- Physical, psychological and sexual abuse endemic
- Consent arrangements legally inadequate
- Recruitment and training practices ‘exploit young people

London, 25 May 2018 

Young people considering a military career face misinformation, weak consent arrangements, routine ill-treatment during training, and an unacceptable risk of mental health problems as a result of joining too young, according to Child Soldiers International's new report into the enlistment of teenagers, published today.

Why 18 Matters examines recruitment and training practices of economically-developed states, drawing on over 200 academic and official sources and the testimony of recruits. It shows how some of the world’s most economically-developed nations capitalise on the social, economic and psychological vulnerabilities of disadvantaged adolescents to meet recruiting targets. In so doing, the authors claim, these states may be violating their commitments under international law.

The report explains that international law allows state armed forces to enlist and train, but not deploy, children aged 16 or 17, provided their best interests are safeguarded throughout. It shows, however, that applicants and their parents are inadequately informed about the risks and obligations of a military career. The coercive nature of military training violates the minimum safeguards required under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict. Referring to neuroscientific research charting the effect of stress on the adolescent brain, the report argues that the coercive and often abusive nature of a military environment introduces multiple risks to young people in their adolescence.

Campaigners have challenged the UK, the US, Germany and other states on the ethics of recruiting minors for many years, but this is the first time the fundamental legality of the practice is being questioned.

The report claims that it is common practice among developed state armed forces to target adolescents from socioeconomically deprived backgrounds for enlistment. The report cites official military research from Canada, France, the UK, and the US which has found the youngest recruits are most at risk of sexual assault in the military; it also highlights harrowing investigations into cases of alleged rape and sexual assault of child recruits in Australia and Germany. Testimonies from recruits in the UK, the Netherlands and elsewhere indicate that physical and psychological abuse are routine in army training.

The report also examines recent developments in neuroscience revealing the susceptibility of the adolescent brain to emotive marketing, which is used widely by state armed forces. The research further shows that a chronically stressful environment, such as is found in military training, can impede psychological development and magnify the risk of long-term mental health problems. This combination, the authors argue, makes teenagers prime targets for army recruiters but also increases the risk of lasting psychological harm.

Other issues highlighted include:

  • The targeting of ethnic minority children in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the US. In New Zealand, 30% of armed forces recruits are of Maori background, double the proportion in the general population.
  • The inadequate protection of child recruits from exposure to hostilities, which is a legal obligation on states. National policies in the UK, US, New Zealand and Australia subordinate the need to keep child recruits out of conflict to the need to maintain ‘operational effectiveness’.
  • Increased suicide and attempted suicide rates among the youngest recruits compared to civilian peers or adult soldiers in Australia, Canada, the UK, and the US. The suicide rate of Australian veterans aged under 24 is twice the rate of civilian peers.
  • An increased risk of violent behaviour among young recruits in Canada, Germany, the UK and the US.

“In many countries the popular myth of the army as a benevolent institution which “saves” disadvantaged and vulnerable young people from an uncertain future remains pervasive. This report deconstructs that myth,” said Rachel Taylor, director of programmes at Child Soldiers International. “The research clearly shows that military life is universally and profoundly unsuitable for adolescents.

“For many years states have assumed that if they are not routinely deploying child recruits in hostilities, they are abiding by their commitments under international law. But this is not the case. States have far wider responsibilities towards children, including the obligation to prioritise the best interests of the child in all circumstances, protect them from physical and mental harm, and ensure their highest possible standard of health. Enlisting children into the military is fundamentally incompatible with any of these.”

Justice Renate Winter, chairperson, UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, said: “Why are States still interested in enlisting children, even if there is no war, no pressing need? Maybe because this way statistics for jobless youth look better?

“Instead of finding the glamorous, heroic environment described to them in recruitment advertising, they often find harsh conditions, bullying, humiliation used as a means of control, restriction of freedom of movement, and, even more important, restriction of freedom of thinking or expression. Is there anyone who really believes that a military school is a place for discussion and individual development? Is it not rather a place to learn, above all, to obey as a reflex?”

Reem Abu-Hayyeh, peace and security campaigner at public health charity Medact, said: "Evidence shows the youngest recruits to the military are more likely than both their adult and civilian counterparts to develop mental health disorders such as post-traumatic stress and anxiety, and face higher levels of self-harm and suicide.

“The period of adolescence has been described as a 'window of vulnerability' due to ongoing changes in the brain; and adolescents are more susceptible to long-term damage as a result of acute stress and traumatic experiences.”

Notes for Editors

  • Why 18 Matters brings together for the first-time research from over a dozen economically developed nations, analysing how and why their armed forces recruit children under the age of 18, the impact this has on them, and how it may violate states’ obligations under international law
  • In a typical 12-month period more than 20,000 16- and 17-year-olds are recruited by militaries of G7 nations. Italy and Japan are the only G7 members which do not enlist below the age of 18.
  • In absolute terms, the US recruits the most under-18s – 16,188 17-year-olds were enlisted in 2015 (seven per cent of the year’s total recruitment intake, most recent year for which figures are available). As a percentage, the UK recruits the highest number of children – 20 per cent of UK armed forces recruits were under 18 in 2016 (2,410 recruits). Nine per cent of German recruitment intake (2,128 recruits) were aged 17 in 2017.
  • Globally, 46 countries still recruit under-18s into their armed forces and 17 of these still recruit 16-year-old children. The UK is the only European country which enlists at 16.
  • The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict allow states to recruit below the age of 18, but only where specific criteria are met. These include the requirement for states to:
    • Take all feasible measures to prevent under-18s participating in hostilities;
    • Ensure recruits and their parents give fully informed, genuine, voluntary consent to enlistment;
    • The best interests of the child are prioritised in all circumstances;
    • The child’s right to be protected from violence and abuse, including physical or degrading punishment, is upheld.

Contact: Chris Matthews at [email protected] / +44 207 324 4641