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Law and Policy on Child Soldiers

Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict
This document was drafted in January 2000, as an addition to the 1989 Convention of the Rights of the Child. The United Nations General Assembly approved it on May 25, 2000. It is now open for signature and ratification by all UN member states. It will enter into force three months after the tenth ratification. President Clinton signed the Optional Protocol on July 5, 2000. The Optional Protocol states that governments should not send under-18s into combat, outlaws forced recruitment for those under age 18, bans any use of persons under 18 by nongovernmental armed groups, and raises the minimum age of voluntary enlistment in governmental armed forces to at least 16 (governments can specify higher limits for themselves). Read more about it.

Current International Agreements
The 1977 Additional Protocols I and II to the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) set 15 as the minimum age for recruitment and deployment in war. Throughout the 1990s, there was a push to obtain international agreements raising this age to 18. In addition to countries with a previously-set higher standard, many countries, regions, and the UN recently raised their minimum ages in accordance with this international perspective.

US Government Policy
Until January 2000, the US government--particularly the Department of Defense--consistently blocked international efforts to raise the minimum age for soldiering to 18. The Pentagon worried that raising the minimum age to 18 would interfere with its recruitment practices and policies. US law allows 17-year-olds to join the armed forces with parental permission. Additionally, the armed forces target even younger youth with recruitment propaganda and thousands of middle and high school military programs such as JROTC and the Young Marines. In January 2000, the US ended its opposition to a UN provision to keep young people under age 18 out of combat. However, the US continued to oppose stronger language and higher age limits in the new UN agreement. The final document reflects this position. A Y&M Newsletter article analyzes the agreement.

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