The Recruitment of Child Soldiers in the African Great Lakes Region

The Recruitment of Child Soldiers in the African Great Lakes Region

“Child soldiers are ideal because they don’t
complain, they don’t expect to be paid, and if
you tell them to kill, they kill.”

-Senior officer in the Chadian National Army

In a world that praises itself for the progressive development of International Humanitarian Law (the laws of armed conflict) and Human Rights Law, the ongoing participation of children in armed conflict is a flagrant violation of these rights and a scar on the conscience of human kind. The Great Lakes Region in Central Africa has been and still is the scenery for many of the world’s deadliest conflicts of the twentieth and twenty-first century. In the armed conflicts in Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda, child soldiers have been, and in some instances still are, recruited by the different armed factions. Therefore, it is up to the Human Rights Council of the United Nations to come up with solutions to solve the ongoing violations of human rights.

In order to provide delegates with the best possible preparation for these intense days of debate and negotiations, this background paper will provide you with a historical background, case studies, the Questions a Resolution Must Answer and a bibliography that will give you an indication of interesting books, articles and websites. Though the background paper is a good start, further research on the topic at hand and your country’s position in particular is essential for a good preparation for the conference. We wish you all the best and we are looking forward to an interesting conference, where we expect high-level debate and original solutions for a problem that affects the lives of so many young people, who – if they are able to leave their life as a soldier behind- have to build up a new civilian life with the traumatic experiences of their youth with them. Let us finish this introduction with words of encouragement, by Michael Wessels, a professor from Columbia University studying child soldiers: “We know much about what needs to be done. The question is whether we have the vision, fortitude, and commitment needed to end this cruel form of child exploitation” .

Historical Background

Children in armed conflict
A few examples will help to illustrate that the active participation of child soldiers in armed conflict is not a new phenomenon. The Children’s Crusades of 1212 included thousands of boys and girls, aged between 10 and 12 ; Napoleon’s army included soldiers as young as twelve years. However, the current participation of children in armed conflict is unprecedented, on two different levels: the numbers of children involved and the extent of their participation (p.27) . How can we explain this?

First of all, the nature of war has changed in recent decades, especially since the end of the Cold War. The Clausewitzean concept of war regarded war as an armed struggle between two or more armies fighting on behalf of states. However, the actors in the ‘new wars’ are state armies, but also non-state actors, such as rebel groups, guerilla, paramilitary groups, warlords, organized criminal groups and militia. The actors in these new wars, including the state military, are more inclined to recruit child soldiers.

Secondly, in the ideal type Clausewitzean traditional wars the roles of combatants and civilians were strictly separated. The goal of the war was to defeat the enemy forces and the civilian population should not be harmed. However, in the current wars, often civil wars spreading across borders, the civilian population becomes the target of the war. It is part of a policy of targeting civilians - in a conflict environment in which the lines between civilians and combatants become blurred- to abduct and recruit children as soldiers.

Thirdly, developments in military technology also have an impact. Small children can now handle weapons such as M-16 and AK-47 assault rifles. Hand grenades, landmines and other forms of explosives are also easily carried and thrown or planted by children

History of the region
The Great Lakes Region, when using a wide definition, encompasses Burundi, Rwanda, North-eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. It is a region that experienced a lot of armed conflicts in which child soldiers participated. A very short history of those countries, especially focused on their participation in armed conflicts, will be given.

The 1990’s and early 2000’s were marked by violence between Hutu and Tutsi, followed and accompanied by long negotiations on peace agreements and power sharing arrangements. However, the Forces for National Liberation (FLN; also called NLF or Frolina) are still active and are known to recruit child soldiers. In May 2008, a ceasefire was signed between the FLN and the government.

Rwanda was the location of one of the most tragic events of the 20th century: the Rwandan genocide of 1994. In this genocide, children were active as participants and victims of the extreme violence Rwanda is also an extremely interesting case when considering post-conflict conciliation and justice. These experiences can be useful when discussing the reintegration into society of former child soldiers.

Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)
The DRC was the theatre of one the most violent conflicts of human history and the guesses are that up to 5.4 million people have been killed in the conflict. In 1996-1997, an armed rebellion led by the Alliance of Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Congo (AFDL), supported by Rwanda and Uganda, managed to overthrow Mobutu in May 1997. The new regime, Laurent-Désiré Kabila was soon at war against the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD), the Congolese Liberation Movement (MLC) and the RCD-Liberation Movement (RCD-ML). All parties in the armed conflict are known to use children and the forced recruitment of children increased dramatically in late 2002 and early 2003 . In 2003, a peace agreement was brokered and democratic elections were held in 2006. However, in the Kivu Regions, in Ituri and Kalanga, violence and armed conflict have continued

Since 1986, Uganda has been led by Museveni. The country supported Kabila in his effort to overthrow Mobutu, but later send its armed forces to fight the Kabila government. Internally, it is fighting an intense civil war against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), led by Joseph Kony, against whom the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant in 2005 . Honwana calls the LRA ‘notorious locally and internationally for its use of child soldiers. Children as young as eight are kidnapped, abused to the point of submission, and turned into merciless killers. In the LRA base camps, gruesome initiations take place in which new recruits are forced to kill another child – often a sister or brother – or be killed themselves. Girls become ‘wives’ of soldiers; younger children run errands and carry loot’ . This quote indicates that the recruitment of child soldiers by the LRA should be an essential topic for the delegates.

Case study: child soldier recruitment by Mai Mai and LRA militia's
The provinces of North and South Kivu, Maniema, Katanga and Oriental in the eastern part of DRC have been mired in conflict for the past five decades. The various wars between DRC, Rwanda and the neighbouring countries have taken the lives of millions of civilians. Many reports indicate that as much as 30,000 child soldiers are in Congo (10 % of all the child soldiers in the world) . Some of the most notorious groups operating in these parts of DRC are the Mai-Mai militias and the LRA rebel groups. Both are known for their systematic recruitment of child soldiers.

Mai Mai Militias
The term Mai Mai was first used in the early 90's, and is used to describe local militia groups based in Eastern DRC, who regard themselves as the rightful owners of these lands. They are organized along ethnic lines, and are operating in groups ranging from 60 soldiers up to a 1000. There are many myths surrounding the Mai Mai militias, including that they possess potions which make them impervious to bullets, or that they cannot touch a person who is not a Mai Mai. It's important to mention these beliefs, because they also have implications towards the children in their communities. These are regarded as 'pure', and believed to possess special powers of protection . This makes them ideal to prepare the potions, or to serve as guards for a local warlord.

In battle, the potions do nothing to stop the bullet of an enemy AK-47, but with alcohol and hallucinogenic drugs the children become frenzied and fearless combatants. By recruiting them as soldiers, the warlords ensure that they are bound to their group at a very young age, which is makes it a lot harder to leave.

According to the Report of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (UN Doc. S/2008/693, 10 November 2008), the Mai Mai militias account for the highest number of children within their ranks . The recruitment can be linked to the conflicts in the region. A surge in the violence between the various factions operating in North and South Kivu results in an increase in child soldier recruitment and vice versa . This illustrates the underlying cause of the recruitment: the ongoing conflict in Eastern DRC between warring Rwandese factions and the Congolese army. As long as this conflict is not resolved, the uncertainty it brings along will result in continued recruitment of children. These quotations from a Mai Mai representative are illustrative of their reasoning:

"When it comes to fighting, we mobilize the children and young people. And even those who stay in the village and don’t participate directly in the fighting are capable of protecting the population."

"Children are available as they have nothing else to do, [they are] extremely obedient to orders, they make few demands which are easy to satisfy and many of them join as virgins which helps us preserve the rituals as children perform these on adults."

The Lord Resistance Army
This militia originally operated in Northern Uganda, fighting the Ugandan regime of President Museveni. The International Criminal Court has issued arrest warrants against founder Joseph Kony and four of his generals, but to this day none of them have been brought before the court . The LRA operates in Uganda, Sudan and in the north-eastern provinces of DRC. In recent years, the LRA forces have carried out attacks in the Makombo region, killing hundreds and capturing children to be used as soldiers (boys) or sex slaves (girls) .
During these attacks, their methods were always the same: soldiers dressed in army uniforms would enter a village, posing as government forces demanding supplies. They then asked for a place where many people gathered, preferably a school (indicating they were looking for children) or market. Upon entering, they would then isolate the children, and force them to kill disobedient civilians (child or adult) with sticks . This is a deliberate tactic to scar and terrify them into obedience, and to make sure the children are stigmatized and unable to return to their communities even if they manage to escape.

Recent developments and current situation
Below are a number of significant documents, treaties or events that relate to the recruitment of Child soldiers.

