On the use of child soldiers in Mali

23 Jan

Always rearing its ugly head through one news source or another, it seems that every single day I stumble across some report detailing the use of children in armed conflict in some region of the world. More often than not, these children are typically wrapped up in conflicts alongside rebel groups or the government forces trying to hold them back in some country in Africa. While the usual suspects tend to be clustered around the Great Lakes region or the Horn of Africa, this week we see continued child soldiering in Mali, home of the world’s newest international military intervention campaign.

This time, while rebel groups are guilty of incorporating youth as young as 10 into their ranks (for the attractive price of $700 for their families), this week’s reports highlight children who are fighting alongside Malian troops to hold off the rebel advance. The recent French pledge for military assistance, providing 2500 troops to add to an expected influx of 2000 African troops from neighboring countries, that sent the intervention in motion has ushered in the involvement of a growing international community. The United States has been hesitant to increase its footprint on the ground, but pledged its support through helping to fly in French troops to Mali. This brings to light yet another instance in which taking a firm stance on the use of child soldiers must be ignored in order for the West to protect its own security interests.

With rebel groups comprised in part of the Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb terrorist group, France, the United States and their allies would be keen to see the end of the rebel advance southward through Mali. This will effectively trump any considerations for ceasing to support governments who incorporate children into their military ranks.

It could be argued that it is these children’s right to join in the fight. After all, this is not a situation like that of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda and surrounding regions, which has relied almost solely on kidnapping and abducting youth into their ranks for their continued armed operations. There is no report of Malian troops forcibly recruiting these youth. So let’s assume for the sake of the thought I will end with in this post that these children, as young as 11 years old, find it to be their God-given duty to defend Mali and its people from the Islamist advance. In more ancient times, this commitment to armed defense would have been considered an act of heroism and even a right of passage in societies all over the world. Though today, we have frameworks like the Convention for the Rights of the Child and the Child Soldier Prevention Act (which is rarely enforced), which dictate that the use of children in armed conflict is not only illegal according to international law, but is a morally bankrupt practice.

Now, I whole-heartedly agree. I personally believe that children have no place in modern war. The Spartan-esque traditions we see glorified in films and television is a relic of the past which has since been replaced and made obsolete by the (albeit arguably fundamentally flawed) invention of universal access to education and respect for the rights of the child to which the international community is supposed to adhere. According to emerging, if not established international norms, the place for children is in schools – not on the battlefield, not in the labor force, but in school. Now, as an ‘international educator’ I recognize that this is VERY FAR from the reality around the world. Children are needed at home, children are needed for family income, and these are sacrifices that families choose to make for their survival. That is a whole other can of worms. But using children on the battlefield, putting a gun in their hands, making them take the lives of another human being, another child, their own family members (again, I recognize this is likely not the case with the children in Mali at the center of this discussion), is fundamentally wrong. I have heard people attempting to argue against this, and I invite their comments on this blog post.

HOWEVER! (where would critical thought be without this wonderful, wonderful word)…as a citizen of the United States, I recognize and believe that the interests and security of all people must be defended. Ensuring the security of citizens is a state’s primary responsibility, so it makes perfect sense why this intervention is paying absolutely no attention to the issue of children on the battlefield. Even if attention was paid, how far could it go? Recent attempts to address the issue of child soldiering were most famously made in the brief life of the Kony 2012 movement, which at the turn of the new year, has ultimately failed. Here was a case of a public outcry for military intervention to bring child soldiering to a halt in Northern Uganda (more accurately, in the surrounding Great Lakes region where Joseph Kony’s LRA actually still exists). This attempt was mostly brushed over and forgotten by the international community. The roots and causes for the LRA conflict were of course oversimplified by the Kony 2012 campaign, but for a brief moment, the world cared about preventing children from taking up arms in battle. However, despite the LRA being labelled as a terrorist group, they pose no immediate threat to Western security, certainly not to the degree that Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb could be argued to pose…

So as I follow the rebel advance and the Malian-French defense in the news, I am left plagued with a moral dilemma for all involved and all invested: is ignoring the use and abuse of children in war worth defending national and international interests? Is there any way to reconcile the two? A recent discussion at our Human Rights & Education Colloquium this past Fall semester left many of us asking similar questions, and left me expressing my growing pessimism for this phenomenon. With rehabilitation centers for former LRA combatants being closed in Uganda and more children taking up arms in Mali, are we likely to see the end of the use of child soldiers in our lifetime?


