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Britain ignores world opinion on child soldiers


The latest scrutiny by the House of Commons of the military recruitment and deployment of under-18s, shows that, as in other matters, it is not so much the watchdog of the people as New Labour’s poodle, whilst world opinion is ignored.

Britain is theoretically not supposed to have permanent armed forces. Under the Bill of Rights, agreed by Parliament after the deposition of James II in 1688, it was laid down that ‘the raising or keeping of a standing army within the kingdom in time of peace unless it be with the consent of Parliament is against the law. Until 1961 that consent was renewed annually by fresh Acts of Parliament; since then a fresh Armed Forces Act has been required only every five years, with the power to maintain the army renewed in the intervening years by Orders in Council.

The quinquennial Armed Forces Bills provide an opportunity to review current legislation and procedures, and this is meant to be facilitated by a Commons Select Committee examining the Bill in detail, and receiving evidence from interested organisations.

One of the recurring features in evidence to Armed Forces Select Committees since 1986 has been the treatment of under-18s from the point of view of both recruitment and deployment on active service. The Armed Forces Acts have never laid down a minimum age for recruitment, although in recent years the Ministry of Defence has created its own ‘in-house’ rule of 16 as a minimum age. Apart, however, from the question whether someone on his or her 16th birthday should be recruited to the awesome responsibility of killing or being killed, there is the inequity that such a young person is required to sign on for a minimum period expiring on the 22nd birthday, whereas a person over 18 signs on for a minimum period of only four years.

With regard to deployment on active service, there is no legislation about minimum age, not even any firm in-house rule, merely ‘guidelines’, incomprehensibly different for the three armed forces: 17 years for the navy, 17 years three months for the army, 17 years six months for the RAF. In accordance with these guidelines, two 17-year-olds were killed in the Falklands War, and another man on his 18th birthday, and two more in the Gulf War.

Armed Forces Bill Select Committees in past years have been increasingly critical of these arrangements, and made strong recommendations that, for example, the minimum period of contract should be no longer in the case of an under-18-year-old than in the case of an over-18-year-old. Although these recommendations have been regularly ignored by the MoD, it was hoped that in 2001 the Select Committee’s deliberations would be strengthened in two respects.

First, in past years only one organisation has offered evidence specifically on the under-18 issue – At Ease, the independent voluntary counselling service for members of the armed forces. This year Amnesty International and the UK Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers (which includes the Peace Pledge Union,Amnesty, UNICEF and other groups) also made submissions.

It was pointed out that whilst there is legislation about, for example, the minimum age for the part-time delivery of newspapers in one’s own street, there is no statutory minimum age for being shot dead in the South Atlantic winter or being blown to pieces in the Middle Eastern desert. It was argued that people too young to vote have no business in war either as victims or participants. Attention was also drawn to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, adopted by the UN in May 2000, whereby signatory states are required to ensure special safeguards if they insist upon recruiting below the age of 18, and not to deploy under-18s on active service.

So what was the response of the Select Committee? ‘We believe it continues to be important to recruit young people straight from school, including at the age of 16; if they are not caught at this point, they are likely to take up other careers and be permanently lost to the Armed Forces.’ The word ‘caught’ is significant: it is an overt endorsement of the ‘six-year trap’, whereby young people are seduced at 16 into signing on for a minimum engagement of four years, only to discover in the small print that the four years are calculated from the 18th birthday. The statement, from a supposedly democratic Parliamentary committee, also gives a greater priority to the demands of the armed forces than to the educational and career development of individual young people. Once a young person has been ‘caught’ by glossy advertising and expensive promotion ‘from a shrinking pool in a competitive employment market’, as the report puts it, other possibilities are blocked off in a way that does not apply to any other false start that an impressionable and immature young person might make.

The Select Committee does recommend that ‘the information provided to potential recruits under 18 is examined and if necessary revised to ensure that it is clear and unequivocal about the length of time they will be required to serve’, and that ‘recruitment officers have a responsibility to ensure that this information is understood’. In view of the record of blandly ignoring previous recommendations, there are no grounds for confidence that MoD will take any notice. In the meantime, evidence continues that misleading brochures are handed out and that recruiting officers are themselves ignorant of all the terms and conditions of contracts that are binding in a way not comparable to any other contract of employment.

On the issue of deployment on active service the Select Committee is totally silent. Evidence carrying the authority of Amnesty and UNICEF, never mind the PPU, is totally disregarded, as is also the weight of international opinion expressed through the Optional Protocol, which is also not even mentioned, let alone discussed.

There were two pointers to a worrying outcome in the way the Committee was appointed. Because the Select Committee has the power actually to amend the Armed Forces Bill, it is conventional to appoint one MoD minister to the Committee as a spokesperson, in addition to evidence presented by the MoD. The 2001 Committee, very controversially, had two MoD ministers appointed to it, as well as three Opposition defence spokespersons, thus becoming a ‘packed’ committee biassed towards the MoD from the start. Additionally, because of the presumed immediacy of the general election, the Committee was allowed only two months for deliberations, instead of the more usual three to four months.

All in all, the Committee appears to have been yet another example of New Labour ‘control freakery’ in action – a far cry from the 1991 Committee, when Labour members, acting independently, managed to put through an amendment to abolish capital punishment for military offences, even though it was later reversed by the Conservative majority in the whole House. (Military executions were finally abolished by separate legislation in 1998.)

The campaign to end the military recruitment and deployment of under-18s will continue. As more and more states sign up unequivocally to the Optional Protocol, the isolation of the UK, which signed in September 2000 but contradictorily reserved the right to both recruit and deploy below the age of 18, is becoming increasingly exposed.

Bill Hetherington


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