Slavery and Its Definition
Jean Allain and Kevin Bales
The Bellagio–Harvard Guidelines on the Legal Parameters of Slavery
The Scourge of Slavery: The Contemporary Reality of an International Human Rights Challenge
David K. Androff
Absolving the State: The Trafficking–Slavery Metaphor
Julia O’Connell Davidson
Rethinking Trafficking: Patriarchy, Poverty, and Private Wrongs in India
Alison Brysk and Aditee Maskey
Children Trafficked to the United States: Myths and Realities
Elzbieta M. Gozdziak
Debt-Bondage Slavery in India
The Many Faces of Slavery: The Example of Domestic Work
Child Domestic Workers: Protected Persons or Modern-Day Slaves?
Forcing Children to Bear Arms: A Contemporary Form of Slavery
Michael G. Wessells
Abused Migrant Women in the United States: Progress, Challenges and Recommendations
Gabriela Wasileski and Mark J. Miller
Repairing Past Injustice: Remarks on the Politics of Reparations for Slavery in the United States
Libya: The Road to Regime Change
Volume 14 ● Number 2 ● Summer/Autumn 2012—Slavery Today
Forcing Children to Bear Arms: A Contemporary Form of Slavery
A Form of Slavery
Nowhere is the continued existence of slavery more conspicuous than in the forced military recruitment of children. Each year, significant numbers of children, defined under international law and international human rights standards as people less than eighteen years old, are forcibly recruited into official armed forces (i.e., government military groups) and irregular armed groups such as opposition units, paramilitary forces, and other non-state actors. The parallels between forced child-soldiering and slavery are diverse and have to do with extreme control through coercion, exploitation for purposes not one’s own, and expendability. Commanders achieve a high level of control over forcibly recruited children through the use and threat of severe violence. The forcibly recruited children are exploited for the purposes of commanders, and failure to follow orders typically leads to severe punishment or death. The regime of control is backed up by the extraordinary lengths to which commanders go to punish escapees and dominate recruits—lengths amounting to a reign of terror. Just as slaves in the United States before its civil war were expendable because they could be traded, sold, or even lynched, so child soldiers, too, are frequently regarded as expendable.
In this essay, I will describe why and how children are forcibly recruited and analyse the methods used to control and exploit them. I will also offer suggestions about how to end this widespread form of slavery. Throughout, I will attend to the often neglected issues of gender that motivate recruitment in some circumstances and shape how control is exercised.
At the outset, it is important to note that many children who are associated with armed forces or armed groups have not been recruited by force. Numerous “push” and “pull” factors frequently lead children to decide without obvious coercion to join armed forces or groups.1 For example, in northern Afghanistan in 2001, significant numbers of children whose families and villages fought against the Taliban joined in the fighting or in ancillary activities such as carrying food and weapons. Many of those children said they had done so in order to be with their fathers or older brothers and to resist domination by what they saw as alien extremists. In the conflict in Columbia, some children have joined armed groups such as the FARC rebels because they viewed them as a surrogate family. In countries such as Liberia, some children joined armed groups in order to exact revenge for the killing of family members. In many countries, children join armed forces or groups in order to earn money, obtain protection, or help meet basic needs that would otherwise go unsatisfied. In ethnic separatist struggles such as that in Sri Lanka, many children decided to join the Tamil Tigers militia because they saw it as their best means of achieving liberation from Sinhalese rule. In other conflicts such as that in Palestine, politically conscious children have seen themselves as freedom fighters deliberately and proudly fighting to end the oppression of their people.
These and many other examples remind us that children are not passive innocents but active agents who make decisions and negotiate their lived circumstances and identities. The fact that these forms of non-forced recruitment are common in certain conflicts indicates that it is an oversimplification to think of all child-soldiering as a type of slavery. The category “child soldiers” is far from homogeneous and defies universalised description. Consequently, this essay focuses on the subset of child soldiers who have been recruited into or otherwise made part of armed forces or groups against their will.
