Over the past 40 years, international law has developed to better protect children from military exploitation.

In 1977, the Additional Protocols to the 1949 Geneva Conventions prohibited the military recruitment and use of children under the age of 15, which is now recognised as a war crime under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (2002). It applies to both government-controlled armed forces and non-state armed groups.

The prohibition on the use of children under 15 was reaffirmed in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), which also defined a child for the first time as any person under the age of 18.

The standard was raised again by the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, also known as OPAC (2000). OPAC was the world’s first international treaty wholly focused on ending the military exploitation of children. The treaty prohibits the conscription of children under the age of 18 and their participation in hostilities. It also prohibits the voluntary recruitment of children by non-state armed groups, although it allows state armed forces to recruit from age 16, as long as the children recruited are not sent to war.

Most states have now signed OPAC, which is (slowly) driving the world towards a de facto ban on the use of children in warfare. As of 2018, 167 of 197 UN Member States have ratified OPAC - Central African Republic was the latest country to do so in September 2017. 

But the double-standard that applies to state and non-state recruitment of children is hampering international efforts to persuade non-state armed groups to release the children they have recruited.

Nonetheless, states that sign OPAC can commit to a higher recruitment age if they wish to do so, which then cannot be lowered. Most states have done this. Two-thirds of the world’s governments now only allow the military recruitment of adult volunteers from age 18. Among those that have so far resisted this are the USA (which recruit from age 17) and the UK (which recruits from age 16). Both had insisted on the OPAC double-standard at the time of its negotiation.

Other international laws have also helped to raise standards. For example, the International Labour Organization's Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention 182 (1999) also prohibits compulsory enlistment below the age of 18. The African Union’s Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child (1999) prohibits state armed forces from recruiting volunteers under the age of 18.

A more detailed breakdown of the main international and regional legal standards relating to child soldiers are summarised here.

Our impact

Child Soldiers International evolved from a coalition of organisations, which worked together to bring OPAC into being, by building international support for it, helping to draft it, and ensuring it was widely adopted. Today we campaign for the universal adoption of OPAC, we support UN bodies to hold governments to account on their commitments, and we engage with governments themselves to encourage rising standards, so that fewer children are subject to military exploitation. We are also training governments, parliamentarians, armed forces and communities around the world on OPAC and its practical implementation. We research and highlight the impact of military marketing, recruitment and training on young people.

What can be done?

Child Soldiers International is working with others to develop and implement the highest possible standards of child protection in relation to military exploitation. To the same end, we are promoting universal adoption of OPAC and advocate that age 18 should be the minimum age for military recruitment of any kind.

Photo © Ryan Roco/Child Soldiers International