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Children's Rights > Child Soldiers

Child Soldiers

In over twenty countries around the world, children are direct participants in war. Denied a childhood and often subjected to horrific violence, an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 children are serving as soldiers for both rebel groups and government forces in current armed conflicts. These young combatants participate in all aspects of contemporary warfare. They wield AK-47s and M-16s on the front lines of combat, serve as human mine detectors, participate in suicide missions, carry supplies, and act as spies, messengers or lookouts.

Physically vulnerable and easily intimidated, children typically make obedient soldiers. Many are abducted or recruited by force, and often compelled to follow orders under threat of death. Others join armed groups out of desperation. As society breaks down during conflict, leaving children no access to school, driving them from their homes, or separating them from family members, many children perceive armed groups as their best chance for survival. Others seek escape from poverty or join military forces to avenge family members who have been killed.

Human Rights Watch has interviewed child soldiers in countries including Angola, Burma, Burundi, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Lebanon, Liberia, Nepal, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Uganda.


Reports on child soldiers:
Early to War: Child Soldiers in the Chad Conflict
July 2007

This 46-page report documents how the Chadian army, its allied paramilitary militias and rebel forces have used and recruited child soldiers in both northern Chad and along the eastern border with Sudan’s Darfur region. The report is based on interviews with senior officers in the Chadian military as well as current child soldiers themselves. More.

Children in the Ranks: The Maoists' Use of Child Soldiers in Nepal
January 2007

Thousands of children were recruited by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists) during Nepal's 10-year civil war. Children served on the front lines, received weapons training, and carried out crucial military and logistical support duties for the Maoists. Even after signing a comprehensive peace agreement with the government in November 2006, the Maoists continued to recruit children and refused to release children from their forces. More

Sri Lanka
Complicit in Crime: State Collusion in Abductions and Child Recruitment by the Karuna Group
January 2007

The Karuna group has abducted hundreds of children in eastern Sri Lanka for use as child combatants. The group is led by a former commander with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and now fights against the LTTE. Government security forces not only fail to stop the abductions, but facilitate them by allowing Karuna cadres to transport kidnapped children through checkpoints on the way to their camps. More

"They Came Here to Kill Us": Militia Attacks and Ethnic Targeting of Civilians in Eastern Chad
January 2007

Violent militia attacks in eastern Chad claimed more than 300 live in late 2006 and were accompanied by rapes, looting, and massive displacement. Armed groups in the area, including the Chadian armed forces, the Sudanese rebel movements and Tora Boro militias, have recruited children as soldiers. More

A Long Way from Home: FNL Child Soldiers in Burundi
June 2006

During the thirteen years of civil war in Burundi, children were recruited and used as combatants and general help by all sides in the conflict. More than 3,000 children have been demobilized, but the one rebel group the National Liberation Forces (Forces Nationales pour la Libération, FNL), continues to use children as combatants and for various logistical duties. In addition, dozens of children who served or who are accused of having served in the FNL are in government custody, without assistance. More

West Africa
Youth, Poverty and Blood: The Lethal Legacy of West Africa’s Regional Warriors
March 2005

Since 1989, young soldiers have fought in armed conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Cote d’Ivoire, often crossing borders to fight for personal economic gain in neighboring countries. This report is based on interviews with some sixty former combatants, including former child soldiers, and analyzes the driving forces behind mercenary activity in West Africa.

Sri Lanka
Living in Fear: Child Soldiers and the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka
February 2004

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) recruited thousands of child soldiers in Sri Lanka following a ceasefire agreement reached in 2002. Throughout the North and East, the LTTE uses intimidation and threats to pressure Tamil families to provide their sons and daughters for military service. When families refuse, the LTTE may abduct children from their homes at night or forcibly recruit them while they walk to school. More

How to Fight, How to Kill:
Child Soldiers in Liberia
February 2004

More than 15,000 child soldiers fought on all sides of the Liberian civil war, and many units were composed primarily of children. This report details the many abuses committed against child soldiers and the violations that children were forced to commit against civilians-as described by the children themselves. The report argues that establishing a firm peace in the West African nation will depend on the successful reintegration of child soldiers into civil society.   More