Forcible Recruitment of Children
Most analysts agree that there are likely to be tens of thousands of forcibly recruited children in the world at present. This amounts to a massive violation of child rights. However, the exact number of forcibly recruited children is unknown, not only because of the fog of war but more importantly because of the steps taken by recruiters to hide their exploitation of children. Also, the numbers change in fluid environments in which there is often a recurrent cycle of recruitment, release or escape, followed by re-recruitment.
The scale and pattern of forced military recruitment of children varies significantly across conflicts. In some conflicts, it is the opposition groups rather than government forces that recruit children forcibly, whereas in others the opposite pattern occurs. In yet other conflicts, both state and non-state actors engage in the forced recruitment of children. Furthermore, the non-forced recruitment of children may be more widespread than forced recruitment in a particular conflict. Within a conflict, patterns can shift over time, with non-forced recruitment being dominant at one time and forced recruitment becoming dominant subsequently. This contextual variation and dynamism caution against assumptions that child recruitment follows a common pattern in all conflicts or that armed conflicts are all alike from the perspectives of children.
Why Recruiters Choose Children
Commanders often claim they recruit children because of troop shortfalls they had no other means of redressing. This explanation is self-serving in that it reduces personal accountability and allows the rationalisation, “I did it only because I had to.” In reality, however, children are often recruited by force because they are readily available. In most war zones in developing countries, children constitute half of the population. In a situation of lawlessness, social breakdown, and desperation, parents are often unable to protect their children from troop-hungry commanders.
Children are also recruited by force because commanders see them as being more pliable, obedient, and controllable. Indeed, commanders have learned that the use of fear and brutality is an effective means of achieving very high levels of control over children’s behaviour. As discussed below, if children are told that they will be killed or severely beaten unless they follow orders, they can be trained to be highly obedient and even to commit heinous atrocities. In the brutal armed conflict in Sierra Leone that ended in 2001, the main group that opposed the government—the Revolutionary United Front (RUF)—recruited boys under twelve years of age and assigned them to “Small Boys Units”, some of which were notorious for amputating people’s hands and arms with machetes as a means of terrorising local populations. Control is also achieved by using incentives, for example, by giving command posts to child soldiers who demonstrated courage in combat. In societies in which it is customary for children to show high levels of respect for, and obedience to, parents and elders, commanders often increase their control over children by portraying themselves as adult protectors and guides, becoming surrogate fathers or caretakers.
The forced recruitment of children is also motivated by societal beliefs common among commanders that children have special properties. Among the Mai Mai, a cluster of opposition groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), child recruits are favoured because pre-pubescent children are seen as having special powers as healers. In particular, they are seen as spiritually pure and able to administer magic potions that make people bullet‑proof and invulnerable in combat. Even in societies that do not adhere to such beliefs, children may be preferred targets for recruitment because of their willingness to take risks. For example, teenage children not only have the physical stature and cognitive skills needed to plan and execute attacks, but also tend to have limited awareness of their own mortality. Plied with drugs and motivated by a healthy dose of fear, teenage soldiers are more likely to carry out extremely dangerous missions such as frontal assaults on heavily fortified enemy positions. As this example illustrates, one of the ironies of child recruitment is that although children are often preferred recruits, they may also be regarded as expendable.
Why armed forces and groups forcibly recruit girls warrants special attention. In international discussions of child soldiers, the focus has been primarily on boys, but in particular conflicts, girls often constitute one-third or more of the recruits. In Angola, commanders of the UNITA opposition group used forcibly recruited girls and young women to carry surreptitiously ammunition and supplies long distances, thereby escaping detection and attack by government forces. In other countries, mainly in Africa, girls are recruited for sex, although captured girls may also be used as combatants and, in countries such as Sri Lanka, suicide bombers. Thus, it is a mistake to think that only boys are forcibly recruited.
