Is it Possible to Morally Distinguish Child Soldiers From Adult Soldiers?

A Normative Approach on Innocence and Guilt in Modern Warfare

Academic Paper, 2018

11 Pages, Grade: 8,5 (Niederländisches System)


Is it possible to morally distinguish child soldiers from adult soldiers? A normative approach on innocence and guilt in modern warfare

[l]t is a basic human instinct to protect children from the dangers of the world even in times of peace, and especially during times of war. (Brigety II and Stohl 2007, p. 133)

The presence of armed children in war zones has become a sad reality in contemporary conflicts all around the world. Many non-governmental armed forces would not even be able to participate in war without recruiting children (Brigety II, Stohl 2007, p.134; Harms 2011, p.89). However, strategies to cope with the situation lack sufficient definitions of where to draw the line between soldier and child. In article 38 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child for instance, it says that, "[...] States Parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure protection and care of children who are affected by an armed conflict" (UNCRC 1989, art. 38.4).1 But what exactly does "affected" mean in this context? Does it include those children who are actively taking part in armed conflicts? Or do children - similar to adult soldiers - lose their immunity as soon as they take up arms?

While there are numerous legal and theoretical attempts on the rights and duties of adult soldiers the contemporary issue of child soldiers seems to challenge these well-established thoughts. This is because our general moral intuition understands children as vulnerable beings in need of protection (Brocklehurst 2006; McMahan 2010; Rosen 2015; Steinl 2017).2 The image, however, is diametrically opposed to armed juveniles on the battlefield and thus creates a moral dilemma. Exactly this moral dilemma makes the case of child soldiers so very hard to tackle from a normative viewpoint.

The normative view on the topic is grounded on theoretical just war approaches. While refinements certainly differ, basic assumptions such as the grouping of combatants and non­combatants are omnipresent in the literature.3 However, attributes describing the role of children participating in war can be found in both social groupings. This makes it impossible to depict whether child soldiers should be treated as non-combatants or combatants. While Michael Walzer, in his renowned book Just and Unjust War, does not address the issue directly he nonetheless implies that every soldier on the battlefield (thus also the very young ones) is morally equal and should be treated equally (Walzer 1977, p. 36, 128,136).4

In a more recent approach by Jeff McMahan, the philosopher introduces two additional categories (Innocent Attacker and Non-Responsible Threat) to broach the issue. But his attempt fails to justify why a child soldier should be treated with restrain, as Vaha points out in "Child Soldiers And Killing In Self-Defence".5

Therefore, I argue in this research paper that no clear cut distinction between combatants and non-combatants and further between children and adults can be made. To substantiate my claim I will approach the issue from its theoretical basis by having a closer look on depicted definitions first and from its feasibility in war second. Based on my findings I claim that it is not possible to make a clear cut distinction and thus that there are good reasons to treat child soldiers no different than regular combatants. In the following conclusion I, I will briefly suggest additional guidelines to provide a more thoughtful and secure framework for every soldier - child and adult - on the battlefield.

What makes a child a child? What defines a soldier? - Definition problems

In the following section I will have a closer look on established definitions of childhood and adulthood. First, there are two main approaches on defining childhood: one supporting the demarcation of child- and adulthood and one claiming that childhood is a socially constructed label and thus cannot be separated from the state of adulthood. Representatives of the former argue that children are not mature enough to take responsibilities for their actions since childhood is a process of becoming a person of reason. "At a minimum childhood is understood in terms of age, and of growing power to reason, understand and implement" (Massey 2000, p. 36; Arneil 2002, p. 70). What thus separates children from adults in this respect is their lack of an "innate sense of right and wrong and no prior knowledge what is permissible and what is prohibited," according to Ressler et al (quoted in Massey 2000, p. 156). These qualities, it is argued, can only be achieved "through parental disciplinary practices" (ibid.). Thus, this implies that children cannot be held responsible for their actions since they are lacking essential characteristics to do so.

The problem with this definition, as representatives of the latter approach claim, is that such an universal immaturity does not exist. While children in the Western hemisphere are considered adolescent at the age of 18 - or even 21 - it is commonly acknowledged in other parts of the world that a 14-year-old is no longer a child (Vaha 2011, p. 43). Further, it would imply that those children who are not raised and thus socialized by their parents or a comparable guardian are not able to achieve moral qualities.

As Kay Read explains, the idea of childhood as a state of vulnerability, innocence and immaturity developed between the 15th and 18th century in Europe and its former colonies. Before that period children at the age of 5 were considered "small adults" (Read, 2002, p. 398). Due to better living conditions, higher life expectancy and an improving economic situation the time span described as childhood extended "and [did] separate it both in practice and symbolically from adulthood" (ibid.). In other words, the length and characteristics of the state of childhood depend on and are constructed by social circumstances and serve to define children as inferior to adults (Brocklehurst 2006, pp. 2-5; Harms 2011, p. 86; Steinl 2017, p. 3). This means that childhood constitutes an artificial label to separate young persons from older ones. Moreover, proponents of this approach argue that there is no universal age in which young persons reach adulthood.

The individual can become more and more of an adult, but there is no guarantee that aging brings with it maturity as understood normatively [...] to that extent childhood is construed not so much as an actual period in one's life, but more as a metaphorical immaturity which can be present to some extent throughout a lifetime. (Archard 2004, p. 45)

In this respect, there is no reasonable argument for the distinction between children and adults, since there are no ubiquitous features that separate childhood from adulthood.

