The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has released a new report charging that the United States is failing to uphold its commitments to safeguard the rights of youth under 18 from military recruitment and to guarantee basic protections to foreign former child soldiers. The allegations are detailed in a report titled “Soldiers of Misfortune” released yesterday by the ACLU that has been submitted to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child.
The report details a number of recruiter abuses and objectionable recruiting tactics. The report’s executive summary explains how these tactics violate international protocols:
“The Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict (Optional Protocol) is meant to safeguard the rights of children under 18 from military recruitment and deployment to war, and to guarantee basic protections to former child soldiers, whether they are seeking refugee protection in the United States or are in U.S. custody for alleged crimes.
The U.S. Senate ratified the Optional Protocol in December 2002. By signing and ratifying the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the U.S. bound itself to comply with the obligations contained in the Optional Protocol. The Optional Protocol provides that the absolute minimum age for voluntary recruitment is 16 years old. It also instructs countries to set their own minimum age by submitting a binding declaration, and the United States entered a binding declaration raising this minimum age to 17. Therefore, recruitment of youth ages 16 and under is categorically disallowed in the United States.
The Optional Protocol imposes special minimum safeguards for the recruitment of 17-year-olds, requiring that military recruitment activities directed at 17-year-olds be carried out with the consent of the child’s parents or guardians. The Optional Protocol also requires that recruitment must be genuinely voluntary, and that the military must fully inform youth of the duties involved in military service. In addition, the Optional Protocol requires underage recruits to provide reliable proof of age prior to acceptance into military service. The Optional Protocol also requires the United States to take all feasible measures to ensure that 17-year-old members of the armed forces do not take part in hostilities.
Public schools serve as prime recruiting grounds for the military, and the U.S. military’s generally accepted procedures for recruitment of high school students plainly violate the Optional Protocol. In its initial report to the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, the U.N. body charged with monitoring compliance with the Optional Protocol, the U.S. Government claims that “[n]o one under age 17 is eligible for recruitment.” In practice, however, the U.S. armed services regularly target children under 17 for military recruitment, heavily recruiting on high school campuses, in school lunchrooms, and in classes. Department of Defense instructions to recruiters, the U.S. military’s collection of information on hundreds of thousands of 16-year-olds, and military training corps for children as young as 11 reveal that students are targeted for recruitment as early as possible. By exposing children younger than 17 to military recruitment, the United States military violates the terms of the Optional Protocol.
U.S. military recruitment of youth under 18 also frequently violates the minimum safeguards required by the Optional Protocol. Wartime enlistment quotas have placed increased pressure on military recruiters to fill the ranks of the armed services. The added strain of fulfilling enlistment quotas necessary to carry out sustained U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan without reinstituting a draft has contributed to a rise in aggressive recruitment efforts and allegations of misconduct and abuse by recruiters, in contravention of the Optional Protocol. In the absence of a policy on implementation of the Optional Protocol, misconduct by recruiters often goes unchecked.
Heavy-handed recruitment tactics and misconduct by recruiters often render recruitment involuntary, and despite government and media reports documenting misconduct in recruitment of prospective enlistees under the age of 18, protections for students against abusive recruitment tactics remain weak. Recruiters threaten serious penalties to 17-year-old youth who have signed Deferred Entry contracts and subsequently changed their minds about enlisting, in some cases forcing these youth to report to basic training against their will. A provision of the federal No Child Left Behind Act forces schools to open their doors to recruiters and provide the military with students’ information to undergo recruitment without parents’ informed consent. The U.S. military’s practice of targeting low-income youth and students of color for recruitment, in combination with exaggerated promises of financial rewards for enlistment, undermines the voluntariness of their enlistment.”
The ACLU recommends a number of actions be undertaken to limit recruiting practices including reforming the No Child Left Behind Act military recruitment provisions, ending Pentagon data mining projects targeting high school students, and making opt-out information more easily accessible. Additionally, the report calls for improved processes and policies aimed at curbing recruiter abuses.