Methods of Forced Recruitment
In various conflicts, abduction at gunpoint is the primary means through which children are forcibly recruited. To deter escape, armed groups frequently resort to the threat or use of severe violence. In northern Uganda, for example, the so-called Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) abducted large numbers of children at gunpoint from villages or schools. Captured escapees would be used to set an example. LRA commanders would order recruits to surround the escapee and beat him to death with heavy sticks. Any recruit who refused to participate in the beatings or was unenthusiastic was typically subjected to the same treatment. Such beatings began a process of the complete subjugation and enslavement of the recruits into the armed group, numbing them to violence, and converting some into effective killers.
The destruction of relationships with family and community is another means used to instil terror and deter escape. In Sierra Leone, the RUF attacked villages, took children at gunpoint, and sometimes forced a new recruit to kill a family member or fellow villager. The aim was to break the bonds of emotional loyalty and commitment between the captive children and their families and communities who might have given the children shelter and protection had they escaped.
It is not only armed irregulars but also state actors that forcibly recruit children. Owing to their power and resources, state militaries may be capable of recruiting on a large scale. In the decade 2001–10, the government of Myanmar forcibly recruited tens of thousands of children, making it the world’s largest single forcible recruiter of children. Typically, police picked up children from the streets and held them in detention until they agreed to join the state military apparatus. In Africa, too, state forces have forcibly recruited children. In northern Uganda, for example, children escaped from the LRA only to be picked up by Ugandan government troops who told them they could not go home.
Although abduction is common, commanders may use less draconian methods in order to avoid alienating the local population. During the conflict in Sri Lanka that ended in 2009, the Tamil Tigers often used a quota method whereby they required each household to surrender one young person. Typically, this was presented to the local people as being part of their responsibility to help liberate Tamils from oppression. But that this was forced recruitment was evident in the narratives of children who told of their unwillingness to join up and of the severe punishments meted out to families who did not meet the Tamil Tigers’ demands.
In northern Afghanistan, too, the Taliban in the late 1990s required each family to give them one boy for a certain period of time, thereby avoiding a permanent drain on family labour that would have aroused much hostility. Wealthy families frequently circumvented this requirement, either by sending their boys to Pakistan or by paying a poor family for a boy whom they could present to the Taliban as their own. If this buying and selling of human beings is reminiscent of former slavery in the United States, it serves also as a grim reminder that the burdens of forced recruitment may fall disproportionately on the shoulders of the poor.
If external compulsion is a defining feature of forced recruitment, then children who have been born into armed forces or groups ought also to be considered as among the enslaved. Because many armed conflicts last a decade or more, children may be born to mothers inside armed groups and live their formative years in them. Born to captive mothers, the children are also captive. Joseph Kony, the head of the LRA, is believed to have sired tens of children in so-called breeder camps in south Sudan, where the LRA often went to escape attack by the Ugandan army during the years 1996–2005. Some analysts have argued that such children are not child soldiers since they are only associated with the armed group. Yet the children are not free to leave, and when they become big enough, commanders often require that they carry guns or fight. For this and other reasons, the 1991 Paris Principles for the promotion and protection of human rights replaced the term “child soldiers” with the more inclusive term “children associated with armed forces or armed groups” (CAAFAG).
Subjugation, Control, and Exploitation
Slaveholders everywhere have faced the challenge of compelling slaves to do what their masters demand. In armed forces and groups, this challenge is compounded by the enormous dangers that commanders expose children to and by requiring some children to fight and kill in a war not of their own choosing. To meet this challenge, commanders often use violence and other means to subjugate children and achieve total obedience to their orders.
Terror, Drugs and Magic
The LRA in northern Uganda illustrates how commanders can control abducted children through a reign of terror. Commanders order children to carry heavy loads over long distances, and any child who complains or resists is severely beaten or killed. Having received brief training on how to load and fire a gun, children are ordered into combat even though they are ill equipped to defend themselves. Despite their initial fright in combat, they learn quickly to follow orders, since failure to do so leads to severe beatings or death. Violence and the threat of violence are also used to control and “harden” abducted girls, even those who are not combatants. For example, some girls receive daily beatings at random times, and if they cry, the beatings are made more severe. In constant fear for their wellbeing and their lives, the children have no recourse other than total obedience.
