23 November 2012

Africa: Reimagining Child Soldiers in International Law

book review

In challenging typical accounts of child soldiers as passive, faultless victims, Mark Drumbl's book makes a valuable contribution to the understanding of child soldiering.

Child soldiers crop up at various points in popular culture, manning checkpoints in the film Blood Diamond or being abductedby the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in #Kony2012. Perhaps we have read about them in reports in the media or by NGOs. The child soldiers we imagine are inevitably always young, male and African, walking through the bush barely able to carry their AK-47s. They have a vacant look in their eyes - plied with drugs or alcohol - and appear as passive, blameless victims.

Reimagining Child Soldiers

This might be true for some child soldiers, but other realities need to be taken into account. In Mark Drumbl's book Reimagining Child Soldiers in International Law and Policy, the author warns us against settling on this faultless, passive image in the interests of the children involved in conflict and the societies around them.

Drumbl starts by debunking the typical imagining of the child soldier by deploying some startling statistics. First, the majority are not as young as is commonly portrayed - most are adolescent teenagers between the ages of 15 and 17. Second, a figure which feeds into wider gender arguments about women in war, he explains that 40% of child soldiers are girls. Thirdly, it is explained that only 40% of child soldiers are in Africa - the rest can be found on other continents including North America and Europe where, for example, under-18s can legally join the British Armed Forces.

It is also important to note that many of these child soldiers do not serve on the frontline in combat. They may be fighters but they also be sex slaves or work as porters, cooks, scouts and sentries. And many of these child soldiers are not coerced but may exercise choice in joining, acting within and leaving armed groups.

Judicial confusion

According to Drumbl, we are not the only ones who have been influenced by the image of all child soldiers as faultless-passive victims. The international community - including lawyers, policy makers and NGOs - have exported and reproduced this image through trials of combatants, reintegration programmes in former conflict zones, international agreements and treaties.

This leads to an odd binary: children involved in armed groups are seen as a single cluster of faceless, blameless victims but this sharply disappears after any they reach the age of eighteen. They then become seen as fully responsible for their actions, and in cases of atrocities deserve the full force of international law.

With the reality of child soldiering as a complex mix of a variety of experiences from voluntary enlistment to abduction and from the willing execution of atrocities to forced slavery, does treating all child soldiers the same make sense? For Drumbl, understanding these nuances could lead to better solutions. Rather than dealing with them as one category, the international community should assist local communities with different programmes to rehabilitate and reintegrate child soldiers according to the differing needs of the children affected, he argues.

Drumbl's prescriptions in his book aim for a broader conception of justice than the simple retributive justice of international trials for adult perpetrators, drawing on his earlier book Atrocity, Punishment and International Law. Instead of retributive justice in the form of trials, Drumbl advocates the use of other transitional justice processes including local ceremonies, reinsertion rites, truth and reconciliation commissions and elements of community service. These can meaningfully help to rehabilitate a larger proportion of former-child soldiers than justice that simply targets adult perpetrators.

Against its aims

Reimagining Child Soldiers in International Law and Policy is groundbreaking in its broad coverage of child soldier experiences and the ways in which the international community and various governments address the problem of child soldiering. However it is not without its limitations.

The first is admitted by Drumbl in his first chapter when he acknowledges that despite the fact that only 40% of child soldiers worldwide are to be found in Africa, the book nevertheless focuses on African conflicts. It is a shame that whilst trying to refashion the picture of child soldiering as a global rather than an African phenomenon, Drumbl still draws heavily on events in northern Uganda, Sierra Leone and Liberia. This is an important frame of reference throughout the book.

Drumbl also ends up with a narrower range of transitional justice prescriptions for child soldiers than one might expect given his emphasis on diversity and nuance in his approach. At a recent presentation by Drumbl at the School of Oriental and African studies in London, Phil Clark, lecturer in African Politics, pointed out that despite acknowledging the existence of child soldiers exercising their own initiative in committing and organising atrocities, Drumbl categorises all child soldiers as low-level perpetrators. This precludes advocating other punitive measures such as prison sentences.

Phil Clark's own work on the gacaca courts in Rwanda shows that community-administered justice and sentencing can play an important role in healing a society after atrocities are committed. There is no reason why similar sorts of processes cannot play a productive role in society in the case of atrocities committed by child soldiers acting through their own agency.

But the problems with Drumbl's book are in the detail of the approach rather than the overall paradigm shift he advocates. Moving away from the universal image of child soldiers as faultless-passive victims is crucial if we are to deal with child soldiers on their own terms rather than through a narrow Western framework. Reimagining Child Soldiers in International Law and Policy is a crucial step in the right direction. As Drumbl argues, to get rid of child soldiering in the world we must understand it properly and his book goes some way to helping us gain that understanding.

Lewis Brooks is a graduate with a BA in International Relations from the University of Exeter. He has a particular interest in African conflict resolution and peacekeeping.

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