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Child Soldiers Global Report 2001 - United Kingdom

Publisher Child Soldiers International
Publication Date 2001
Cite as Child Soldiers International, Child Soldiers Global Report 2001 - United Kingdom, 2001, available at: [accessed 20 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.


Mainly covers the period June 1998 to April 2001 as well as including some earlier information.

  • Population:
    – Total: 58,744,000
    – Under-18s: 13,337,000
  • Government armed forces:
    – Active: 212,450
    – Reserves: 302,850
  • Minimum age for compulsory recruitment: No conscription
  • Minimum age for voluntary recruitment: 16
  • Voting age (government elections): 18
  • Child soldiers: indicated in government armed forces – estimated between 6,000-7,000; indicated in armed groups and paramilitaries
  • CRC-OP-AC: Signed 7 September 2000, does not uphold straight-18
  • Other treaties ratified: CRC, GC API&II, ILO 138&182
  • The United Kingdom has persistently objected to raising the international minimum age for voluntary recruitment and participation in hostilities to 18. Within Europe the UK has the (equal) lowest minimum age for recruitment, the highest recruitment of under-18s into the regular armed forces and the lowest deployment age. The UK is also the only European country to send minors routinely into battle. There are currently 6,000-7,000 under-18s in the armed forces. While the UK has signed the Optional Protocol, an 'interpretative declaration' on deployment runs counter to its spirit and purpose. There has been recent reports of under-18s being recruited by armed groups and paramilitaries.


The United Kingdom has sizeable contingents of armed forces in overseas operations and on duty in Northern Ireland.


National recruitment legislation

There is no conscription into the armed forces of the UK. With parental consent both girls and boys may enlist at the age of 16,2004 however all recruitment procedures (i.e. medical examination and parental consent process) may be completed earlier.2005 The minimum age for direct entry to training for commissioned officer rank is 17 years 6 months. The minimum age for entry into the volunteer reserves (part-time Armed Forces) is 17, recently reduced from 17 years 6 months.

Recruits enter into a 22-year 'open engagement' with a right to give 12 months' notice after a minimum period of service. The Army Terms of Service Regulations (Amendment, No 2) of 1 November 1999 raised the minimum period of service from three to four years. As previously, the period minors serve before their eighteenth birthday does not count toward either the 22-year engagement or the four year minimum. Therefore a 16-year-old recruit is obliged to serve until age 22 – a situation critics refer to as 'the six-year trap'. Minimum terms of service for the navy is four years, and three years for the air force.

Under Queens Regulation 9.086b service persons who undertake any education or training course paid for by the Armed Forces and lasting more than two weeks (including for example music practise for bandsmen) waive the right to give twelve months' notice outside the four year minimum engagement, and instead must serve a minimum of eight years. Only the Ministry of Defence has discretion to override the waiver. This rule may particularly affect young recruits who join the armed forces as a means of improving their qualifications.2006 However, according to the Army Terms of Service Regulations as amended on 1 July 1999, under-18s – with the exception of those enlisted in the Brigade of Ghurkas – benefit from a special absolute right to discharge, provided that 14 days' notice is given not earlier than 28 days after first reporting for duty, and not later than the end of the sixth month of enlistment.2007

Any service person who simply walks out ('absent without leave') outside these special regulations or without discretionary discharge (on compassionate, health or conscientious grounds) is liable to arrest by civil police and trial by court-martial for breach of contract. Persons who assist recruits to take absence without leave may also be prosecuted (Manual of Military Law, 304, s38).

