Children's Rights - Human Rights Joint Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)

  1.  The United Kingdom is unique among Nations of the European Union in recruiting young people into the armed forces at the age of 16.

2.  In April 2008 there were 4,650 under 18-year-olds serving in the armed forces.[447] While those under 18 currently constitute about 1% of the trained strength of the armed forces, those recruited under the age of 18 amount to over a quarter of the army`s fighting strength. 28% of all recruits in 2007-08 were aged under 18. Recruitment into the armed forces involves significant risks to the mental and physical well-being of adolescents. During the period between 1 January 1994 and 31 December 2003, 28 regular armed forces personnel under the age of 18 died while in service. During 2007 two under 18 year olds died while on training. [PQ reference number PQ 04703U].[448]


  3.  On enlistment into the armed Forces young people become subject to military law. Leaving the armed forces without permission amounts not only to a breach of contract but may be a criminal offence for which young people may be tried under courts martial.

4.  Under the Army Terms of Service (Amendments etc ) Regulations 2008 which came into force on 6 August 2008 young people are required to serve for a minimum of four years from their 18th birthday. In the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child consideration of the UK report under the optional protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the child on the involvement of children in armed conflict in Geneva (24 September 2008), the Committee welcomed the lifting of the rule requiring young people to serve for a minimum period of four years beyond their 18th birthday (paragraph 18). In fact, at the time of this consideration the rule had already been re-introduced. The introduction of the above rule is potentially discriminatory in requiring under 18-year-olds to enter into more onerous terms and conditions than recruits who are over the age of 18. While those over 18 commit themselves for a period of four years those recruited at 16 commit themselves for a period of six.

  5.  After an initial period of six months during which young soldiers may choose to leave the armed forces voluntarily, there is no provision for discharge as of right. There are provisions for minors who are clearly unhappy at their choice of career to make a request to leave the army but this is always at the discretion of the commanding officer. The fact that there is a legal obligation to remain in the armed forces makes young and vulnerable recruits potentially more open to bullying. Those who are deeply unhappy may be unwilling or unable to make a request to leave for fear that if refused they may be subject to worse bullying than before. A wider "discharge as of right" would provide a safety valve and would make it easier to raise the issue of bullying in the knowledge that a young person could not be required to remain in a situation against his or her will.

  6.  On signing the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict (OPAC), the UK entered an interpretive declaration that deployment of young people would not be precluded where, "the exclusion of children before deployment is not practicable or would undermine the operational effectiveness of the operation" The UK retained the right to send under 18s into conflict where "there is genuine military need" or if it is "not practicable to withdraw such persons before deployment." This interpretive declaration is overly broad and could amount to putting under 18-year-old soldiers in situations of danger. Such a declaration potentially frustrates the intention of the Convention.

  7.  Under the Convention on the Rights of the Child the UK Government is required to pay attention to the best interests of the child. For the purposes of the Convention any one under the age of 18 is considered as a child. Present Regulations regarding recruitment appear to subordinate the interests of the child to military effectiveness. The best interests of the child would require that the period prior to their 18th birthday be considered educational in the fullest sense of the word. It is important from the point of view of their development that young people can make provisional decisions and to be able to learn from their mistakes. In any other area a young person making a career choice at the age of 16 would not expect to be held to that decision. As long as enlistment takes place at the age of 16 young people should be afforded the opportunity of reconsidering a provisional decision to join the army and be allowed discharge as of right at all times up until their 18th birthday.

  8.  Under the ILO Convention there is a general prohibition on "work which, by the nature of the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children." Military deployment to a conflict zone could amount to a breach of the ILO Convention even in the case of voluntary recruits as in the United Kingdom.

  9.  The current regime in the army is unlike any apprenticeship context in that in that breaches of army discipline may lead to criminal sanctions. Those joining the army at 16, often from the poorest backgrounds, do not have the same right to change their course or career as young people learning other trades or professions.


  10.  It would be entirely feasible to raise the age of enlistment into the armed forces to 18, while still permitting minors to train while retaining their civilian status. As a first step, the age of enlistment into the armed forces could be raised to 17. As yet the Ministry of Defence has resisted calls to undertake a feasibility study or cost analysis of raising the age of recruitment. While such a change in practice might require greater attention to be given to the retention of qualified soldiers through the development of more rewarding career paths, it would enable the United Kingdom to conform to the spirit of the Optional Protocol. I hope that the Joint Committee on Human Rights will consider this situation in detail and make recommendations that the Armed Forces do not enlist those under the age of 18.

January 2009

447 referred to in answer to Neil Gerarrd PQ of 27 October 2008 (229409). Back

448   Neil Gerrard PQ of 27 October 2008 (229408). Back

previous page contents next page

House of Lords home page Parliament home page House of Commons home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2009
Prepared 20 November 2009