. Signatories also highlighted the elevated risks incurred by those who enlist as children, as the majority join frontline combat roles where risks are higher than average over the course of their military career.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child requires states to prioritise older recruits for enlistment. Despite this, in its current report to the Committee the UK government has admitted it intends to increase the number of children it recruits, in order to compensate for recruitment shortfalls. (ii)

Rachel Taylor, Programme Manager at Child Soldiers International, said: “The Ministry of Defence claims that targeting disadvantaged and often vulnerable young people for premature enlistment is in their best interests. Children’s rights experts at the UN and across the UK are unanimous in stating that it is not. We urge the Minister to listen to and respect the expertise of these specialists.”

“Enlisting minors is an outdated practice. There are better ways for the MoD to engage with young people interested in a military career, which better protect their welfare in both the short and long term.”

Research by Child Soldiers International has found that:

  • The majority of enlisted minors join frontline combat roles where risks are higher than average over the course of their military career, despite the ban on deployment to war zones until the age of 18. A study found that recruits who enlisted at 16 and completed training were twice as likely to be killed in Afghanistan as those who enlisted aged 18 and above. (iii)
  • The terms and conditions of employment for minors in the army would be unlawful in civilian life. For example, army recruits aged under 18 can be made to serve in the army for up to two years longer than adult recruits. A judicial review of the terms of service was brought against the MoD by Child Soldiers International in 2015 and is pending appeal.
  • Education provided to the youngest army recruits is rudimentary. The armed forces are exempt from the standards in the Education and Skills Act 2008 governing minimum participation in education while under the age of 18. Further information available here.
  • The recruitment of minors in the UK may be unlawful, due to inadequate safeguards on ensuring that the consent obtained from recruits and their parents is fully informed. Children can enlist into the army without their parents meeting recruiters at any stage, as long as a parent’s signature is provided. The army has admitted it has no way to verify the authenticity of these signatures. Further information available here.
  • Army staff training, working with and living alongside minors are not legally required to have the basic criminal record checks which would be essential pre-requisites for staff at a boarding school or sixth form college. Despite MoD policy requiring that such checks should take place for staff at the Army Foundation College in Harrogate, a former staff member has confirmed that new staff often begin work before checks have been completed.

ENDS

Notes for Editors

1. Child Soldiers International is an international human rights research and advocacy organisation seeking to end the military recruitment and the use in hostilities, in any capacity, of any person under the age of 18. www.child-soldiers.org

2. The full list of co-signatories to the letter is:

  • Amnesty UK
  • British Institute of Human Rights
  • Child Soldiers International
  • Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland
  • Children England
  • Children in Scotland
  • Children in Wales
  • Children’s Commissioner for Wales
  • Children’s Rights Alliance England (CRAE)
  • Just Fair
  • Liberty
  • Medact
  • National Union of Teachers
  • Northern Ireland Children’s Law Centre
  • Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People
  • The Who Cares? Trust
  • Together (Scottish Alliance for Children’s Rights)
  • Unicef UK
  • Wales Observatory on Human Rights of Children and Young People
  • Wales UNCRC Monitoring Group

3. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child is holding its 72nd session from 17 May to 3 June in Geneva. The UK is scheduled for examination on 23 and 24 May. More information, including a copy of the UK government’s report on its implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the alternative report prepared by the national NGO coalition, is available at http://www.ohchr.org/EN/HRBodies/CRC/Pages/CRCIndex.aspx.

4. An independent nationwide poll conducted by Ipsos MORI on behalf of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust Ltd in July 2014 found that 77 per cent of respondents who expressed a view thought the recruitment age should be raised to 18 or above. Only 14 per cent thought it should be 16. Surveys were conducted across the country and the results were weighted to the profile of all adults. ICM is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Full results of the poll available http://forceswatch.net//sites/default/files/IPSOSsurvey2014-Forces_age.pdf.

5. The Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, has stated that she supports the campaign to raise the enlistment age to 18. In February, 2015, the Children’s Commissioners for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland issued a joint statement to Child Soldiers International, stating: 'The UK is the only state in Europe to recruit 16 year olds into the armed forces. We support the growing global consensus that the minimum age for entry into the armed forces in the UK, should be raised, to 18, as children should not be involved in hostilities, either directly or indirectly, and to protect their mental health, education and long-term life chances, especially those in our most disadvantaged communities who – evidence shows – tend to be those being recruited at the youngest ages.'

References

(i) See Committee on the Rights of the Child Concluding Observations on United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland CRC/C/OPAC/GBR/CO/1 17 October 2008. Available at http://tbinternet.ohchr.org/_layouts/treatybodyexternal/Download.aspx?symbolno=CRC%2fC%2fOPAC%2fGBR%2fCO%2f1&Lang=en

(ii) See Notes for Editors (3) above.

(iii) See Child Soldiers International / ForcesWatch “Young age at Army enlistment is associated with greater war zone risks”. August 2013. Available at http://www.child-soldiers.org/research_report_reader.php?id=699