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You’ve just decided what the age requirements for different military tasks should be.  Now see if your decisions agree with the human rights standards adopted by countries around the world.
The Convention on the Rights of the Child
In 1989, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).   The CRC spells out the basic human rights that all children have, no matter where they live.  These basic rights include:

  • Survival
  • Protection from abuse and exploitation
  • Full participation in family, cultural and social life
  • Development of one's personality, talents and abilities to their fullest potential

World leaders decided that children needed a special convention just for them because they are less physically and mentally mature than adults.  Children are easily threatened by physical force because they’re smaller, and more easily intimidated because they’re younger. Therefore, they need special protection. By creating the CRC, the United Nations made sure that the world recognized that children have human rights too.

Article 38 of The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) requires governments to take all possible steps to ensure that children under the age of 15 have no direct part in hostilities. It states that no child below 15 should be recruited into the armed forces.

The CRC is the most universally accepted human rights instrument in history—it has been ratified by every country in the world except two, the United States and Somalia. By ratifying the CRC, governments agree to amend and create laws and policies that are in children’s best interests.

The Optional Protocol
While the CRC defines a child as “any person under 18 years of age,” it does allow countries to recruit children as young as 15 into their military. Because this contradicted many of the rights set out in the CRC, the Optional Protocol to the CRC (OP) was drafted.  The OP raises the age requirements for compulsory service in the military by:

  • Outlawing the mandatory recruitment of anyone under18 years of age into the military.
  • Requiring states to "take all feasible measures to ensure" that people younger than 18 years old "do not take an active part in hostilities."

Some of the countries that ratified the OP chose to define what they mean by “feasible measures,” like the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and the United States of America.

Setting Limits
The OP also sets age limits for those who want to voluntarily join the military. Each country that ratifies the OP has to decide the minimum age that a child can volunteer to serve in its armed forces.  However, the OP requires that that age MUST BE HIGHER than the age set by the CRC for mandatory recruitment, and that children must have their parents’ permission.  This means that it’s possible that 16-year-olds could voluntarily join their governments’ military, if their parents agree.  However, most countries have set the voluntary recruitment age at 17- and 18-year-olds.

The OP also sets standards for “NSAs” or Non-State Agencies—a highly unusual step for an international treaty.   It states that armed forces that are not part of a country’s military may not “recruit or use in hostilities” anyone under 18 years of age. 

The OP became legally binding February 2002, when the first 10 countries ratified it.  Today 114 countries have ratified the OP.  Of the 193 countries that have ratified the CRC, 78 of them have not ratified the OP (33 of them have signed, but not ratified it).  The US is the only country to ratify the OP and NOT the CRC. 

Reflection Questions

  • Why do you think that the age at which a person is required by law to join the military is higher than the age at which a person can volunteer to join?
  • Do you think children older than 16 should be able to voluntarily join their country’s armed forces?
  • Does the age limit for voluntary recruitment violate any of the rights described in the CRC?
  • Why does the OP allow someone older than 16 to voluntarily join their country's military forces but prohibits them from voluntarily joining a rebel or opposition militia?

Familiarize yourself with both the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Optional Protocol before doing the comparison activity in this step. You will need the print out of your responses to the activity in Step One in order to answer the questions in the next activity.

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Illustration: Felicity O. Yost. Source: Marie, In the Shadow of the Lion, by Jerry Piasecki. © United Nations, 2001