Child Recruitment

Thousands of minors currently serve in the different branches of the armed forces. In its report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, the Government justified its position on military recruitment age by saying that "young people between the ages of 16 and 18 who enlisted in the armed forces could not be considered as children within the meaning of the Convention because they were taking charge of their own future. They made that choice of their own free will, believing it to be a positive experience, and with the consent of their parents. Military authorities ensured that they did not engage directly in combat".2008

The UK's low recruitment age is related to its shortage of recruits.2009 The Government continues to target under-18 recruits rather than address the low level of adult volunteers or problems with retention rates. In fact the number of under-18s recruited annually has been rising. In 1998 the Government reported that under-18s represent nearly a third of the annual intake.2010 Between March 1998 and March 1999, under-18s constituted 36.38 per cent (or 9,466 recruits) of the annual recruitment. In total, by January 1999 about 40 per cent of all military personnel had joined at the age of 16 or 17.2011

The number of under-18s serving in the armed forces at any one time is slightly lower than those recruited annually (table above). As of 1 June 1999 there were 6,421 under-18s serving in the British navy, army and air forces. The greatest proportion of minors (4,032) fall into the group of 17-year-olds serving in the army, which unlike naval and air forces tends to accept recruits with few or no qualifications.

Girls and women are encouraged to join the armed forces and may compete for about 70 per cent of jobs; exceptions remain the infantry and armoured corps which are male-only.2014 In January 1999 females comprised 10 per cent of all 16-year-olds and 12 per cent of all 17-year-olds.2015 In July 1999 they comprised 12.5 per cent of the armed forces in total.2016 The army initiated a series of trials in May 2000 to test women's ability to serve in combat roles alongside men and to determine the best means of training (all female or mixed gender units), possibly to open up the types of positions women may serve in.2017

In June 2000 it was reported that desertion and absence without leave from the Army, often prompted by bullying and mistreatment by superiors or colleagues, had reached levels higher than at any other time since the end of National Service. In 1999 the Army recorded 1,998 cases of desertion and being Awol (absent without leave) – one for every 48 soldiers. Absence periods range from 36 hours to several months or even years. Almost all cases of desertion and offences occur among the junior ranks. In June 2000 the Special Investigation Branch of the military police was investigating 30 allegations of brutality, and at least 30 servicemen were separately suing the Ministry of Defence after suffering assaults from fellow-soldiers. Absenteeism exacerbates the shortage of recruits, thus soldiers are often retained in the army after lengthy periods of absence because their units cannot afford to lose more manpower.2018

Serious offences have included, for example, the rape of a 17-year-old recruit by her Sergeant (jailed for seven years in November 1998),2019 the mistreatment of three recent teenage recruits who were beaten, shaven, stripped, 'touched up' and forced to dance before their unit by two senior riflemen (discharged and sentenced to 140 days' detention for disgraceful conduct of an indecent kind in February 1999),2020 the bullying and humiliation of 10 recruits age 18 and under (including a mock execution, forced simulation of sexual acts and forced ingestion of mud) by a sergeant and four corporals who denied 17 charges of ill-treatment to soldiers and were subjected to only minor discipline in July 1999.2021 Other offences handled by solicitors over the last three years have included women soldiers paraded in T-shirts soaked in water by male superiors; a recruit allegedly tied to a cannon, stripped and then whipped with belts by NCOs; recruits being tied to beds or trees and urinated on; recruits being forced to undergo the 'regimental bath' – dunking in a tub filled with urine, vomit and sometimes faeces; recruits being beaten so badly they need hospital treatment; a recruit beaten and threatened with being drowned in the sea.2022

Between 1 January 1982 and 1999 a total of 92 recruits aged 16 and 17 died during service, including four deaths as result of battle wounds or injuries. The remaining deaths were the result of intentional non-battle casualties (assault or self-inflicted), accidental non-battle casualties (off duty, in training, and on duty), and deaths by natural causes (diseases).2023 Training deaths included, for example, that of a 16-old boy Royal Marine recruit who in 1998 drowned wearing full kit during a river-crossing exercise during a 30-week commando training course. He was the fourth to die during training in two and a half years.2024

Military Training and Military Schools

In 1998 the Army Foundation College (AFC) opened with a capacity of 650 students to address the shortage of recruits by attracting minors between the ages of 16 and 18.2025 Students at the AFC are enlisted before they join the College, and within weeks they are trained to fire weapons. Just over half of the 42-week course is devoted to military training; one-third to vocational training and about 10 per cent to leadership training. The success of the AFC led to the doubling of its student capacity by September 2000.2026

There is also the Army Apprentices college, specifically oriented toward trade training, but likewise accepting recruits at 16 after formal enlistment into the army.

