United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Practice Relating to Rule 136. Recruitment of Child Soldiers
The UK LOAC Manual (2004) states in its chapter on the protection of civilians in the hands of a party to the conflict:
Steps must be taken to ensure that those aged under fifteen years are not recruited into the armed forces and do not take a direct part in hostilities. Moreover, where there is recruitment of young persons aged between fifteen and eighteen years, priority is to be given to the oldest.
With regard to internal armed conflict, the manual states:
15.7. It is prohibited to conscript or enlist “children under the age of fifteen years into armed forces or groups” or to use them “to participate actively in hostilities”.
15.7.1. Recent internal conflicts, particularly in West Africa, have been marked by the recruitment, arming and deployment on military missions of children, many of whom have been involved in the commission of atrocities. Such recruitment and use is a war crime under the Rome Statute.
Under the UK ICC Act (2001), it is a punishable offence to commit a war crime as defined in Article 8(2)(b)(xxvi) and (e)(vii) of the 1998 ICC Statute.
In 2003, in reply to written questions in the House of Commons, the UK Secretary of State for International Development wrote:
International humanitarian law, as embodied in the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their Additional Protocols, prohibits the recruitment or use of children under 15 in armed conflict and provides for the protection of children, particularly those separated from their families. The Statute of the International Criminal Court, to which the UK is a state party and which has been incorporated into national law, makes the recruitment and/or use of children under 15 a war crime.
The European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, now enshrined in the Human Rights Act 1998, forbids the use of torture, inhuman or degrading treatment which may include the forcing of children to take part in hostilities.
The UK is a Party to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which makes particular provision for the protection of all children under 18 years. It prescribes that the best interests of the child should be a primary consideration, severely restricts the circumstances in which children may be removed from their parents and protects children against arbitrary interference with their privacy and liberty. This Convention, along with International Labour Organisation Convention 182 (which the UK has ratified), prohibits the use of children in the worst forms of labour; and Convention 182 specifically prohibits the forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict.
The UK expects to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict later this year. This provides that states parties must take all feasible measures to ensure that members of their armed forces who have not attained the age of 18 years do not take a direct part in hostilities, and that children under 18 years are not compulsorily recruited into their armed forces. Non-state actors, such as insurgent groups, are prohibited from ever recruiting or using in hostilities children under 18. We take the Protocol seriously. That is why before we ratify, we need to be clear that the detailed procedures and administrative guidelines for the armed forces are finalised. These will give concrete form to our commitment. MOD [Ministry of Defence] officials, in consultation with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, are in the final stages of drafting an Explanatory Memorandum which will explain the steps being taken to meet that commitment. As part of the ratification process, we will lay the Explanatory Memorandum (EM) before Parliament. This does not require any changes to UK legislation.
The UK has many laws that prohibit the activities usually associated with the use of child soldiers, such as assault, forcing a child to perform illegal acts, deprivation of their liberty and making children take harmful drugs and alcohol.
The most effective way of tackling the use of child soldiers is to prevent, reduce and resolve armed conflicts. This is part of the wider issue of the impact of armed conflict on children generally, their families and communities. In addressing this, my Department is working with other UK Government Departments and other governments through appropriate regional mechanisms, the non-governmental community and the multilateral system to this end. UNICEF, with the support of my Department and other governments, works to effect the disarmament, demobilisation and rehabilitation of child soldiers, particularly back into the community and prevent their re-recruitment. Through a multi-year capacity building programme supported by my Department, UNICEF are collecting data on the situation of children affected by armed conflict globally, to better inform policy, guidance and programming on the wide range of issues involved.
My Department has also been supporting the work of the United Nations Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict, whose work (primarily of advocacy and raising awareness of the issues at all levels) features prominently in the Secretary-General’s report of 26 November 2002 to the Security Council on this issue.
