Thursday, 29 March 2012


The news on Thomas Lubanga from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) who was recently convicted by the International Crime Commission (ICC) of snatching children from the street and conscripting them as child soldiers, or Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) from Uganda, also accused of the same crime, have once again focused world attention on the plight of child soldiers.

Not many child soldiers may be as lucky as Ishmael Beah, Anywar Ricky Richard or Sarah (not her real name) from Uganda who survived the traumatic experience of being  child soldiers. Each one is now advocating for the protection of child soldiers to help former child soldiers return to the mainstream of society.  
It’s a known fact that not only rebel groups like those led by Kony and Lubanga recruit child soldiers.  Several countries have been known to also recruit children into the military. In many situations, child soldiers associated with armed groups and captured by government forces were treated as adversaries rather than as children. They’ve been detained for their alleged association with armed groups, or for violating military duties while in the armed forces.


Treatment of Captured Child Soldiers as Criminals.  Disintegrating the child soldiers, whether from rebel or military groups brings forth a different round of emotional and psychological challenges. When captured by government forces, they are detained for prolonged periods and subjected to torture or ill-treatment. They are treated as criminals and can be subjected to an unfair trial instead of being treated as victims in need of support and assistance for reintegration.  

In an article on child soldiers in detention by, it was pointed out that many government troops have detained child soldiers and subjected them to certain forms of torture for “suspicion of collaborating with rebel groups.” But is that not why these children were abducted by the  rebel groups? To recruit them as child soldiers and inculcate in their young minds that they are serving and fighting for the cause of these rebel groups? As such, they would need support and assistance in re-establishing themselves in society and not be subjected to more torture and violence by authorities expected to rescue them and bring them back to the fold.

Several incidents recorded in countries identified to be recruiting child soldiers confirmed the findings of torture and violence committed against child soldiers.  In Burundi,  a 16-year-old alleged to have been a member of the National Liberation Forces (FNL) and detained on suspicion of collaboration with the NFL was believed to have been killed while in custody.

In Israel, Palestinian children were held under military custody with incidents of ill-treatment and torture. A 16-year-old boy was held in solitary confinement for 35 days in 2007 and pressured to become an informant.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) where Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo leads
a rebel group called the Movement for the Liberation of Congo, child soldiers who were reported to have escaped from armed forces were charged with desertion and sentenced to imprisonment. Some who were convicted of military offences remained in prison with death sentence, an infringement of international law.

The list can go on where the same violations on children’s rights are documented in countries involved in conflicts – Chad, Colombiam , Côte d’Ivoire, Iraq, Myanmar, India, Indonesia, Israel, Nepal, Philippines, Uganda and more. Even in the United States of America (USA), it “has designated a number of children, some as young as 13, as ‘enemy combatants’ – a status, as used by the USA, that is unrecognized in international law.”  This manner of treatment of child soldiers clearly “contradicts government obligations to assist in the recovery of child soldiers.”  

Lack Of Funds. In an interview with UN Under-Secretary-General Radhika Coomaraswamy, she stated that development agencies lack funds for successful reintegration . She further stated that “rehabilitation of child soldiers goes beyond the act of demobilisation from armies.” Religious organisations have played a very important role in the rehabilitation and education of the more than 50,000 children who have been demobilised from military service.  Her statement affirms the vital role of non-government and religious organizations to help normalize the lives of child soldiers and be accepted by society.

Emotional and Psychological Impact. In a study of male and female Sierra Leonean former child soldiers to examine associations between war experiences, mental health, and gender. Findings showed that “Toxic forms of violence (killing or injuring; rape) were associated with particularly poor outcomes. Although all boys and girls who experience rape and loss of caregivers are generally at risk for mental health problems, boys in our sample demonstrated increased vulnerability; these findings indicate a need for more inclusive mental health services.”

THE AFTERMATH: What Can Be Done?
The Warlords. The international community has sent a clear message with the life imprisonment verdict given to Lubanga by the ICC, that atrocities committed by warlords like  him, Kony,  or Gombo will not be tolerated. The ICC has already indicted other warlords for crimes against humanity, torture or violence - Laurent Gbagbo (Côte d'Ivoire), Germain Katangam Mathieu Ngudjolo Chui, Callixte Mbarushimana (Democratic Republic of the Congo), William Ruto,  Henry Kosgey, Joshua Sang, Francis Muthaura, Uhuru Kenyatta, Mohammed Ali (Kenya), Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, Abdullah Senussi (Libya), Joseph Kony,  Vincent Ott,  Raska Lukwiya, Okot Odhiambo, Dominic Ongwen (Uganda). The fight against the atrocities of warlords goes on.

The Child Soldiers. The trauma of being abducted or recruited as child soldiers leaves a strong imprint on the mental health of the victims. Their vulnerability and exposure to extreme violence of rape and torture can strongly impact their reintegration in society. It’s critical therefore, that they are able to  establish family reunification and be able to live within a community environment that accepts them, have  psychosocial support or trauma interventions; and  opportunities for education and livelihood or income.

There is also a need for child soldiers to be protected from re-recruitment, retribution, abuse, and stigmatization.  Alternative family-based living arrangements should be available for those who cannot be reconciled with their families. Support Centers  may also be established to provide them assistance and  trauma counselling should family reunification  not be possible.
With the support given to these child soldiers, they have all the chances of living normal lives again like Ishmael Beah, Anywar Ricky Richard or Sarah,


  1. Department of Global Health and Population, François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights, Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts 02115, USA.
  1. World Bank:

By Lylin Aguas

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