Children and young people's rights groups are calling for a change in the law to end the recruitment of 16 and 17-year-olds into the UK armed forces.
Their call comes ahead of the second reading of the Armed Forces Bill, which the Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, will present to the House of Commons tomorrow (10 January).
The Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, together with War Child, UNICEF UK, the Children’s Society, and the Children’s Rights Alliance for England today insisted that the Bill be amended to end the “outdated practice” of recruiting soldiers aged under 18.
Amnesty International UK and the United Nations Association have given their backing to the call.
So far, Liam Fox and the Ministry of Defence are resisting the pressure to raise the age of recruitment to 18, but some question how long they can keep to this position.
The UK is one of a diminishing number of countries that still recruit under-18s into the armed forces, and one of fewer than 20 countries which recruit from the age of 16. Other countries recruiting from this age include Iran, North Korea and Zimbabwe.
No other country in the European Union recruits 16-year-olds. Neither do the other members of NATO or the four other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.
134 countries have gone further and legally prohibited the recruitment of any individual under the age of 18.
Yet in the last recruiting year alone, the UK armed forces recruited nearly 5,000 people who were too young to legally buy the new hit computer warfare game Call of Duty: Black Ops.
The groups concerned are calling for recruitment of under-18s to be phased out entirely, with increased rights of discharge for existing young recruits in the meantime. Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights made the same recommendation in November 2009.
“Joining the armed forces appeals to many young people, especially those who have limited other options, but many are naive about the risks they face,” said Victoria Forbes Adam, director of the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers.
She added, “The armed forces don’t train teenagers to go on an adventure holiday - they train them to go to war. And evidence shows that it’s the youngest soldiers who face some of the biggest risks when they reach the frontline.”
Although teenage recruits cannot participate in hostilities until their eighteenth birthday, they are legally bound to serve until they are at least 22 years old by the contract they signed when aged just 16 or 17. Since the beginning of hostilities in Afghanistan, soldiers aged 18 to 22 have accounted for 24 per cent of all British fatalities.
“Nobody should sign up without a full understanding of the potential sacrifice they are making,” insisted Adam, “Almost no other country thinks a 16-year-old is mature enough to make that kind of decision”.
She said that the Armed Forces Bill provides the perfect opportunity to address the problem.