United States of America

Covers the period from April 2001 to March 2004.

Population: 291.0 million (75.4 million under 18)
Government armed forces: 1.4 million
Compulsory recruitment age: 18 (conscription not currently in force)
Voluntary recruitment age: 17
Voting age: 18
Optional Protocol: ratified 23 December 2002
Other treaties ratified (see glossary): ILO 182

Following ratification of the Optional Protocol in December 2002, the armed forces issued instructions to commanders about their obligations of compliance. Nevertheless, at least 62 soldiers aged 17 participated in US military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq in 2003 and 2004. Approximately 10,000 recruits every year enlist voluntarily at the age of 17 for active duty in the armed forces.


Following the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the USA launched a military campaign against terrorism, "Operation Enduring Freedom", which began with a US-led military campaign against al-Qaeda and the Taliban government in Afghanistan, leading to the collapse of the Taliban in November 2001. The recorded number of deaths of US soldiers in "Operation Enduring Freedom", in Afghanistan, the Philippines and other locations between 7 October 2001 and 8 May 2004, was 120.1

In March 2003 a US-led coalition invaded Iraq with approximately 150,000 US ground troops. After the Iraqi government fell in April 2003, fighting continued between US-led forces and Iraqi insurgents. Between March 2003 and 8 May 2004, 764 US soldiers died during the Iraqi operation.2 The number of Iraqi deaths was unknown.

US military forces are stationed in more than 130 countries worldwide. As of 31 December 2003, nearly 170,000 US troops were deployed in and around Iraq under "Operation Iraqi Freedom".3 Approximately 8,500 were stationed in Afghanistan.4


National recruitment legislation and practice

The USA currently maintains an all-volunteer military force, and accepts both male and female recruits from the age of 17 (US Code 10 USC 505). Parental consent is required for under-18s. The present law regulating the draft (50 USC App. 454.455) allows for conscription at the age of 18, although the draft has not been activated since 1973, at the end of the Vietnam war.

In 2002 the US Congress enacted the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002, which requires secondary schools to provide military recruiters with the names, addresses and telephone numbers of all juniors and seniors. Schools that fail to comply risk losing federal funds.5 In January 2003 members of Congress proposed legislation to the Senate and House of Representatives requiring men and women to perform either military or civilian service.6 No action was taken on the draft legislation.

Child recruitment

In the year to 30 September 2002, 26,755 recruits aged 17 joined the armed forces: 9,870 into the active armed forces (7,699 boys and 2,171 girls), representing five per cent of all new active duty recruits; and 16,885 into the reserve forces (12,141 boys and 4,744 girls), constituting 23 per cent of new reserve recruits.7

Most new recruits enter the armed services through the Delayed Entry Program, which allows training to be deferred for up to a year, in particular to let students enlist while still at school and report for training after they graduate. As a result, the number who are 17 years old when they sign enlistment contracts is substantially larger than the number who are 17 when they begin their basic training. In the year to 30 September 2003, for example, 11,309 new recruits aged 17 signed enlistment contracts to join the army but only 3,389 of those reporting for basic training were still 17.8 Depending on the branch of service, typically between four and seven per cent of new active duty recruits are 17 years old when they report for training.9

In 2002, between 13 and 21 per cent of those who had signed up to enter the armed forces through the Delayed Entry Program asked to be released from their contracts. They are currently allowed to do so without prejudice, punishment or requirement to fulfil reserve obligations.