7 Responses to “On the use of child soldiers in Mali”

  1. Evan George January 23, 2013 at 3:36 pm #

    Unfortunately, while probably less hostile than I was the last time we had this discussion, I am still convinced that the use of child soldiers will never end. The formula of: “high youth populations + low or non existent economic opportunities + social/political conflict + inadequate foreign support = child soliders” will always be true. While I am as disgusted with the existence of child soldiers as you are, attempting to solve that problem without first solving the variables that produce them is treating the symptom and not the cause. I don’t know if an attitude of “lets just forget about it and give up,” is a better solution; infact I would rather we all continue to fail in the endeavor than just give up on it entirely, but I wish the greater ngo community would stop accepting their role as a bandage and look more at the causes of these problems.

    • Devin January 23, 2013 at 4:15 pm #

      I completely agree Evan. Like displacement, sexual violence, and the plethora of other issues facing these regions, the root causes must be addressed. Even increased global attention to the problem and bans on its practice are not enough. Systematic change is absolutely required to address the elements in place that bring these issues about in the first place. The Mali case is particularly interesting when you see that families are being offered $700.00 for the services of their children in armed conflict. That’s quite an attractive offer, and in cultures where the lines of youth tend to be blurred with earlier requirements for adult-level responsibility, I can imagine many families find it difficult to pass up. Then the question becomes one of norm formation and norm shifts – I wonder if this will actually come about in our lifetimes. For now, I can’t help but say probably not.

  2. georgina January 23, 2013 at 10:11 pm #

    I agree. Sadly, I don’t think we are going to see the end of it in our lifetime. Yesterday was Uganda and Sierra Leone (just to name a couple), today is Mali and Syria (and who knows where else), tomorrow it will be a similar story, but a different country. Reality is that child soldering seems not be a pressing issue to the international community or the INGOs community. This is a very complicated and delicate issue that needs to be addressed and I’m not just talking about awareness, but something has to be done by the international community. HOWEVER, it’s well known that the UN and all its agencies work better when in sync with the Unites States, but since the United States has not ratified the CRC I don’t see many things happening…but being the dreamer and optimistic that I am, I believe that despite all the baureaucracies and the complexity of the issue – something can be done.

    • Evan George January 24, 2013 at 6:13 pm #

      Its disheartening when people smarter than me agree with my pessimism, but grabbing hold of Georgina’s glimpse of optimism, and a small sense of duty to Kathryn Bolkovac (I just watched the Whistleblower last night), here are two small, out of the box, ideas that could do something to stop the issue. In no particular order, the first idea is a “Soliders for Students” program. Imagine if UN Peacekeepers where actually capable of enforcing peace and being partial/not neutral. Clearly this would only work in particular situations where one side can be identified as “in the right” and another is not (though difficult, I refuse to believe this is impossible). The exchange would be an additional Peacekeeper, now called Peacemaker, solider for every child enrolled in school. Parents would receive a living stipend, and in an ideal situation, students would receive room and borad at the school. There would also be a penalty for any child found in the line of duty. Not a perfect concept, but would work as a “carrot” rewarding those who cooperate. The second idea was going to be a “stick” approach, where INGOs refused to give aid to any area where child soliders are known to be used. However, while typing the explanation, I (in a way) realized that this could aggravate the problem, leaving children with no choice but to join military groups for survival needs. While I still strongly disagree with the whole concept of impartiality, I will need to work on how INGOs can do their part. Well I hope my only idea is not more humanitarian intervention, especially since after that class we took, but perhaps better humanitarian intervention where appropriate can do something.

  3. Devin January 25, 2013 at 3:11 pm #


    Human rights abuses by the Malian army are discussed in this article, but no mention is made of the children in their ranks. Further evidence of apathy towards the issue.


  1. What does a successful intervention look like? « The League of Discerning Do-Gooders - January 28, 2013

    […] the only endpoint it could possibly have had in mind. And all those other Malian unknowns – the children pressed into military service and bodies dumped down wells; the human element which is conspicuously absent from a static […]

  2. What does a successful intervention look like? | Human Rights and Education Collaborative - May 23, 2013

    […] the only endpoint it could possibly have had in mind. And all those other Malian unknowns – the children pressed into military service and bodies dumped down wells; the human element which is conspicuously absent from a static […]

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