But not only the distinction between child and adult seems problematic. Ever since the first approaches on the combatant/non-combatant interrelation, just war theorists have tried to give an exhaustive account on the defining features of those two categories. Both are based on the principle of discrimination, that aims to draw a clear line between morally innocent and non­innocent social groups in war. Based on this principle, civilians are generally considered innocent and in need of protection while combatants are generally guilty (Walzer 1977, p. 145).6 7 Hence, there is a similar power relation between civilians and combatants as there is between children and adults. Civilians are inferior and in need of protection and soldiers are superior and those who protect. However, here, too, the question arises of where to draw the line. According to Detter, a "combatant is defined as someone who distinguishes himself [sic!] from the civilian population, carries arms openly and is subject to an internal disciplinary system[...] he must also act on behalf of a belligerent"(reprinted in May 2007, p. 103).8 Unfortunately, these principles are hardly assessable in practice. For example, there are civilians taking up arms for their own protection without being member of any military or paramilitary group. Also, thinking about the famous example of the naked soldier shows that these principles fail to give a sufficient account.9 This implies that it is hardly possible to distinguish soldiers from civilians to a full extent.

Furthermore, it must be considered that there are many more actors in modern warfare than merely combatants and civilians. Despite 'irregular' fighters such as child soldiers and terrorists, also prisoners of war, surrendering and injured soldiers suggest a more gradual distinction (Ohling, May, Finkelstein 2017, p. 3; May 2007, p. 108). Thus, using this binary demarcation as the basis for absolute decision-making on whether to kill or protect a person is highly doubtful. Likewise, it is possible to change from one group to the other within relatively short periods of time (May 2007, p.102). A civilian can decide to join the military or an irregular armed group at any point and thus lose his/her immunity. Also, combatants are able to change their status, for instance when retiring from the military. Therefore, it is hard to accept that without any clear-cut distinction the labels as combatant and civilian have indeed such a devastating influence on whether a person is eligible to be killed. Thus, a generalized "guiltiness is a poor basis for providing a bright line between those who are subject to attack and those who are immune from attack" (May 2007, p. 107).

So, how to classify child soldiers then?10 Due to their identity as children, they lack the moral capabilities of acting reasonable. They have not yet developed those qualities that would make them responsible for their actions. They are depended on adult interaction and in need of protection, as they are vulnerable and innocent. According to international law, children are in that state of mind before they reach the age of 15.11 By taking up arms and actively participating in war, however, child soldiers interfere in the 'adult world', since their actions stand in binary opposition to their 'child features'.


1 See also Additional Protocol (1) to the Geneva Conventions (1977).

2 See also Massey (2000); Read (2002); Brigety II, Stohl (2007); Tynes (2008); Vaha (2011); Drumbl (2012).

3 Probably the two most important works in this respect: Walzer (1977). Just and Unjust Wars, and McMahan (2009). Killing in War.

4 See also Ohling, May, Finkelstein (2017).

5 For a detailed analysis of McMahan's viewpoint on child soldiers' moral rights and responsibilities see Vaha (2011).

6 This concept is also grounded in the legal framework, see for instance Geneva Convention IV (1949).

7 Due to the restricted length of this paper I will not argue on the moral distinction of guilt in this context. As I have already suggested in my short research paper "Michael Walzer's Theory of Just War Revised - Why the role of soldiers in just war theory requires amendments” (2017) I do not agree with this generalization. However, since it is not changing my argumentation for this paper I am not going to reiterate my viewpoint here.

8 These conditions trace back to article 13 of the Geneva Convention I (1949) which defines a combatant as a person, "(1) that ofbeing commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates; (2) that of having a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance; (3) that of carrying arms openly; and (4) that of conducting their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war.” (reprinted in May 2007, p.103)

9 Inspired by Robert Graves' question on whether a naked unarmed soldier swimming in a lake is a justifiable target even though he/she does not pose a direct threat (Graves, 1958).

10 It is important to note that I will exclusively refer to armed children as child soldiers because of the limited volume of this research paper. However, I acknowledge the commonly stated definition provided in the Cape Town Principles by the United Nations (1997): 2[A]ny person under 18 years of age who is part of any kind of regular or irregular armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to cooks, porters, messengers, and anyone accompanying such groups, other than family members. The definition includes girls recruited for sexual purposes and forced marriage. It does not, therefore, only refer to a child who is carrying or has carried arms.” Still, whether to distinguish between armed and unarmed children could be of interest for further research.

11 In most legal frameworks 18 is indeed the given age. However, in some articles - as for example article 77 of the Additional Protocol (1) to the Geneva Convention (1977) and article 8 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (1998) - the age of legal recruitment is 15 years at the lowest. Nevertheless, there are ongoing negotiations on introducing a so called "Straight-18” consensus. For a more detailed analysis ofthe legal situation of child soldier, see Sheppard (2000); Vaha (2011).

Excerpt out of 11 pages


Is it Possible to Morally Distinguish Child Soldiers From Adult Soldiers?
A Normative Approach on Innocence and Guilt in Modern Warfare
University of Groningen
Theories of International Relations
8,5 (Niederländisches System)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Anmerkung: Die Note 10 ist die höchstnote im niederländischen System.
Walzer, Normative Theory, Just War, Just War Theory, Modern Warfare, Moral Dilemma, soldiers, child soldiers, guilt, innocence, political Theory, IR
Quote paper
Elena Mertel (Author), 2018, Is it Possible to Morally Distinguish Child Soldiers From Adult Soldiers?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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