Through its representation on the Security Council, the Government have been closely involved in the passing of eight resolutions since August 1999 addressing the issue of child soldiers and other children affected by armed conflict, and are currently involved in negotiations for a further resolution to strengthen the ability of the international community to take action to prevent the recruitment and use of children in armed conflicts. Along with the vast majority of other states, the Government have also ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and is taking steps to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention preventing the use of children in armed conflict.
In 2003, in a declaration made upon ratification of the 2000 Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, the United Kingdom stated:
… in accordance with Article 3, paragraph 2, of the Optional Protocol:
- The minimum age at which individuals may join the UK Armed Forces is 16 years. This minimum broadly reflects the minimum statutory school leaving age in the United Kingdom, that is the age at which young persons may first be permitted to cease full-time education and enter the full-time employment market. Parental consent is required in all cases of recruitment under the age of 18 years.
The United Kingdom maintains the following safeguards in respect of voluntary recruitment into the armed forces:
1. The United Kingdom Armed Forces are manned solely by volunteers; there is no compulsory recruitment.
2. A declaration of age, backed by an authoritative, objective proof (typically the production of an authentic birth certificate) is an integral and early requirement in the recruitment process. Should an individual volunteering to enter the United Kingdom Armed Forces be found either by their own declaration or by inspection of supporting evidence of age to be under 18 years of age, special procedures are adopted. These procedures include:
- the involvement of the parent(s) or legal guardian(s) of the potential recruits;
- clear and precise explanation of the nature of duties involved in military service to both the individual and their parent(s)/guardian(s); and
- as well as explaining the demands of military life to the individual volunteer and establishing that he/she remains a genuine volunteer, the requirement that the parent(s) or guardian(s), having been similarly informed, freely consent to the individual’s entry into the Armed Forces and duly countersign the appropriate application or other appropriate recruitment process forms.
In 2006, in a reply to a question concerning “the extent of the use of child soldiers in the conflict in Darfur”, the UK Minister of State for Trade and Investment stated:
In September 2006, a UN panel of experts reported the recruitment of child soldiers by parties to the conflict in Darfur. Recruitment of child soldiers is a breach of international humanitarian law and explicitly prohibited by article 24 of the Darfur Peace Agreement (DPA). We have regularly made clear to the Government of Sudan that we expect them to uphold the commitments they have made under, in particular, the convention on the rights of the child and its optional protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict. We have also told the Sudan Liberation Army and Justice and Equality Movement that the recruitment and use of child soldiers is wholly unacceptable and in contravention of its obligations under the Abuja Security protocol of 8 November 2004, which commits both movements and the Government to stop recruiting children as combatants.
In 2007, in its initial report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child under the 2000 Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, the United Kingdom stated:
1. The United Kingdom ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict (the Optional Protocol) on 24 June 2003 and remains firmly committed to it. We recognize the importance of providing special treatment for young people under the age of 18 serving in the armed forces and accordingly we have robust and effective safeguards in place to ensure they are cared for properly and are not placed unnecessarily at risk. Every feasible step is taken in accordance with our obligations to prevent the involvement of young people under the age of 18 (under 18s) in hostilities.
2. The Government’s understanding of its obligations is clarified by the interpretive declaration it made upon signature and confirmed upon ratification. This made clear that the British Armed Forces would continue to recruit from age 16 but included a clear commitment to take all feasible measures to ensure those who had not yet reached the age of 18 did not take a direct part in hostilities. Accordingly, administrative guidelines and procedures are now in place to ensure that, wherever practicable, personnel aged under18 are withdrawn from their units before they are deployed on operations.
4. The United Kingdom made another declaration upon ratification concerning the minimum age of recruitment (age 16, in line with minimum school-leaving age) and on the safeguards it has in place to ensure that all recruitment of under 18s is genuinely voluntary and with the informed consent of the volunteer and his/her parents. The minimum recruitment age remains at 16 and there are no plans to change this. All recruitment into the British Armed Forces is voluntary and no applicant under 18 years of age may join unless their application is accompanied by the formal written consent of his/her parent or guardian. The age of anyone seeking to join the service is carefully checked against original birth certificates and other identity documents. The date of reference used when determining whether or not a person is eligible to join the armed forces is always their date of birth.