Training periods for new recruits range from four months for the navy and air force, five months for the army, and six months for the Marine Corps. By the completion of training, nearly all recruits have turned 18. In 2001 more than 99 per cent of those who had completed training and been assigned to units were 18 or older.10

The Defense Department targets high school seniors (students in their final year of secondary school) for recruitment. However, high school juniors, typically aged about 16, may enlist and attend basic training after their junior year of high school, and then enter skills training a year later after graduation.11

Over 470,000 high school students are enrolled in the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC), a program that they may join as cadets from the age of 14. At over 2,900 secondary schools, cadets attend an elective course taught by retired military personnel. The military provides uniforms and instructional materials, and shares the costs of the instructors with the schools. Girls make up 56 per cent of army cadets, and about 40 per cent of air and navy cadets.12 The program's stated goal is to motivate and develop young people.13 Its curriculum includes communication skills, leadership, physical fitness, history and citizenship, and drug abuse prevention. Cadets participate in military drills with real and dummy firearms, and some programs include marksmanship and use of guns in firing ranges. Effectively, the program serves to boost recruitment to the armed forces.14 By 2007 it is expected to expand from 1,555 schools to 1,645 in the army JROTC, and by an additional 201 schools in the air force JROTC.15

Child deployment

Before ratification of the Optional Protocol, US military practice had been to assign recruits to units, including combat units, after they completed basic and technical training, even if they were still aged 17. After ratification, the different branches of the armed forces revised their assignment and deployment policies to different degrees.

In the army, assignment authorities and commanders were advised in January 2003 of an approved army policy to "Not assign or deploy soldiers, less than 18 years of age, outside the continental US, Puerto Rico or territories or possessions of the United States". They were to take immediate action not to deploy under-18s overseas and to arrange for the return by 30 April 2003 of any soldiers under the age of 18 who were already outside the continental USA. Field commanders were reminded of the policy in February 2004, and it was published in the Army Times in March 2004. The Director of Military Personnel Policy for the US Army stated in a letter to Human Rights Watch that "A total of 62 soldiers were 17 years old upon arrival to both Afghanistan and Iraq during 2003 and 2004. These 62 soldiers served in all capacities in the Army". He stated that as of 29 March 2004 there were no soldiers in Iraq who were 17 years old.16

In a further letter, sent in June, he stated that fifty-three of those soldiers had been deployed in Iraq, five to Afghanistan and two to Kuwait.17

The navy's policy since February 2001 had been that members of the service who had not turned 18 could be assigned to operational units "provided that the assignment will not result in the service member being placed into immediate and actual participation in combat".18 On 28 February 2003 a changed assignment policy stipulated that "At no time will an enlisted member under the age of 18 be issued orders that require reporting to an operational command", including in a commissioned vessel or deployable squadron. Commanders were instructed to use training to ensure that recruits were 18 before they were assigned a permanent duty or to assign them to shore duty.19 The navy had no record of any under-18s serving in Afghanistan or Iraq in 2003 or 2004 and used training and monitoring of assignment records to minimize the possibility of deploying under-18s outside the continental USA.20

In contrast, guidance sent to Marine Corps commanders in January 2003 does not preclude deployment of 17 year olds in overseas operations. Commanders should "weigh the mission requirements against the practicability of diverting 17-year-old Marines from combat". The guidance also states that "Taking all feasible measures to ensure Marines under 18 years of age do not take part in hostilities should not be allowed to unduly interfere with the commander's primary responsibility of mission accomplishment".21 The Marine Corps did not respond to written inquiries as to whether 17year-old soldiers had been deployed in combat.

The air force did not respond substantively to written inquires about the steps taken to implement the Optional Protocol.

Detention of suspected child soldiers

In April 2003 the military acknowledged that children were among detainees held by the USA at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, including three believed to be between the ages of 13 and 15. The Department of Defense said they were all "enemy combatants" captured while "actively participating in hostilities against US forces".22 In August 2003 the US commander at Guantanamo Bay said that the three youngest children were forced to become child soldiers and "kidnapped into terrorism".23 Human rights groups urged the immediate release of the children into rehabilitation programs for former child soldiers, emphasizing the legal obligations under the Optional Protocol to facilitate the rehabilitation and reintegration of child soldiers within US jurisdiction.24 The three youngest children were released in January 2004 and were returned to their unspecified home countries, where UNICEF and its partners took responsibility for providing rehabilitation assistance.25 The Department of Defense acknowledged that an unspecified number of children, aged 16 and 17, remained at Guantanamo Bay, unsegregated from adult detainees and without education or rehabilitation assistance.26

Other developments

In 2002 Congress adopted the Foreign Relations Authorization Act of FY 03 (H.R.1646), which required the State Department's annual human rights reports to include the "nature and extent of the compulsory recruitment and conscription of individuals under the age of 18" by all armed groups in every country. The reports must describe the steps taken by governments to eliminate such practices and must show the countries that have ratified the Optional Protocol. The 2003 report, released in February 2004, highlighted 28 countries that use child soldiers.