In their quest for total control, commanders may mix violence with drugs and magic. In Sierra Leone, the RUF punished disobedience among forcibly recruited children with severe beatings or death. To make children fearless in combat, RUF commanders frequently plied abducted children with drugs such as marijuana, alcohol, and “brown-brown” (amphetamines). As a result, children often entered combat in a frenzied state in which they felt no fear and experienced no inhibitions about killing or mutilating. Commanders also had traditional healers perform magical spells that the children believed made them bullet-proof. Terrorised by their commanders, high on drugs, and believing in their invulnerability, the children were willing to follow any orders, including ones that adult soldiers would probably have resisted.
State armies, too, use terror and beatings to compel high levels of obedience. Boys in the Burmese (now Myanmar) army told how they were beaten until they bled for even the smallest infractions, including disobeying minor orders that they did not understand. The army also terrorised young abductees by forcing untrained children to participate in combat exercises involving live ammunition. The deaths that sometimes resulted testify to the children’s expendability. Indeed, in Burma and in conflicts elsewhere, commanders have ordered children to make frontal assaults on heavily fortified positions, knowing that the commands were tantamount to death sentences. Similarly, in Angola, the young mothers whom UNITA had coerced into carrying heavy loads were forced to kill any children who made noise when enemy forces were nearby. If the mothers or pregnant women made noise, they, too, were killed, often through grisly methods such as disembowelment. In this respect, child soldiers are like slaves in that they are sought for purposes of exploitation, yet are treated as a form of property that the owner can dispense with as he wishes. Like so many cattle, forcibly recruited children have no rights.
If rape has long been used as a weapon of war, it is also one of the main means through which armed groups and forces subjugate young women recruits. In Colombia, for example, one of the rebel groups (UC-ELN) punished the disobedience of young female recruits by raping them repeatedly. Some armed groups use rape at the time of abduction to heighten the abductees’ fear and set them on the fast track towards total obedience. In Liberia, government forces abducted girls and kept them in the bush, where they were beaten and raped with their arms tied.
Not all armed groups that abduct children rape them. Yet in many African countries it is common for the male captor of a girl to demand sex and then treat her as a “soldier’s wife”. In Sierra Leone, for example, RUF members frequently took young women by force and subsequently continued to rape them. In some cases, a girl came to see being with her captor as advantageous if he offered protection. If the girl became pregnant, she was likely to view the father of the child as her “husband” in line with cultural norms. To be a “bush wife”, however, created a powerful stigma that would subsequently impede the girl’s reintegration into civilian life. The situation was even worse for her children, who would be doubly stigmatised as “rebel children” and bastards.
The extremely coercive nature of the relationship between a captor and his “wife” is evident in what happens if the woman refuses sex. In Sierra Leone, one young woman told me that she had resisted RUF demands to have sex with her captor. As a result, the RUF had taken her to Freetown and cut off one of her arms. Similarly, a young girl in the Democratic Republic of Congo told how, when a commander tried to force her to have sex with him, she had run away. When she was recaptured by the commander’s armed group, they raped and beat her repeatedly over many days. Because the sex is completely coerced over long periods of time and the failure to provide it can lead to severe violence, it makes sense to dispense with euphemisms such as “soldier’s wife” and use the more accurate term, “sexual slavery”.
The phenomenon of sexual slavery is one of the greatest differences between the forcible recruitment of girls and that of boys. Overwhelmingly, the victims of sexual slavery are girls, although in countries such as Afghanistan, commanders may take young boys as consorts. The highly coercive, violent nature of the sex that girls often experience inside armed forces and groups typically has consequences such as psychological problems, vaginal tears, internal bleeding, fistulas, and sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV and AIDS. The gendered nature of children’s experiences and the impact thereof are seldom taken into full account in the design and implementation of reintegration programmes. As a result, the distinctive problems of formerly recruited girls frequently persist long after the war has ended.
What Can Be Done?
Because children’s forced recruitment is a highly contextual problem, it resists generic approaches and requires a nuanced mixture of global responses that are carefully adapted to the particularities of a specific context. Although children’s forced recruitment is deeply entrenched in the global war system, it can be addressed through a combination of global and local efforts, including changes in legal norms.