6. The most relevant provision of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) concerns the recruitment of children aged 15 into the armed forces. This Convention predates, and was largely superseded by, the provisions of the Optional Protocol. The Government considers that the above safeguards provide sufficient protection to under 18s serving in the armed forces and that they enable the United Kingdom to comply with its obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, including article 38, as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights.
13. Compulsory recruitment into the British Armed Forces (National Service) was abolished in 1963. Successive Governments have declared the best way for the armed forces to maintain operational commitments is for them to be manned entirely by volunteers. The current Government takes the same view.
14. In accordance with the declaration submitted by the Government upon ratification of the Optional Protocol, the minimum age at which individuals may join the British Armed Forces remains at 16 years, which broadly reflects the minimum statutory school-leaving age in the United Kingdom. Recruitment at the school-leaving age makes available to young persons entering the job market the significant training and other opportunities offered by the armed forces. A recent review by a distinguished human rights lawyer (the Deepcut Review) accepted that young people with suitable qualifications for a military career should continue to be able to enlist at 16, with a view to participating in all aspects of military duties from the age of 18, and the Government accepted this report …
15. All recruitment into the British Armed Forces is voluntary. The minimum age for applications to join the armed forces is 15 years, 9 months for the Royal Navy (the Navy) and Royal Air Force (RAF) and 15 years, 7 months for the Army for entry not before the individual’s sixteenth birthday. The Optional Protocol was ratified according to the legal processes required in the United Kingdom; this involved the Government ensuring that its laws and policies were compatible with the Protocol’s provisions, and in deciding on the terms of the binding declaration. There was no need to introduce new legislation or amend existing legislation in order to give effect to the Protocol, nor are there any judicial decisions relating to it. No distinction is made between 16- and 17-year-olds on the grounds that it is necessary to recruit from both age groups in order to secure the manpower needed to meet essential defence commitments and that it is difficult to discriminate on age grounds between equally qualified individuals.
27. The British Armed Forces are currently involved in a comprehensive joint review of all recruiting processes and procedures. The aim of the review is to harmonize individual service processes wherever practicable and to capture data on a single, joint IT system.
28. Upon ratification of the Optional Protocol, the United Kingdom announced the following safeguards in respect of voluntary recruitment into the armed forces:
- The United Kingdom Armed Forces are manned solely by volunteers; there is no compulsory recruitment;
- A declaration of age, backed by an authoritative, objective proof (typically the production of an authentic birth certificate) is an integral and early requirement in the recruitment process. Should an individual volunteering to enter the United Kingdom Armed Forces be found either by their own declaration or by inspection of supporting evidence of age to be under 18 years of age, special procedures are adopted. These procedures include:
- The involvement of the parent(s) or legal guardian(s) of the potential recruits;
- Clear and precise explanation of the nature of duties involved in military service to both the individual and their parent(s)/guardian(s);
- Explaining the demands of military life to the individual volunteer and establishing that he/she remains a genuine volunteer, the requirement that the parent(s) or guardian(s), having been similarly informed, freely consent to the individual’s entry into the armed forces and duly countersign the appropriate application or other appropriate recruitment process forms.
These safeguards are still in place and continue to be applied rigorously.
29. The recruiting process is designed to protect the interests of the applicant at every stage. The process is the same for applicants under the age of 18 and those over 18, except for the mandatory written consents of parents/guardians at the application and attestation stages for under 18s. Extensive screening is carried out of the suitability for service of all applicants regardless of age …
Proof of age
31. At the initial interview, all candidates are asked to produce original birth certificates and other identity documents such as passports and driving licences so that their age can be checked by recruiting staff. The application cannot be processed until this has been done.
Minimum service/early discharge
32. The armed forces operate a policy whereby all new recruits under the age of 18 have a right of discharge within the first 6 months of service by giving not less than 14 days notice (28 days for the RAF) in writing to the commanding officer if they decide that a career in the armed forces is not for them. In addition, service personnel under 18 years have the right to discharge at any time before their eighteenth birthday provided they give the required notice.
