Child Soldiers Pose a National Security Threat
In the United States, one such effort is the Child Soldiers Prevention Act (CSPA), which seeks to encourage countries to stop recruiting and using child soldiers by leveraging U.S. security assistance. Under the CSPA, countries identified by the State Department as using or supporting the use of child soldiers are prohibited from receiving U.S. weapons and certain types of military assistance, unless they receive a waiver from the president. The United States has invoked such national-interest waivers more often than not, however, and allowed nearly $1.7 billion in military assistance to flow to thirteen countries known to use/support the use of child soldiers since the CSPA was enacted—thereby effectively giving a pass to governments that routinely exploit children in their national militaries or government-supported armed groups.
What is needed, then, is not only broader application and implementation of the CSPA, but also potential reframing of the broader issues surrounding the recruitment and use of child soldiers so as to better prepare U.S. military personnel for situations in which they may encounter children in combat roles. This includes awareness raising in advance of operations that may encounter child soldiers, as well as post-deployment counseling to deal with the aftermath of engagement with children in conflict.
The United States could also adopt bureaucratic changes to address the use of child soldiers. While the United States is not Canada, and it plays a different role in military operations around the world, an adapted Canada doctrine may be appropriate for the U.S. military. Regardless, the United States needs to expand the range of stakeholders engaged in these discussions and incorporate the issue into engagement and operation planning to deal with the situation of encountering child soldiers on the ground and better address the psychological aftermath of military engagement with young children.
Further, the United States can work with other countries, particularly those that are military-assistance donors, to establish additional protections for children in conflict. This can mean working with governments to implement their own legislation to condition their military relationships on stopping the use of child soldiers. Such an approach can also include awareness of—and support for—groups and organizations working on child soldier reintegration and prevention so that the most vulnerable children are protected from re-recruitment.
The United States and other governments must recognize that the issue of child soldiers is a security concern—not just a moral and ethical dilemma. Changing the way that governments and militaries talk about the issue of child soldiers will allow a wider variety of actors to engage in more creative and effective solutions that could put a stop to this horrific practice while protecting national-security interests.
Rachel Stohl is managing director and directs the Conventional Defense program at the nonpartisan Stimson Center. Shannon Dick is a research associate with Stimson.