International Legal Norms
One of the most important legal instruments for ending the forced recruitment of children is the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict; the protocol is optional to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and came into force in February 2002. The Optional Protocol prohibits all conscription or recruitment of children (people under eighteen years of age) by state or non-state forces, and also forbids the participation of children in hostilities. Thus far, it has been signed by 131 governments. Supplementing the Optional Protocol is the International Labour Organisation’s Convention 182 of 1999, which defines the forced or compulsory military recruitment of children under eighteen years of age as one of the most dangerous forms of labour.
Prohibitions of forced military recruitment have also been established through regional declarations such as the Maputo Declaration on the Use of Child Soldiers (Africa, 1999), the Montevideo Declaration on the Use of Child Soldiers (Latin America, 1999), the Amman Declaration on the Use of Child Soldiers (Middle East, 2001), the Kathmandu Declaration on the Use of Child Soldiers (Asia, 2000), and the Berlin Declaration on the Use of Child Soldiers (Europe, 1999). Together, these and other norms embody a rising global consensus that the forced recruitment of children and the wider recruitment of children must end. Many analysts, myself included, believe that these norms have made it more difficult for commanders brazenly to recruit children in the ways they did before the instruments entered into force.
Although the strengthening of legal norms against child recruitment is a welcome development, it is also an unfinished process. For example, the development of the Optional Protocol entailed a compromise whereby governments are permitted to enlist sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds provided the recruitment is voluntary and supported by the informed consent of the child’s parents or legal guardians. Not only governments in the global South, but also those such as the United States and the United Kingdom in the global North, continue to recruit significant numbers of children under this provision. Although such recruitment cannot be effected through transparent force, its permissibility means there is no clear line against child recruitment in general and could allow forcible recruiters to fall back on the rationalisation that many countries and groups militarily exploit children. A significant step forward would be to prohibit all forms of recruitment of people under eighteen years of age. In fact, the global Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers (www.child-soldiers.org) has vigorously lobbied for this “straight eighteen” approach. Campaigns along similar lines are badly needed in the United States, which is one of only two UN member states (the other is Somalia) that have not ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Comprehensive legal norms prohibiting child recruitment will not by themselves deter coerced child recruitment by commanders, many of whom flout the law. To be effective, laws must be enforced and have teeth, but in fact, many child-recruiters have enjoyed impunity. Neither charged with having committed severe legal and human rights violations nor prosecuted and sentenced accordingly, recruiters have felt relatively free to abduct and otherwise exploit children.
An important step towards ending impunity has been the criminal prosecution of child-recruiters at international and national levels. In 1998, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) defined as a war crime the recruitment or active use of children under fifteen years of age. The first case heard by the ICC involved Thomas Lubanga, a former commander of an armed group in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who was arrested in 2005 and charged with the war crime of having recruited children. In August 2011, the ICC judges closed the hearing of this landmark case and moved into a decision-making phase, the results of which had not been announced as of the end of January 2012. Regardless of how the court rules, this case is a milestone because it signalled that recruiters could be apprehended and prosecuted vigorously, adding teeth to international law. This international effort is complemented by steps at national levels to prosecute child-recruiters for their crimes. In Sierra Leone, for example, a special court issued an indictment of former Liberian president, Charles Taylor, on the specific charge of having recruited children during the war in Liberia. Collectively, these international and national efforts are likely to have a deterrent effect since recruiters will be less willing forcibly to recruit children if they face serious penalties as a result.
It is unlikely, however, that legal prosecutions will end child recruitment. For one thing, it is difficult to apprehend commanders of well-armed forces and groups, and few recruiters of children are actually caught and prosecuted with good evidence. Because legal prosecutions are highly expensive and time-consuming, they strain the capacity of most justice mechanisms. To make these mechanisms more effective, the international community should invest significantly more funds and human resources in them than have been committed to date.
