Last Updated: Monday, 23 October 2017, 15:25 GMT

Louder than words - Case Study: Democratic Republic of the Congo: Heading slowly backwards

Publisher Child Soldiers International
Publication Date 12 September 2012
Cite as Child Soldiers International, Louder than words - Case Study: Democratic Republic of the Congo: Heading slowly backwards, 12 September 2012, available at: [accessed 23 October 2017]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Between 2004 and 2006, the release of tens of thousands of children from the national army and non-state armed groups marked a high point in government, UN and NGO efforts in the DRC to recover child soldiers and return them to their home communities. Their release was part of a larger project to create a reformed and professional Congolese army, drawn from all factions of the badly fractured state, respectful of human rights and capable of protecting the civilian population.

A disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) program was set up in the wake of a 2002 peace agreement that officially ended years of armed conflict in the DRC. The peace agreement did not, however, bring a complete end to hostilities: armed conflict has continued since in the east of the country between government armed forces and an array of armed opposition groups. Nor has army reform proceeded as envisaged. In the meantime, recruitment and use of children by the army continues, at a lower level than before, but with a regularity that exposes the lack of effective mechanisms to prevent it. Today hundreds of children are believed to be still serving in the Forces Armées de la République Démocratique du Congo (FARDC), and the Republican Guard (Garde Républicaine) and incidents of recruitment of children by state armed forces continue to be reported.[1]

The failings are not attributable to lack of international attention on the issue: child soldier recruitment and use by all parties to armed conflict in the DRC has featured on UN children and armed conflict agendas for over a decade.[2] The national authorities have also acted by ratifying the Optional Protocol; establishing 18 as the minimum age for recruitment in law; and criminalising the military recruitment and use of children by state and non-state armed forces under the Child Protection Law of 2009.[3] However, in the absence of far-reaching reform of the armed forces, the relatively comprehensive framework of laws and policies that now exists to protect children from participation in armed conflict has had limited effect.

Absence of army reform leaves children vulnerable

The government's main peacebuilding strategy of integrating members of armed opposition groups into the FARDC was to have been accompanied by comprehensive military reform, supported by the international community, to create a professional and cohesive army under clear state control. While successive rounds of integration have taken place, military reform has proceeded slowly.

The internationally-sponsored integration process conducted between 2004 and 2006 (known as the "brassage") resulted in the identification and release of some 30,000 children. Hundreds more under-18s were released through subsequent rounds of integration of armed groups. However, the process has at times been chaotic and hundreds of children were not released but absorbed into the FARDC during the integration process in 2007 (known as "mixage") and "accelerated integration" of 2009 during which units were often combined with no effort to identify combatants or verify their age. Many were deployed within their newly formed FARDC units to combat zones in the east.[4]

The integration strategy was not accompanied by the reforms needed to regularise the FARDC and make it accountable. Many of the newly-integrated units retained the composition, identity and chains of command of their former armed group. Although some improvement in conduct has recently been reported, the FARDC remains an amalgam of poor quality forces with divided loyalties, pervaded by opaque parallel chains of command.[5] The lack of effective state control over parts of its own army remains a fundamental obstacle to ending child recruitment and use.

Without effective control of the armed forces, recruitment procedures are inconsistently applied and there are no repercussions for those who ignore laws and policies relating to minimum ages. Informal recruitment continues and ineffective or non-existent mechanisms to verify the age of recruits are exacerbated by low levels of birth registration – less than one third of Congolese children are registered at birth.[6]

The latest plan for military reform was presented by the Ministry of Defence in January 2010 and envisages three phases of reform over 15 years involving among other things the consolidation and downsizing of the army and the introduction of a new legal framework.[7]

However, according to a 2012 report by 12 national and international NGOs, the army reform plan has not been followed up with practical planning for implementation and is routinely bypassed or undermined by day-to-day decision making.[8] In the meantime the government has ignored UN Security Council calls for the introduction of a vetting mechanism to exclude from the army individuals accused of war crimes and other human rights violations.[9] The Republican Guard, which is answerable directly to the president, is also excluded from reform plans and remains effectively above the law.

International support for military reform

The international program of cooperation for military reform has largely stalled as a result of resistance from within the DRC's political and military leadership; the government's preference for bilateral over multilateral defence relations; and the failure of international donors to harmonise their efforts.[10] What began as a more or less shared donor consensus on reform consists now, for the most part, of a series of scattered and small-scale initiatives. Despite the FARDC's record of recruitment and use of child soldiers, the issue does not feature as a priority within donor assistance programs.

The majority of international assistance to the defence sector takes place at a bilateral level with a focus on training and equipment rather than structural reform that might address ongoing human rights violations by the FARDC including the unlawful recruitment and use of children: donors including Angola, Belgium, China, South Africa and the USA, for example, have agreed to government requests to train and equip a FARDC Rapid Reaction Force. Broader support for the professionalisation of the FARDC is provided by two multilateral assistance programs, both of which have more potential to impact on the child soldier problem, although neither has fully integrated child soldier prevention into the design of its program.

