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Beyond Kony 2012, child soldiers are used in most civil wars

Kony 2012 campaign calls for plastering posters everywhere tonight. But the use of child soldiers goes far beyond warlord Kony and his LRA. It is the norm in most civil wars. Governments, too, use children to fight. One way to stop it: Deny military aid to these governments.

By Bryan Early and Robert Tynes / April 20, 2012

This image provided by Invisible Children shows a scene from the film, "Kony 2012 Part II" under the Brooklyn Bridge in New York. Op-ed writers Bryan Early and Robert Tynes have studied the use of child soldiers and find that children under 15 were used in 81 percent of 109 civil wars from 1987 to 2007. But the problem is not intractable, they say.

Invisible Children/AP Photo


Albany, NY

Tonight, April 20, is the Invisible Children organization’s “Cover the Night” campaign, where people all over the world are supposed to plaster their towns and cities with Kony 2012 posters. Invisible Children, the creators of the viral video “Kony 2012,” seek to increase pressure on American policymakers to help capture Joseph Kony, the brutal leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

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Raising global awareness about the use of children as soldiers is a noble goal, and Mr. Kony certainly deserves to be brought to justice for the 20 years he spent using child soldiers to terrorize Uganda. While Kony deserves to be punished for his crimes, his arrest alone will do little to address the global problem of child soldiers.

The military recruitment of children by Kony’s LRA is hardly an anomaly. Rather, it is practically the norm for rebel groups and governments alike in civil war and conflict zones around the world.

The Kony 2012 video fails to educate viewers about why the practice of conscripting children occurs and how to prevent it. Our research shows that the use of child soldiers is actually driven primarily by the tactical considerations of government militaries and rebel forces rather than the deviance of individual leaders.

In our global study of 109 civil wars from 1987 to 2007, we find that child soldiers (under 15 years old) were used in 81 percent of those conflicts. Within these conflicts, rebel groups employed child soldiers nearly 71 percent of the time, while government forces employed them roughly 55 percent of the time. Thus, supposedly lawless rebel groups are not the only parties responsible for the use of child soldiers.

The use of child soldiers is not Africa-centric either. Youths have been pulled into numerous battles in Europe, the Middle East, Asia, and South America as well.

The reasons children are recruited to participate in civil wars are complex. The hypothesis that child soldiers are brought into conflicts by pathological, predatory leaders addresses only a small piece of the problem. Our research into the tactical uses of child soldiers reveals several key findings.

The first is that the bloodier the civil war, the more likely children are to be drawn into it. Both governments and rebels employ child soldiers to fill their depleted ranks, and often compete with one other over what they see as a resource within the conflict. This treatment of children as a commodity in part explains why both governments and rebels engage in massive forced recruitment campaigns to fill their ranks with child soldiers.

We also find that a number of governmental policies are also strongly associated with whether child soldiers are used in civil wars.

First, the more money governments spend on their militaries as a proportion of their gross domestic product, the more likely they are to recruit child soldiers.

Second, the more extensive governments’ use of political terror is prior to the outbreak of a civil war, the more likely governments and rebel groups will be to use child soldiers.

Last, we find that democratic governments are substantially less likely to recruit child soldiers than authoritarian governments. Taken together, these findings indicate that countries with authoritarian, militant, and human rights-abusing regimes are more likely to use child soldiers during civil wars than liberal, pacifistic, democratic regimes.


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