"You'll Learn Not to Cry":
Child Combatants in Colombia
September 2003

More than 11,000 children fight in Colombia's armed conflict, one of the highest totals in the world. Both guerrilla and paramilitary forces rely on child combatants, who have committed atrocities and are even made to execute other children who try to desert. The first comprehensive report published on this issue documents how Colombia's illegal armies have recruited increasing numbers of children in recent years. More

Forgotten Fighters:
Child Soldiers in Angola
April 2003

April 2003 marked the one-year anniversary of the agreement that brought peace to mainland Angola in 2002. Both the largest opposition group, National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), and the government used child soldiers in the war. Children's rights groups have estimated that as many as 11,000 children were involved in the last years of the fighting. However, these child soldiers have been excluded from demobilization programs. More

Stolen Children:
Abduction and Recruitment in Northern Uganda
March 2003

Children are abducted in record numbers by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in northern Uganda and subjected to brutal treatment as soldiers, laborers, and sexual slaves. In 2002, an estimated 5,000 children have been abducted from their homes and communities-a larger number than any previous year of the sixteen-year-old conflict and a dramatic increase from the less than 100 children abducted in 2001. More

"My Gun Was as Tall as Me"
Child Soldiers in Burma
October 2002

Burma is believed to have more child soldiers than any other country in the world. The overwhelming majority of Burma's child soldiers are found in Burma's national army, the Tatmadaw Kyi, which forcibly recruits children as young as eleven, subjects them to brutal training, forces them to  engage in combat, and participate in human rights abuses against civilians. Children are also present in Burma's myriad opposition groups, although in far smaller numbers.    More

Erased in a Moment
Suicide Bombing Attacks Against Israeli Civilians
October 2002
This report provides the most thorough study to date of the suicide bombing operations of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the groups that have claimed responsibility for almost all recent suicide bombings. The report documents several cases of children carrying out suicide bombings, and calls on all armed groups to end all recruitment or use of children under the age of eighteen.  More

The Government-sponsored "self-defense" program in Burundi

December 2001
Government-sponsored paramilitary forces known as “Guardians of the Peace” have committed many killings, rapes, and other crimes over the last four years in Burundi. Burundian officials recruited many children aged fifteen and younger for service in the Guardians and in urban patrols. Supposedly recruited to defend their own neighborhoods, many of these children were ordered into full-scale military operations far from their homes.

Democratic Republic of Congo: Reluctant Recruits: Children and Adults Forcibly Recruited for Military Service in North Kivu
Report, May 2001
For years, rebel movements backed by Rwanda and Uganda waged a disastrous war against the government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and its foreign allies. This report documents an intensive campaign of forcible recruitment of adults and children from roadsides, markets, and homes by Congolese Rally for Democracy-Goma (RCD-Goma) and its Rwandan allies.

Emptying the Hills: Regroupment Camps in Burundi
July 2000
Beginning in late September 1999, the Tutsi-dominated government of Burundi began forcing civilians in the area around the capital into so-called "protection sites" or "regroupment camps". Soldiers recruited children from the camps to spy for them, to help them loot property, and to serve as lookouts, scouts, and porters when they are on patrol.

Civilians Expelled from Lebanon for Refusal to Serve in Militia
July 1999
In southern Lebanon, boys as young as twelve years of age were subject to forced conscription by the South Lebanon Army (SLA), an Israeli auxiliary militia. When men and boys refuse to serve, flee the region to avoid conscription, or desert the SLA forces, their entire family was subject to expulsion from the occupied zone.

Child Soldiers Used by All Sides in Colombia's Armed Conflict
October 1998
Guerrillas call child combatants "little bees" (abejitas), able to sting before their targets realize they are under attack. Paramilitaries call them "little bells" (campanitas), referring to their use as an early-alarm system.

New Regime, but Continued Human Rights Violations: Despite Promises, the Use and Abuse of Child Soldiers Continues in Sierra Leone
July 1998
Between February and June 1998, both the government's Civilian Defense Forces and the ousted Armed Forces Revolutionary Council (AFRC) and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) continued to use children on a large scale in Sierra Leone.

The Scars of Death: Children Abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda
September 1997 (be sure this links to report, not campaign page)
Documents the abduction and killing of children in northern Uganda by the Lord’s Resistance Army. The rebels abduct children as young as eight from their schools and homes, and use them as combatants, forced laborers, and in the case of girls, as “wives” to rebel commanders.


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