1990: UN Convention on the Rights of the Child . Article 38 deals with the role of children in armed conflict. Interestingly enough, it only forbids children under 15 to take a direct part in hostilities, adding that when considering children between 15 and 18 years old, States Parties have to give priority to the oldest ones . In the Additional Protocol to this Convention, adopted by the General Assembly in 2000, the minimum age for people to participate in the conduct of hostilities became 18 years.

1994-1996: the UN GA commissioned the Machel study on the impact of armed conflict on children in 1994 and Machel presents the ground-breaking report in 1996, which includes specific recommendations for action .

1997: GA creates the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict. This office was commissioned to raise awareness and promote the collection of information about the plight of children affected by armed conflict, as well as to foster international cooperation to promote respect for children’s rights amid such conflicts

1999: African charter on the rights and welfare of the child . The African Union adopted this charter to complement the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which according to them, did not devote sufficient attention to socio-cultural and economic conditions in Africa.

2000: the UN general assembly adopts GA resolution A/RES/54/263, an optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict. Both the DRC and Uganda have ratified this document. It forbids the participation of any children under 18 years old in the conduct of hostilities, thereby strengthening the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

2004: SC resolution S/RES/1539, requesting that the Secretary General provide an accurate monitoring and reporting system to gather information on the recruitment and use of child soldiers. This resolution also mentions a possible ban on export or supply of small arms for countries that continue to allow the recruitment of child soldiers. Followed in 2005 by SC resolution S/RES/1612, which further specified this monitoring system and resolution S/RES/1882 reaffirmed the intention to take action against countries that continue to allow the recruitment of child soldiers.

2007: The Machel ten-year strategic review is presented as part of the report of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict (A/62/228). It expresses grave concern for the plight of child soldiers in DRC, but on a slightly brighter note marks that the focus in southern Sudan has shifted from prevention of child soldier recruitment to re-integration into society .

2007: The 'Paris Principles' are adopted by 76 member states, aimed at ending the unlawful recruitment and use of children in warfare .

2009: SC resolution S/RES/1882, reaffirming the intention to take action against countries that continue to allow the recruitment of child soldiers.

2011: SC resolution S/RES/1998, requesting a full report on the implementation of its resolutions and presidential statements on children and armed conflict.

The International Criminal Court
The International Criminal Court has also played a big part in prosecuting war criminals and warlords involved in the systematic recruitment and use of child soldiers.
In 2005 the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Joseph Kony, Vincent Otti, Okot Odhiambo, Dominic Ongwen and Raska Luwkiya of the LRA. However, none of them have been arrested yet.
In 2006, Thomas Lubanga was the first person ever arrested under a warrant from the ICC. The prosecutor of the ICC charged him with the war crime of enlisting and conscripting children under the age of fifteen, and using them to participate actively in hostilities. His trial has ended, and a judgment is expected in 2012. Other Congolese generals: Bosco Ntaganda, Germain Katanga and Mathieu Ngudjolo have all been arrested on the same charges, and are currently facing trial.

The situation in the great lakes region has not escalated in recent years, but the region remains a powder keg of conflict. Rwandan Hutu and Tutsi continue to operate inside the DRC, where they are fighting against each other, against the Congolese army and against numerous rebel groups. The LRA has been severely weakened, but remains active in Uganda, DRC and southern Sudan, where they wreak havoc among the civilian population. Though the spotlights of the international media and the international political community are not always on these conflicts, the human tragedies are still ongoing.

Questions a Resolution must address:
- How can the recruitment of child soldiers be monitored in a better way?
- How can the UN Human Rights Council improve the implementation of the ban on the recruitment of child soldiers?
- What action can the UN Human Rights Council take against those countries that still allow the recruitment of child soldiers?
- What can be done to bring those responsible for the recruitment of child soldiers to justice?
- How can the UN assist in the re-integration of child soldiers into civil society?
- What can the UN do to eliminate the root cause of child soldier recruitment: continued conflict in poverty-stricken regions?
- What, specifically, can the UN Human Rights Council do within its mandate?

Useful documents

The Convention on the Rights of the Child: (

Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict: (

Coalition to stop the use of child soldiers, briefing paper on Mai Mai child soldier recruitment and use, february 2010 (

Human Rights Watch report on the LRA attacks in Northern Congo ( The Uppsala conflict database can be a useful tool to find out about the basic facts of the conflict going on in the Great Lakes Region and about the actors involved.