Certain charities provide children of service personnel with public school education at minimal expense, for example the Duke of York's School. Pupils join these schools at various ages. The Welbeck College, for example, provides potential Army officers with a sixth form education prior to going to Royal Military Academy Sandhurst or to university. Students enter the college at about 16. Students in these schools are not obliged to join the armed forces but are clearly encouraged to do so.2027

The Sea Cadet Corps, Army Cadet Force, Air Training Corps and Combined Cadet Force are not part of the Armed Forces and are not subject to military law. All units of the first three are linked with a unit of the relevant regular or reserve branch of the Armed Forces. Combined Cadet Force units are based in schools, mainly independent schools and some grammar schools. Boys and girls from age 13 to 17 or 18 can join any of the cadet forces. Within the Sea Cadet Corps minimum entry age is 12 but some units also have Junior Sea Cadet sections for 10 to 12-year-olds.

On 31 March 1999, there were 128,300 cadets (19,900 Sea Cadets; 65,700 Army Cadets; and 42,700 Air Cadets).2028 Cadets are encouraged to later join the armed forces; accordingly the Ministry Defence has a large budget for Cadet expenses such as uniforms, travel and subsistence at special events. During the financial year 1998-99, £58 million was spent on the Cadet Forces, with a promised increase of £3 million over the next four years. In July 1999 it was reported that 5,076 former Cadet members had joined the armed forces (3,324 in the Army, 1,059 in the Navy and 693 in Royal Air Force).2029 In 2000 the Commons Defence Committee reported that Cadets supply 45 per cent of aircrew recruits.2030

There have been fatalities within the Cadets, including 15-year-old Clare S. who was crushed by a Land Rover during a night exercise at Longmoor training camp in July 1998.2031 The inquest verdict was accidental death. A Board of Inquiry was held by the Secretary of State for Defence to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future.2032

Recruitment Campaigns Targeting Under-18s

Recruitment of under-18s is heavily promoted through various forms of advertising. Between 1994 and July 1999 the armed forces spent around £6 million on advertising campaigns to attract 16 to 24-year-olds.2033 Since 1998 the British Army has launched CD-Roms, including 'Wargames' and 'First Contact', to promote the Army. In First Contact, digital graphics allow the user to assemble an SA80 assault rifle. Armed Forces Minister John Reid claimed the CD, distributed in schools and at public events, was not intended to recruit young people, but to educate and inform them about the Army and its work.2034 The Army has also launched a range of merchandise intended to appeal to youths.

An Army Schools Presentation Team regularly visits schools and youth organisations to talk to 14 to 18-year-olds. On some occasions a military helicopter is landed on school grounds. Military displays are provided at local events and children are encouraged to handle unloaded weapons. In May 2000 the four Irish regiments of the army held a campaign targeting children by opening barracks and allowing them to play in tanks and with deactivated weaponry, to engage in target practise, abseiling and camouflaging.2035

Recruitment campaigns tend to target the most vulnerable youths, concentrating on areas with low educational levels, high unemployment and advancing poverty where pay and training is particularly attractive.2036 After some controversy the Ministry of Defence launched a project to recruit ex-offenders sentenced before the age of 18 to a maximum of 2 years' youth custody for offences not involving race, sex or drugs. A pilot scheme opened in January 2000 at Wetherby Young Offenders' Institution, West Yorkshire. These young offenders undergo 12 weeks of military training involving physical fitness, drill, military history and map reading before being enlisted. The Ministry of Defence spokesman argued that "Some excellent young recruits may have made a mistake but have paid for it and deserve a chance to serve their country. We admit there is a shortfall in Army numbers and we are looking at ways of addressing this". The Director General of Army Training and Recruiting explained that "The aim would be to give them a chance to make something of themselves in the Army. Of course, like any young offender who at present can apply to join the Army under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act, they will have to meet our rigorous recruitment standards."2037

Most recently a scheme was introduced which offers female soldiers breast enlargements, at a cost of about £3,500 per operation. While an Ministry of Defence spokesman claimed the practise was based on 'strict clinical need', justifications have included making women 'happier soldiers'.2038

