Background Briefing 
Child Soldiers and the Child Labor Convention

Children's Rights
The Global Use of Child Soldiers: An estimated 300,000 children under the age of eighteen are currently participating in armed conflicts in more than thirty countries on nearly every continent. While most child soldiers are in their teens, some are as young as seven years old. While many child soldiers start out as cooks, messengers, porters or guards, too often they end up on the front lines of combat.

Children who participate in armed conflict are at risk of serious injury and death. Because of their relative inexperience and lack of training, child soldiers suffer far higher casualty rates than adult soldiers. Those who survive may be permanently disabled, or suffer psychological damage—including post-traumatic stress disorder—as a consequence of their exposure to the violence of warfare.

While many child soldiers are forcibly recruited, others join armed groups hoping to support themselves or their family, or simply because they believe it is their best chance at survival.

Studies have shown children at greatest risk of military recruitment during times of conflict are frequently drawn into child labor during peacetime. These at-risk groups include children who are poor, who have no access to education, are separated from their families, displaced from their homes, or from marginalized groups.

The Child Labor Convention: The new ILO (International Labor Organization) Convention Concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labor is intended to protect children from the most exploitative and hazardous forms of child labor, including slavery, forced labor, child prostitution and work which jeopardizes the health, safety or morals of children. In accordance with other international law, the convention defines a child as anyone under the age of eighteen. The Convention was negotiated in June 1999 at the International Labor Conference, which is made up of delegates from ILO members states, including delegates from employer's and worker's organizations.

U.S. Policy and Child Soldiers: The United States opposed efforts to include a broad prohibition on the use of child soldiers in the new child labor convention, instead pushing to a narrow provision prohibiting "forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflicts."

The United States is also a leading opponent of a five-year effort to raise the international minimum age for recruitment and participation in armed conflict from the current fifteen to eighteen. Under international law, the general definition of a child is any person under the age of 18.

The U.S. position is based on U.S. recruitment practices, which allow seventeen-year-olds to enlist voluntarily for military service with parental permission. However, according to Department of Defense statistics, there are less than 7000 minors in the U.S. armed services, making up less than one-half of one percent of the total 1.5 million active duty force, and only 4% of new active duty recruits each year.

Related Material

U.S. Blocks Efforts to Ban the Use of Child Soldiers:
Clinton Urged to Back Stronger Measures in Geneva

HRW Press Release, June 15, 1999