33. As a further safeguard, personnel under the age of 18 years, 3 months, who have passed their statutory six month period for “discharge as of right”, and have, before reaching their eighteenth birthday, registered clear unhappiness at their choice of career, can request permission to leave the armed forces. This provision does not provide “discharge as of right” and the commanding officer has discretion to delay a decision on discharge if he has doubts about the permanence of the individual’s unhappiness. However, it is exceedingly rare for such an unhappy individual to be refused permission to leave.
34. These safeguards ensure that young servicemen or women under the age of 18 years may, if they wish, leave the armed forces before committing to adult service, and that any commitment to adult service is both considered and voluntary.
Information made available to volunteers
36. Great care is taken to explain the terms of enlistment and to ensure that the precise nature of the commitment is fully understood by potential recruits and their parents. This includes giving recruits copies of forms that explain the terms and conditions of service, including details on rights of discharge that will apply upon entering into service in the armed forces. Parents and guardians are required to consent to the recruitment of those under the age of 18, and we actively engage them in this process to ensure that they too are fully aware of these terms and conditions of service before giving their consent. Moreover, during the recruit selection process, the staff at the armed forces careers offices provide comprehensive written and verbal guidance to all potential recruits, in particular those under 18 years of age and their parents, regarding their terms of service and rights to discharge …
Implementation and enforcement
52. We were satisfied at the time of ratification that the provisions of the Optional Protocol were already fully implemented in United Kingdom policies and procedures and therefore no amendment to legislation was required to give effect to the Protocol in domestic law. For the same reasons, no subsequent review of domestic legislation has been necessary. There are no plans to remove the reservations lodged at the time of ratification. Details of the new protective measures that have been introduced to reduce the risk of under 18s being involved in hostilities are set out in paragraphs 8 to 11 above.
53. We have recently conducted a comprehensive review of service law, which has led to the replacement of the current discipline acts with a new Armed Forces Act 2006. This review is in no way related to the Optional Protocol, but there is one matter which may be of interest to the Committee. Section 328 of the Armed Forces Act 2006 covers enlistment (voluntary enlistment only as the United Kingdom does not have compulsory enlistment). It provides vires to make regulations as to enlistment by statutory instrument, and provides (at section 328, paragraph (2), (c) and (d)) that the enlistment regulations may prohibit the enlistment of persons under the age of 18 without the consent of prescribed persons (it is intended that these will be parents or legal guardians), and deeming a person, in prescribed circumstances, to have attained or not have attained the age of 18. These provisions reflect the existing law.
60. No legal provisions criminalizing the recruitment of children have been adopted, as that is not necessary to ensure the effective implementation and enforcement of the Optional Protocol within the United Kingdom.
In 2007, in its combined third and fourth periodic reports to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the United Kingdom stated:
The UK made a declaration upon ratification of the  Optional Protocol [on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict] concerning the minimum age of recruitment and on the safeguards to ensure that all recruitment of under 18s is genuinely voluntary and with informed consent of the volunteer and his or her parents. The minimum recruitment age remains at 16 and there are no plans to change this. All recruitment into the UK Armed Forces is voluntary and no applicant under 18 years of age may join the Armed Forces unless their application is supported by the formal written consent of his/her parent or guardian.
In 2007, in a written answer to a question in the House of Commons, the UK Minister of State for the Middle East, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, wrote:
We have been seriously concerned by reports that have criticised parties to the Sri Lanka conflict including the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Karuna faction for the recruitment and use of child soldiers in violation of applicable international law. We deplore this practice: there can be no excuse for failing to observe such basic human rights. The UK is a member of the UN Security Council Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict. We fully support the Working Group’s conclusions of 13 June 2007, which strongly condemned the unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers and all other violations and abuses committed against children by the LTTE and the Karuna faction and called for an immediate end to these practices.