Officials in the United Kingdom continue to chastise leaders in nations such as Chad, Syria, India, Thailand and Myanmar, for their use of child soldiers, but the U.K.’s own Minister for Armed Forces Personnel allows people as young as 16 to enlist and serve in the British Army.
Britons as young as 16 have served their country as recently as the Gulf War in 1991 and in Kosovo in 1999, so the presence of young soldiers in the British Army isn’t necessarily news. But a new report shows that the British Army actively recruits teen soldiers, and the U.S. government hasn’t suspended any aid to its allies in the U.K., even though U.S. officials have cited the recruitment and use of child soldiers as a reason to sever ties with other nations.
The figures on the U.K.’s use of child soldiers were revealed in a Ministry of Defense report published on May 21, which included the finding that the number of 16-year-old recruits increased from 9 percent in the 2012-13 calendar year, to 13 percent in 2013-14.
The U.K. is one of 20 nations around the globe that allows children to be recruited at the age of 16, and it is the only country in the European Union and the only permanent member of the U.N. Security Council to do so. Still, combined recruitment figures for 16- and 17-year-old soldiers were higher than any other age group in the past year, and more than one in four new British Army recruits is currently under the age of 18.
Any soldier under 18 can not legally be sent into combat, as per the British Army’s amended rules in 2003 following the outcry regarding the use of child soldiers in Kosovo and the Gulf War during the 1990s. However, recruits under 18 can be deployed if the government believes there is a “genuine” military need, or if it is impractical to withdraw minors before deployment.
At least 20 British soldiers who were under the age of 18 have served in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Ministry of Defense said they were accidentally deployed due to unnamed errors.
In response to the findings that one in 10 British Army recruits is 16 years old — and therefore, their recruitment process likely started when they were 15 — many human rights organizations and members of the public are criticizing the U.K. government for its seemingly hypocritical stance on the use of child soldiers.
“By recruiting at 16, the U.K. isolates itself from its main political and military allies and finds itself instead sharing a policy with the likes of North Korea and Iran. These are not states which the U.K. would normally want its military to be associated with,” Richard Clarke, director of Child Soldiers International, told The Independent.
Paola Uccellari, director of Children’s Rights Alliance for England, also said that the U.K.’s policy of enlisting minors and actively recruiting teen soldiers are points of concern.
“Targeting children for recruitment into the armed forces puts them at risk of serious and irreparable harm,” she said. “The Government should not rely on children to plug gaps in the armed forces.”
Following the release of the report, Child Soldiers International announced a letter-writing campaign to encourage the Minister for Armed Forces Personnel to raise the minimum enlistment age to 18.
“Research has shown that 16-year-old recruits are much more likely than adults to suffer bullying and harassment, to develop serious mental health problems, to be injured in training, and to be killed once they reach deployable age,” Clarke said. “The MoD might think that it’s a quick fix to use children to fill the Army roles adults don’t want to do, but it’s unethical and operationally unsound.”
Although a push to raise the minimum recruiting age to 18 has been backed by the United Nations, the Ministry of Defense doesn’t appear fazed by the concerns about the use of the young soldiers — even though the U.K. Mission to the U.N. said in February, “The U.K. absolutely condemns the use of child soldiers in all cases, and strongly supports international efforts to stop the use of child soldiers.”
According to The Independent, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Defense called the concerns about the U.K.’s use of child soldiers “nonsense” before explaining how a career in the armed forces equips people with “valuable and transferable skills for life,” and young people flock to the army because they recognize this.
Col. Richard Kemp, former commander of the British forces in Afghanistan, agreed that the use of child soldiers in the U.K. was a non-issue.
“Some of the finest soldiers I commanded during my 30 years in the Army started their careers as juniors, enlisting at 16,” said Kemp.
He continued, saying “Calling this scheme unethical and operationally unsound not only betrays Child Soldiers International’s ignorance of military matters but also insults the young men and women who serve their country with courage, pride and distinction.”