The armed forces also recruit through sponsored education. The Ministry of Defence, in conjunction with the Prince's Trust, sponsors three-month full-time courses in Further Education colleges aimed at school leavers, with visits to Armed Forces establishments, a general orientation towards a military career, and a certificate for successful completion.2039

Child Participation in Armed Conflict

The UK deploys a large proportion of its armed forces in overseas operations or on duty in Northern Ireland. In 2000 these included: Northern Ireland: 12,800; Germany: 20,610; Gibraltar: 330; Bosnia: 2,700; Cyprus: 3,512; Belize: 180; Brunei: 1,050; and Yugoslavia 3,500.2040

UK reported in 1995 that minors were used in the armed forces in both the Falklands and the Gulf conflicts, but had not been sent onto the streets in Northern Ireland because recruits were over 18 before training could be completed.2041 (The alleged need for training has not prevented under-18s from being sent into other armed conflicts and may more likely be due to the deaths of three under-18s, one deployed in Belfast 1971 and two killed by the IRA in Britain 1974.)2042

Apart from the special provision for street patrols in Northern Ireland, guidelines on minimum age for active service specify 17 in the navy, 17 years three months in the army, and 17 years six months for the air force. However the Ministry of Defence reserves the right to deploy people below these ages in major international conflict or to avoid destabilising units whose members are mostly over the minimum age.2043 There is an absolute bar to posting under-17's on submarines and under-18s as aircrew in any Armed Forces. The Government has also claimed that under-18s are assigned duties according to their age and are less likely to take part in hostilities than are over-18's.2044 Two 17-year-olds were killed in the Falklands War, and another young man was killed there on his 18th birthday. Over 200 British soldiers under 18 participated in the Gulf War,2045 two of whom died during the war.2046 Some of those who returned are reportedly suffering from Gulf War Syndrome.2047

The Government has agreed to abide by the directive of the UN Secretary General that all UN Peacekeepers be at least age 18, preferably age 21.2048 In practise the 21 year recommendation is disregarded and the rule is applied only to 'blue beret' UN troops, not British troops in NATO contingents operating under UN resolutions (i.e. in the Balkans).2049 The UK deployed under-18s as peacekeepers in the conflict areas of the Former Yugoslavia (10 in 1993, 5 in 1994 and 14 in 1995),2050 and in 1999 deployed 51 under-18s in the Balkans.2051


While children have participated in political violence in Northern Ireland, there has been little evidence of any systematic recruitment by armed groups or paramilitaries. In October 1999, two teenage boys from Dublin aged 14 and 16 were arrested during a police raid on a 'Real IRA' training camp, although the degree to which they were participating in armed activities was unclear. Observers speculated that the 'Real IRA' might seek to recruit 'clean skins' who are not known to the police and intelligence services for their operations.2052

In April 2001, however, The Guardian newspaper reported that loyalist paramilitaries were signing up hundreds of new teenage recruits. The leader of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA) south Belfast brigade argued the recruitment drive was to keep young people away from dissident groups and drugs: "In the past, it was the done thing in many loyalist areas to join the paramilitaries and a lot of kids still want to get involved. Now they are growing up in a void and we've got to keep control and give them a sense of identity.... The Ulster Young Militants (UDA Youth Wing) used not to take them until they were 17 or 18, but now it's 14 or 15 because they are at an age where they are bowing to peer pressure. We've taken on hundreds in south Belfast alone and around the country.... We're not teaching them to shoot or bomb, but we're trying to educate them about history, computers and job skills ...". A senior Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) spokesman admitted his group was recruiting young members from 17 upwards and that recruits received a level of weapons training "to maintain their interest". A source close to the smaller Orange Volunteers said, "there was a steady stream of people of all ages interested in joining".2053


International treaties

The UK signed the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on 7 September 2000. It does not support the 'straight-18' principle, and upon signing the Government made the followed interpretative declaration:

"The UK will take all feasible measure to ensure that members of its armed forces who have not attained the age of 18 years do not take a direct part in hostilities. The UK understands that Article 1 of the Optional Protocol would not exclude the deployment of embers of its armed forces under the age of 18 to take a direct part in hostilities where: (a) there is genuine military need to deploy their unit or ship to an area in while hostilities are taking place; and (b) by reason of the nature and urgency of the situation: (i) it s not practicable to withdraw such persons before deployment; or (ii) to do so would under mine the operational effectiveness of their ship or unit, and thereby put at risk the successful completion of the military mission and/or the safety of other personnel." The Coalition has criticised this Declaration as contrary to the spirit and purpose of the Optional Protocol, and campaigned for its withdrawal.

