One of the original sins of humanity has been its inability to live at peace. From the very beginning of history, conflicts over food, territory, riches, power, and prestige have been an almost constant recurrence. Indeed, much of what is written in human history is simply a history of warfare. The world that we know today, from the states that we live in to the technology that we use daily, has been greatly shaped by violent struggle.2

Yet even in this most terrible realm of societal violence, rules of behavior developed. Among the very first was the differentiation between warriors and civilians. In even the most primitive societies, a distinction was made between those who chose to bear the risks involved in the profession of fighting and those who lay outside the field of battle. In a sense, a bargain was struck. Honor and power were accorded to the warriors. In exchange, civilians were granted a sort of guarantee of protection from their depredations. While it applied to all those who were unarmed, special immunity was usually given to certain groups: the old, the infirm, women, and, most particularly, children.3

While certainly not always complied with, this “law of the innocents” had been one of the most enduring rules of war, arguably the most important of what legal theorists term jus in bello (laws in war). The deliberate targeting of civilians, in particular children, has been the single greatest taboo of all, extending from ancient Chinese philosophy and traditional African tribal societies to the state signatories of the modern-day Geneva Conventions.


In particular, the once unimaginable targeting of children has become a widespread tactic of war. Examples run from the Serb snipers during the Sarajevo siege who deliberately shot at children walking between their parents, to Rwandan radio broadcasts before the 1994 genocide that reminded genocidal Hutu killers to be sure not to forget “the little ones.” The resulting tolls from this shift in attitudes are staggering. In the last decade of warfare, more than two million children have been killed, a rate of more than 500 a day, or one every three minutes, for a full 10 years. As you read this article, these numbers are growing only larger.

As the most basic laws of war have been increasingly violated, there is a new, perhaps even more disturbing element: Not only have children become the new targets of violence and atrocities in war, but many now have also become the perpetrators.
The use of child soldiers is far more widespread than the scant attention it typically receives.

Twenty-three percent of the armed organizations in the world (84 out of 366 total) use children age 15 and under in combat roles. Eighteen percent of the total (64 of 366) use children 12 and under.5 While the exact average age of the entire set of child soldiers around the world is not known, there are clues. For example, in one survey taken of child soldiers in Asia, the average age of recruitment was 13. However, as many as 34 percent were taken in under the age of 12.6 In a separate study in Africa, 60 percent were 14 and under.7 Another study in Uganda found the average age to be 12.9.8 Indeed, many child soldiers are recruited so young that they do not even know how old they are. As one boy from Sierra Leone, thought to have been 7 or 8 when he was taken, tells, “We just fought. We didn’t know our age.”9