Children may be made regular combat soldiers, or forced into fighting militia or guerrilla forces. They may be employed as paramilitary support in front-line areas, as messengers, scouts, supply carriers and so forth. In these capacities children may face professional, adult fighting forces who will not discriminate by age in identifying and attacking the enemy. Many of these teenagers and pre-teenagers face death and mutilation, but beyond this they face the terror of warfare that they cannot comprehend. Children are taken as prisoners of war, and are also sent to civilian internment camps. As civilians they may survive the destruction of their home and the killing of family members. There are no horrors that children are not exposed to in total war.
The recruitment of children and their involvement in hostilities are unacceptable practices forbidden by the Additional Protocols of 1977 to the Geneva Convention of 1949. These instruments prohibit the recruitment of soldiers under 15 years of age into the armed forces.
Thousands of children as young as 9 and 10 years of age are used as soldiers in armed conflicts around the world. Many of these children are directly involved in fighting, often equipped with fully automatic assault rifles. Thousands have been killed, and thousands more have been seriously wounded. Children themselves have killed and wounded civilians as well as opposing fighters. Many take part in terrible atrocities. These children bear appalling physical and psychological injuries.
In 2001, it was reported that some 300,000 child soldiers were operating in 41 countries -- a third of which are in Africa.
Children sometimes serve with government armies and, more often, with armed opposition groups. Sometimes they are conscripted by governments, sometimes forcibly recruited by rebels. Some "volunteer" in order to survive. Many are tortured or treated brutally by the forces with which they serve. Some have died from abuse or starvation. All have been denied a normal childhood, notably by being forced to kill or torture others.
Despite the protection afforded to children under the law, they continue to be recruited into the armed forces and to participate in hostilities. Boy soldiers, aged fifteen or less, appeared in the Nazi forces at the end of the world war in Europe. Children have been recruited by the Viet Cong, by the Khmer Rouge in Kampuchea and Thailand, by terrorist groups for action against Israel, by the Khomeini regime in Iran to fight the war with Iraq, by radical groups in Northern Ireland and by the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Children fighters are also reported in Afghanistan, El Salvador, Colombia, Uganda and Ethiopia.
A recent example is in Sierra Leone, where rebels from the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) recruited an estimated 5,400 children. Many of them were abducted or drugged into submission. They joined fighters in raping, killing and chopping off limbs of thousands of men, women and children.
In 2001, the 12-year-old Burmese warrior twins were captured by the Thai military and returned to their family. The twins led the God's Army cult and became emblematic of the tragedy of child soldiers around the world and particularly in Burma where, for decades, government forces and ethnic militias have recruited children.
At least 300,000 children are currently fighting in armed conflicts and thousands more are in armed forces and could be sent into combat at any time. Yet at the international level the issue of child soldiers tends to be treated separately rather than as a fundamental human rights issue.