The UK also obstructed negotiation on the ILO Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labour, insisting upon a compromise whereby forced or compulsory military service by under-18s is prohibited, but their voluntary military service is not.2054

Parliamentary Review

A Select Committee of the House of Commons' statutory review of the Armed Forces Legislation in early 2001 failed to address the Optional Protocol or the deployment of under-18s. Rather, the Committee stated: "We believe it continues to be important to recruit young people straight from school, including at the age of 16; if they are not caught at this point, they are likely to take up other careers and be permanently lost to the Armed Forces. We agree ... that publicising the education and training opportunities available in the Armed Forces is a key recruitment tool which the Services must exploit if they are to continue to attract sufficient numbers of young people from a shrinking pool in a competitive employment market."2055

International Co-operation

Britain has promoted a ban on the use of children as soldiers in other parts of the world. In March 1999 the International Development Minister explained that a proportion of the British international aid budget would be used for the first time to back military reform in the developing world, and that reducing the number of child soldiers would be among the main aims of this initiative.2056 The UK also made financial/military assistance to Sierra Leone conditional on the non-use of child soldiers by government forces, however the minimum recruitment age was set only at 16, in line with Britain's domestic position.

2004 There is no statutory minimum age of recruitment in the UK. The age of 16 is merely a 'house rule' of the Ministry of Defence. There is a long history of under-18 recruitment, which certainly applied throughout most of the 19th century (see, for example, the Mutiny Acts 1831-66). Until c1991 recruits were accepted at 15 in those cases where youths can legally leave school a few months before the 16th birthday.

2005 Letter from UK Ministry of Defence to Amnesty International, 1 December 1999.

2006 Montgomery, T., UK Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, 23 September 1999.

2007 The Brigade of Ghurkas are excluded from this rule (Regulation 7A) due to the public expense of flying Nepalese recruits to the UK at public expense, making their sudden discharge impractical. The question of overseas recruitment may itself be a humanitarian concern.

2008 Summary record of the 206th meeting of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, Consideration of the report of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, UN Doc. CRC/C/SR-206, 3 February 1995.

2009 Report of Select Committee on Armed Forces Bill 2001, Introduction, para. 63. In reply to a Parliamentary question, John Spellar, Minister of State for the Armed Forces, stated that the current army was 4000 persons short of the desired strength, and 8000 short of the strength intended by 2005 (Hansard, 23 April 2001).

2010 Letter from the Ministry of Defence, London, to the UK Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, London, 4 September 1998.

2011 Communication of the Permanent Mission of the United Kingdom to the UN in Geneva, to the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, 19 October 1999.

2012 Hansard, 26 January 1999.

2013 Hansard 29 July 1999.

2014 Evans, M., "Women-only training hits army target", The Times, 8 February 1999. According to the Court of Justice of the European Communities (Case C-273/97) women may be excluded from service in special combat units by reason of the nature of the activities in question and the context in which they are carried out.

2015 Communication of the Permanent Mission of the United Kingdom to the UN in Geneva, to the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, 19 October 1999.

2016 "Recruitment: showing the real face of military practice", The Guardian, 10 July 1999.

2017 Burke, J., "Army to test women for combat roles", 28 May 2000.

2018 Burke, J., "Army bullies force desertions to a record", The Observer, 4 June 2000.

2019 Fleet, M. "Sergeant who raped recruit gets 7 years", The Daily Telegraph, 21 November 1998.

2020 "Army boots out barracks bullies: new recruits were forced to dance naked conga", The Herald, 4 February 1999.