International justice mechanisms such as the ICC are also limited by their universalised approach. This universality is a source of strength since it sets and enforces a universal standard, but it may be a poor fit with specific local contexts. In northern Uganda, for example, the ICC promised to charge Joseph Kony, the LRA leader, with war crimes for his abductions of children. However, the Acholi people, who had borne the burden of his attacks and also of marginalisation by the Ugandan government, favoured local mechanisms of non-violent conflict resolution. They were outraged by the external imposition of international law and procedures, which they viewed as an abuse of power. In general, universalised approaches are blunt instruments and may not be appropriate in all contexts. International steps should be taken only with the support of local people, without which fragile ceasefires may unravel. Also, efforts should be made to tailor international approaches to local circumstances as a means of achieving sustainable, locally owned outcomes for justice.
Fortunately, international human rights standards may be used in ways that avoid imposition and enable local ownership and support. During the Angolan war that ended in 2002, I once asked an elder in a village whether there were any child soldiers there. He replied “No”, but there were sixteen- and seventeen-year-old boys with guns sitting nearby. When I asked specifically about them, he replied that they were not children. In much of sub-Saharan Africa, young males are regarded as adults if they are soldiering, which is viewed as adult work. Also, the boys had completed the ceremonies that marked their transition to adulthood.
Rather than argue with the elder about whether the young people with guns were children or adults, the Angolan child-protection team I worked with took a more respectful, dialogue-oriented approach. Asked what the young males would typically have been doing at their age if the country were not at war, the elder said they would probably be farming, acquiring animals and a house, getting married, and starting their families. As the discussion continued, the elder and the child-protection workers agreed that war and fighting were bad for young people, who should not be carrying guns. From there it was a relatively short step for the child-protection team to note that Angolan national law prohibited the recruitment of minors under eighteen years of age. Related thus to existing ideas about what is good for young people and to national law, child rights were rendered less mysterious and less “alien” than they otherwise would probably have appeared. In building an international environment that supports children’s rights, respectful processes of gaining local commitment and emotional investment deserve greater attention than they have received in widely used top-down approaches.
Besides legal prosecution and punishment, there are other measures that the international community can take to end impunity. In 2004, the United Nations issued a ground-breaking resolution—UN Resolution 1612—that defined six grave violations of children’s rights: killing or maiming of children, recruitment or use of children by armed forces or armed groups, attacks on schools or hospitals, rape or other sexual violence against children, abduction of children, and denial of humanitarian access to children. To monitor progress in eliminating these crimes, Resolution 1612 mandated the establishment of a global Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism (MRM). Countries in which these grave violations are committed face not only public moral censure but also the prospect of penalties such as economic sanctions, restrictions on leaders’ international travel, and reduced access to military weaponry. Unfortunately, there has been more monitoring and reporting than action, in part because a single veto at the Security Council can block action.
Civil Action and Moral Transformation
It would be a mistake to think that ending child recruitment is best left to international legal and child-protection experts or to government authorities. There is much that can and should be done by civilians at local level. For example, through dialogue and education, local leaders can reach agreement that children should not be recruited and take steps to prevent child recruitment by non-state groups such as the paramilitaries or civilian home guards that exist in many parts of the world.
In developed nations, too, civilians can take useful steps to prevent child recruitment. For example, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers has organised civilian campaigns in the United Kingdom to prevent all child recruitment. Similarly, the Global Campaign for Education (www.campaignforeducation.org) has organised campaigns to end the attacks on schools that frequently result in children’s abduction into armed groups. These and related efforts, such as the campaign to get the Convention on the Rights of the Child ratified in the United States, provide potentially important channels through which ordinary citizens may contribute to ending forced child recruitment.
To enable widespread action by ordinary citizens, there is need for a popular transformation of moral imagination to end child-soldiering. In the United States, the end of slavery depended on the moral transformation made possible by the spread and societal acceptance of abolitionist values. To end child-soldiering, it is essential for ordinary citizens to stimulate a moral awakening of comparable magnitude and translate that awakening into concerted political action. Only through such moral transformation and action will we fulfil our collective responsibility to end slavery, promote the wellbeing of children, and advance freedom.