The International Security and Stabilization Support Strategy (ISSSS), launched in 2009 with the involvement of the UN and bilateral donors in support of the government's stabilisation plan for the east (the Stabilization and Reconstruction Plan for War-Affected Areas, STAREC) includes child soldier-related goals. The agreement of an action plan on child soldier recruitment and use as a "benchmark for success" and identification and extraction of children associated with integrating armed groups are among the areas where external support is being provided.[11]

The European Union mission to provide advice and assistance for security sector reform in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (EUSEC RD Congo) makes no reference to child soldiers but has supported among other things a biometric census of FARDC members and the introduction of individual military identity cards, as well as reform of salary ("chain of payments") systems. Some underage members of the FARDC have been identified through the census, although in smaller numbers than those believed to be in the ranks.[12]

Neither program, however, addresses broader issues of recruitment procedures, age verification and oversight needed to achieve the objective of ending ongoing unlawful recruitment and use of children by the FARDC. Active screening of the FARDC for underage recruits does not feature in the plans either.

While efforts to secure the release of children in the FARDC and Republican Guard ranks must continue, any real chance of finally ending entrenched patterns of child recruitment and use by government armed forces is dependent on reform of those forces. In a context such as the DRC where the state does not have full control over its military, strategies to protect children from involvement in armed conflict must go hand in hand with SSR. Child soldier prevention without SSR means a never-ending cycle of release and re-recruitment.


1 According to the UN Secretary-General's 2012 report on children and armed conflict, of the 272 cases of child recruitment and use documented in 2011 in DRC, the FARDC was responsible for the largest number. See UN Doc. A/66/782-S/2012/261, 26 April 2012.

2 The national armed forces in the DRC have featured among parties that recruit and use children in every annex to the Secretary-General's Annual Report on Children and Armed Conflict since the system of "listing" began in 2002. Prior to this, child soldier recruitment and use by government forces was documented in the 2000 and 2001 Reports of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict. Under Security Council Resolution 1279 (1999) child protection was incorporated into the mandate of the United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUC) and child protection advisors deployed as part of the mission.

3 Law No. 09/001 of 10 January 2009 on Child Protection.

4 For further details see, Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, Democratic Republic of Congo: Priorities for children associated with armed forces and armed groups, July 2007 and Report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child in advance of the DRC initial report on the Optional Protocol to the Convention on th Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, April 2011.

5 See Human Rights Watch, "DR Congo: Bosco Ntaganda Recruits Children by Force", 16 May 2012.

6 According to UNICEF, State of the World's Children 2012, Statistical Table on Child Protection, 28 per cent of children in the DRC are registered at birth,

7 Henri Boshoff, Dylan Hendrickson, Sylvie More and Thierry Vircoulon, Supporting SSR in the DRC: Between a Rock and a Hard Place – An Analysis of the Donor Approach to Supporting Security Sector Reform in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Netherlands Institute of International Relations ("Clingendael"), April 2010,; and Henri Boshoff, Completing the demobilisation, disarmament and reintegration process of armed groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo and the link to security sector reform of FARDC. Mission difficult! Institute for Security Studies, 23 November 2010,

8 The Democratic Republic of Congo: Taking a Stand on Security Sector Reform, April 2012, produced by the following NGOs: African Association of Human Rights; Congolese Network for Security Sector Reform and Justice; Eastern Congo Initiative; Ecumenical Network for Central Africa; The Enough Project; European Network for Central Africa; Group Lotus; International Federation of Human Rights; League of Voters; Open Society Initiative; Pole Institute; Intercultural Institute for Peace in the Great Lakes Region; Refugees International; UK All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Great Lakes Region of Africa.

9 For example Security Council Resolution 1906 (2009), paragraph 32.

10 For more detail see, among others, Caty Clément, "Security Sector Reform in the DRC: Forward to the Past", in DCAF Yearbook 2009, Security Sector Reform in Challenging Environments, October 2009.

11 The ISSSS is designed to deliver a targeted program of support in five areas: security; political dialogue; state authority; return, reintegration and recovery; and sexual violence. Programs under the ISSSS are funded by voluntary bilateral contributions. The program is financed by donors including: Belgium; Canada; the European Commission; France; Germany; Japan; Netherlands; Norway; Spain; Sweden; United Kingdom; United Nations Peacebuilding Fund; and the USA. See International Security and Stabilization Support Strategy, Integrated Program Framework 2009-12,

12 The second census of "accelerated integrated" forces – mainly CNDP and Mai Mai groups – identified only 128 child soldiers. The numbers of children recovered separately from these forces by the UN peacekeeping mission, which changed its name in 2010 to the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO), are much higher: MONUSCO Child Protection Section documented the release of 353 children from the FARDC from January to September 2010, for example.

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