2021 The Guardian, "Army cadets subjected to mock execution", 21 July 1999; The Daily Telegraph, "Army bullies cleared by court martial", 21 August 1999.

2022 Burke, Jason, "Bullied army recruits being forced to desert", The Observer, 4 June 2000.

2023 Hansard, 26 July 1999.

2024 "Teenage Royal Marine dies during river-crossing exercise", The Grimsby Evening Telegraph, 6 October 1998; Woodward, T., "Recruit aged 16 is fourth to die during world's toughest training: death of a boy marine", Daily Mail, 16 October 1998.

2025 Sylvester, R., "Army targets children with college to boost recruitment", The Daily Telegraph, 17 February 1997.

2026 Press release of the Ministry of Defence 243/99, "'At the double' for Army Foundation College", 16 June 1999.

2027 Communication of the Permanent Mission of the United Kingdom to the UN in Geneva, to the CSUCS, 19 October 1999.

2028 DATA Tri-Service. The figure for each service covers the appropriate single service and an element of the Combined Cadet Force.

2029 Hansard, 26 July 1999. Naval figures based on 85 per cent of entrants in the year.

2030 Second Report of Commons Defence Committee, 2000-01.

2031 The Guardian, "Girl crushed to death in cadet exercise", 18 May 1999.

2032 Hansard, 16 June 1999.

2033 The Guardian, "Recruitment: showing the real face of military practice", 10 July 1999.

2034 Butcher, T., "Army targets recruits with computer games", The Daily Telegraph, 22 May 1999; Lavin, P., "British Army launches computer game", Newsbytes, 25 May 1998.

2035 "Irish regiments seek out new recruits", Irish times, 15 May 2000.

2036 At Ease, Interviewed on German Radio, April 1999.

2037 "Views mixed on army drive to enlist offenders", The Guardian, 8 November 1999; "Text of the letter sent by the Director General of Army Training and Recruiting to the Editor of The Times newspaper", Press release of the Ministry of Defence, 369/99, 9 November 1999.

2038 The Guardian, "Why the MoD is spending £3,500 a time to make women 'happier soldiers'", April 2001.

2039 Information provided by the Peace Pledge Union.

2040 IISS, The Military Balance 2000/2001, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

2041 Gray, J. D., "The UK's appearance before the Committee on the Rights of the Child", Quaker United Nations Office, Geneva, 27 April 1995; Letter from the UK Ministry of Defence to the Quakers United Nations Office, Geneva, 18 September 1995.

2042 David McKittrick et al, Lost Lives, 1999.

2043 Initial report of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, UN Doc. CRC/C/11/Add.1, 23 March 1994, p.97; Hansard, 22 October 1999.

2044 Initial report of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, UN Doc. CRC/C/11/Add.1, 23 March 1994, paras. 543-544.

2045 UK Agenda for Children, Children's Rights Development Unit, London.

2046 Hansard, 1 July 1999.

2047 Abrams, F., "Ban on soldiers under 18 resisted by Britain and US", The Independent, 18 January 1999. The Ministry of Defence has no record of the extent of PTSD among ex-service men and women since, once soldiers leave the forces, it has no further duty towards them. See McVeigh, T., "Screening to weed out the soldiers who will crack", The Guardian, 17 October 1999.

2048 Bernard Miyet, UN Under- Secretary General for Peacekeeping, address to Fourth Committee of UNGA, 29 October 1998.

2049 Letter, Ministry of Defence to Peace Pledge Union, London, 29 September 1999.

2050 Letter from the Ministry of Defence, London, to the Quakers United Nations Office, Geneva, 18 July 1995.

2051 "Challenges of peace", The Guardian, 12 June 1999.

2052 Guardian Weekly, 29/11/00

2053 "Loyalists Recruit the Next Generation.; The Guardian, 3 April 2001

2054 International Labour Organisation, Report IV (2A), International Labour Conference, 87th session, Geneva, June 1999; Rachel Brett, The Friend, 6 august 1999.

2055 Report of Select Committee on Armed Forces bill 2001, Introduction, para. 63,

2056 "British drive to stop children joining armies: development", The Independent, 10 March 1999.

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