Military enlistment

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What is the issue?

Since the UN treaty on the involvement of children in armed conflict came into force in 2002, ratifying States are not allowed to send recruits under the age of 18 to war. But some countries, including high-income ones, continue to enlist under-18s for military training before they can be deployed, which carries its own risks to children’s rights and welfare. Three-quarters of States worldwide no longer enlist under-18s into their armed forces, but among those that still do is the United Kingdom, on which our research to-date has focused.

The UK is one of only 16 countries worldwide to recruit from age 16 and the only country in Europe and the only NATO member to recruit from this age. Under-18s make up a quarter of new British army recruits, the majority of them aged 16. Several other high-income countries - including France, Germany, the USA and Canada - enlist children from age 17, but they make up a much smaller proportion of the intake. There are, of course, striking differences between the recruitment of under-18s by armed forces in these countries and the exploitation of children by armed forces and groups in global conflict situations, but worldwide efforts to stop child recruitment are undermined when the world’s most powerful States refuse to recognise that enlisting children into the military is not in their best interests.

What is the problem?

Military enlistment of children is fundamentally incompatible with children’s rights and welfare. Research on the UK shows that military training puts the minds and bodies of young recruits under intense stress, which can cause them both short- and long-term problems. Studies show that soldiers who enlist at a younger age experience higher rates of mental health and behavioural problems than both older recruits and their civilian peers, and are more likely to be injured during training.

Military recruitment also encourages young people to leave education early. In the UK, recruits are the only young people under the age of 18 who do not have to participate in a minimum level of education each year, and the little education they receive is of a lower standard than in the civilian education system. With a third of all under-18s who join the army dropping out during training, many also end up out of education and work. 

Especially concerning is that the British army enlists under-18s mainly to later place them in frontline roles, particularly the infantry, which suffers more fatalities in warfare than any other part of the armed forces. During the war in Afghanistan, for instance, British soldiers who had joined at 16 and completed training were twice as likely to die on deployment than adult recruits. 

The military can also be a hostile culture for many young recruits from poor backgrounds, as well as female recruits, LGBT people and religious and ethnic minorities. Bullying and harassment are more common in the military than in civilian workplaces, and 15 percent of all servicewomen surveyed in the Army Sexual Harassment Survey 2018 said they suffered sexual harassment in the past year. 

What is the solution?

All armed forces around the world should adopt a ‘Straight-18’ policy for military recruitment. All governments, including the UK, need to recognise that enlisting children into the military is not in their best interests. Recruiting from age 16 is a policy choice, not a necessity, with most countries staffing their armed forces effectively by only enlisting adults, and research shows that the UK could do the same. Support for this reform is widespread: the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights, and all four Children’s Commissioners of the UK have called for the recruitment age to be raised to 18, as have children’s rights organisations, parliamentarians, church groups, veterans’ groups, health professionals and young people themselves. 


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