Select Committee on Armed Forces Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by The UK Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers

  I write on behalf of the undermentioned member organisation of the UK Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers to draw particular attention to several concerns we have about the recruitment and deployment of persons under the age of 18 in the UK Armed Forces. We enclose a memorandum setting out the reasons why we believe that the present "Armed Forces Bill" should incorporate provisions for a minimum age of 18 for both military recruitment and military deployment.

  In the past Britain has made a notable contribution to the abolition of such social abuses as slavery but the recent record of Britain in relation to young persons and military activity has made the country increasingly isolated. Indeed, the work of many of our organisations in promoting the welfare of children and young people in areas scarred by war and conflict is actually undermined by the example of a leading country insisting upon flouting the increasing world consensus that persons under 18 have no business in war, either as victims or participants.

  We commend the memorandum for your most serious consideration and action.

    Amnesty International UK

    Defence for Children International

    Human Rights Watch

    Jesuit Refugee Service

    Quaker United Nations Office—Geneva

    The International Federation Terre des Hommes

    World Vision International


  1.  It appears an anomaly that while there are a number of provisions laying down minimum ages for a variety of activities ranging from part-time delivery of newspapers to exercise of the franchise, there is no minimum age laid down, either in common or statute law for recruitment of members of the Armed Forces, who have the awesome responsibilities and liabilities of taking and losing life.

  2.  Under the 1980 Convention of the Rights of the Child (CRC) the UK has shared in a commitment to a minimum age of 15 for military recruitment. But it needs to be remembered that the UK was one of the more intransigent states which blocked moves to write into the Convention a universal commitment to a minimum age of 18—the generally recognised age of majority and recognised by the Convention as the age separating childhood from adulthood.

  3.  At that time the UK was still recruiting below the age of 16, in those cases where a pupil could legally leave school a month or two before that birthday. Although the UK now recruits only from the 16th birthday, that is simply by virtue of an internal house rule of the MoD, and there is nothing in law to prevent an arbitrary return to the former practice, or indeed recruiting at an even earlier age should the school leaving age be lowered, as is occasionally urged in some quarters in response to the problem of disruptive pupils.

  4.  Since the 1989 CRC there has been increasing concern that the international norm for the minimum age for military recruiting should be raised, and in May 2000, after further intransigence by the UK, the UN General Assembly adopted an Optional Protocol to the CRC requiring state parties to raise their minimum age beyond 15 and to deposit upon ratification a binding declaration of the selected age.

  5.  The present "Armed Forces Bill" therefore sees the appropriate occasion on which to incorporate a minimum military recruiting age into British law, and we most strongly urge that the age be 18, as is being increasingly widely accepted throughout Europe and the rest of the world.

  6.  An additional reason for selecting the age of 18 is to remove once and for all the anomaly whereby contrary to the whole spirit of the CRC and the Optional Protocol, the younger the recruit is, the longer the minimum period required to be served. This arises from the provision in the Armed Forces Recruitment Procedure that service under the age of 18 does not count towards the minimum period of engagement undertaken. Thus in a nominal four year period of engagement, in the case of a recruit on or soon after her/his 16th birthday becomes in actuality six years, while a recruit attesting on her/his 18th birthday "signs on for only four years".

  7.  We note, moreover, that in line with comments made by previous "Armed Forces Bill" select committees, the 1996 committee reported that

    We see little reason why those who sign up before they are 18 should be required automatically to serve until they are 21. The same three year terms that apply to adults could equally be applied to under 18 year olds . . .

    (Introduction paragraph 42)

  The committee went on to make a formal recommendation to that effect. So far from implementing such a recommendation the MoD unilaterally, without reference to either Parliament or a select committee, announced (in November 1999) an extension of the minimum period of adult service from three years to four years, with a consequent extension of the "five year trap" for under 18 year olds, to a "six year trap".

  8.  This arbitrary action is in content not only of public opinion as expressed through parliamentary procedures, but also in content of international opinion as expressed through the CRC and debates around the Optional Protocol. It is therefore all the more imperative that this "Armed Forces Bill" should incorporate a minimum recruiting age, and other relevant conditions, which could only be amended by another Bill.

  9.  The Optional Protocol also requires state parties to "take all feasible steps" to ensure that under 18 members of their armed forces do not take a "direct part in hostilities". The recent UK position has been that there are "guidelines" on minimum ages for deployment in potentially hostile areas, varying between the three forces: 17 for the Navy (instituted as recently as 1998); 17 years three months for the Army and 17 years six months for the RAF. No rationale is given for these distinctions, nor for the overriding distinction in the case of Northern Ireland where the minimum age for street patrols is 18. Again, the MoD has undertaken to abide by the UN directive that participants in the UN peacekeeping operations should be at least 18 but has ignored the rider "and preferably 21".

  Because NATO has no such rule, 17 year olds are regularly sent to Bosnia and Kosovo. As to overt hostilities, two 17 year olds were killed in the Falklands War and two more in the Gulf War.

  10.  With regard to the Optional Protocol, the United Kingdom Government deposited in September 2000 a declaration which seems to shift the "guideline" for a minimum deployment for all three services to 18, but reserves the right to depart, as it already does from its own guidelines for "military need", "urgency" and "operational effectiveness". This clearly contradicts the whole purpose of the Optional Protocol to preserve the interests and safety of young people against political, military or economic repression.

  11.  We therefore urge that in addition to writing into the Bill a minimum age of 18 for military recruitment there also be written in a minimum age of 18 for military deployment.

February 2001

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