As negotiations between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) progress, albeit at a snail’s pace, rebels announced a major decision in early February: they will stop recruiting fighters younger than 17 years of age. The FARC currently recruits fighters as young as 15 (though there are plenty of accusations that they utilize minors who may be as young as 10-11). This increased age limit is a move in the right direction to reduce the group’s exploitation of child soldiers. (For the record, in Colombia a person legally becomes an adult at 18).
Utilizing child soldiers to increase rank-and-file troops is a tactic used by insurgent movements worldwide. For example, years ago, the world became obsessed with hunting down the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), Joseph Kony, after the “Kony 2012” video became a viral sensation. One aspect of the LRA’s tactics that was highlighted in the international media was its reliance on child soldiers. Similarly, the moribund Peruvian insurgent movement, Shining Path, currently has around 300 fighters, several of which are child soldiers. In fact, in late 2014, Cuarto Poder, a Peruvian television show that conducts journalistic investigations, aired a video produced by Shining Path which shows an insurgent leader, “Comrade Raul,” training a group of guerrilla fighters. The group includes several children, who are taped singing one of the insurgent’s battle hymns and carrying rifles. The program speculates on whether the video is a way for Shining Path to demonstrate its ability to once again carry out terror operations, like massacres of civilians.
Unfortunately, child soldiers will continue to be utilized by armed movements. UNICEF estimates that “some 300,000 children – boys and girls under the age of 18 – are today involved in more than 30 conflicts worldwide.” The United Nations agency explains that children can serve multiple roles, ranging from active combatants to “messengers, porters and cooks and for forced sexual services.” The Shining Path video is an example of how Peruvian guerrillas are indoctrinating children to become active fighters in the very near future (if they are not already).
Hence, the decision by the FARC’s leadership, the Secretariat, to stop utilizing child soldiers (or at least those under 17), is an important development. Nevertheless, the announcement has been received with a certain degree of rightful skepticism and criticism. For example, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos supported the FARC’s decision but stated that he did not understand why the movement set the limit at 17 years of age rather than 18. The head of state, as well as other government officials, also declared that the FARC should release its current underage fighters.
Apparently the insurgent movement will only stop recruiting new young fighters but will not, barring a new declaration in the future, free the children it already has in its ranks. Then again, the FARC’s Secretariat knows that a sizable part of the movement’s fighting force is made up of minors. Thus, it comes as little surprise that they are unwilling to release them, as it would severely cripple the movement’s operations.
The number of minors below the age of 18 that actually make up the FARC’s ranks is understandably difficult to estimate. Some analysts state that the number may be as high as around 40% of a total force of around 8,000 fighters. Information about rescued/demobilized young fighters provides another indicator. According to the Colombian Ministry of Defense, in the last 12 years 4,067 minors have been rescued from violent movements, 2,648 of who were part of the FARC.
For the record, not all children are forced by the FARC to join its ranks. As one commentator explains, some joined due to lack of other options and, in the case of girls, to escape sexual abuse at home.
The Colombian government and the FARC have been engaged in peace talks for over two years in Cuba (with Havana and Norway acting as guarantors), and several issues have been agreed upon. But while the talks have dragged on, they have maintained a momentum due to recent initiatives from insurgents. Just this past December the Secretariat announced a unilateral cease-fire; and now, some two months later, we receive the aforementioned announcement regarding child soldiers.
Certainly, there is the possibility that the insurgents may decide not to honor their own promises or void them at some point in the near or distant future. With that said, it is acceptable to be tacitly optimistic that the rebel movement will indeed stop recruiting, forcibly or not, child soldiers (at least younger than 17) to its ranks.
The utilization of minors by insurgent movements is an ever-present issue worldwide and hopefully the FARC will not only stop recruiting minors, but will also release the ones currently within its own ranks. This will not stop violence in Colombia’s decades-old conflict altogether, but at least it may limit the type of combatants that are involved in it.