On 7 and 8 May 2003, the Department of Labor sponsored an international conference on the prevention and rehabilitation of child soldiers, attended by former child soldiers from Burundi, Colombia, El Salvador, Philippines, Sierra Leone and Uganda. At the conference, Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao announced US$13 million in new funding for education, and disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programs. These included the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour of the International Labour Organization and education projects for former child soldiers in northern Uganda and Afghanistan.27 While visiting a number of African countries in December 2003, Secretary Chao met former child soldiers and raised issues related to child soldiers in meetings with President Kabila of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.28

* see glossary for information about internet sources

1 Department of Defense, http://www.defendamerica.mil/fallen.html.

2 Department of Defense, op. cit.

3 Department of Defense, http://www.defendamerica.mil.

4 CNN.com, "7 US troops killed in Afghanistan", 30 January 2004.

5 National Catholic Reporter, "Law Opens Recruiting Access", 28 March 2003.

6 H.R. 163 and S. 89.

7 Office of the Under Secretary of Defense, Personnel and Readiness, Population Representation in the Military Services, Fiscal Year 2002, March 2004, Tables B-1 and C-2.

8 Sean J. Byrne, Brigadier General, US Army, Director of Military Personnel Policy, letter to Human Rights Watch (HRW), 2 April 2004.

9 Population Representation in the Military Services, op. cit.

10 Communication from Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, Department of Defense, to HRW, 6 March 2001.

11 Population Representation in the Military Services, op. cit.

12 National Catholic Reporter, "Junior ROTC at a Glance", 28 March 2003.

13 US Army JROTC, https://gateway.usarmyjrotc. com/http://portal.usarmyjrotc.com/jrotc/dt.

14 American Friends Service Committee, Youth and Militarism Program, http://www.afsc.org/youthmil/jrotc/Default.htm.

15 US Army JROTC, https://gateway.usarmyjrotc. com/http://portal.usarmyjrotc.com/jrotc/dt/library/history.html; Air Force News Service, "Air Force JROTC Instructor Duty", 22 September 2003, http://usmilitary.about.com/cs/airforce/a/afjrotcinstruct.htm.

16 Sean J. Byrne, US Army, letter to HRW, 2 April 2004, op. cit.

17 Sean J. Byrne, US Army, letter to HRW, 24 June 2004.

18 Chief of Naval Operations, Implementation Plans for Age 18 Standard for Participation in Combat, 10 February 2001.

19 Navy Personnel Command, First-Term Personnel Assignment Policy, 28 February 2003.

20 Communication from Department of the Navy, Navy Personnel Command, to HRW, 21 May 2004.

21 Commandant of the Marine Corps, US Marine Corps, 17 Year Old Marines in Combat, 23 January 2003.

22 Communication to HRW, 12 May 2003.

23 BBC News, "Guantanamo may free children", 22 August 2003, http://news.bbc.co.uk.

24 Amnesty International, Children detained at Guantanamo should be released, says Amnesty International, 23 April 2003; and HRW, US: Guantanamo kids at risk, 24 April 2003, http://www.hrw.org.

25 HRW, US: Despite releases, children still held at Guantanamo, 29 January 2004.

26 Detainee Policy Group interview with the Defense Department, 10 November 2003; HRW, US: Despite releases, children still held at Guantanamo, op. cit.

27 Department of Labor, US Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao convenes international conference on child soldiers, 7 May 2003.

28 Information from Department of Labor to Child Soldiers Coalition USA, 11 March 2004.


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