The issue of child soldiers is one surrounded by controversy. The question of whether the government should provide child soldiers with amnesty is widely disputed. Many believe that only children within a certain age range, or only from a few countries, etc, should receive amnesty. However, although these are valid points and worthy of discussion, it is far more reasonable to state that child soldiers should receive amnesty provided that they are fully rehabilitated. Child soldiers deserve rehabilitation because their actions are not their fault, they are underage, and they are brainwashed in order to be forced to commit acts of violence.
The first step in recognizing the need for amnesty is that the acts of violence committed by child soldiers are not the fault of the child soldiers. To begin with, many child soldiers are forced into wars or violence against their wills. Jeffrey Gettleman’s article Armed & Underage notes how in some cases “hunger and poverty drive[s] parents to sell their children into service.” The same article also presents the fact that, in the case of Myanmar, “thousands of boys, some as young as ten, are purchased, kidnapped, or tortured into joining [Myanmar’s] army.” Other children go to army bases expecting a safe haven from the war and violence that is ravaging their villages and towns. Instead of finding safety, they are drafted and unable to leave for fear of being tortured or killed by their commanders. According to former child soldier and now activist Ishmael Beah, the life of a child soldier is that “you go out, you shoot people, … you do whatever the commander wants you to do — if not, they will kill you. And then you’re fed drugs… there’s always ways of killing people in front of you to desensitize you — you’re given more drugs after that. You watch…films as just a way to keep you in this madness.” In the midst of this numbed horror, the child soldiers are sent out to fight, placing them in a kill or be killed situation. One hesitation, one life spared, could mean death for a child soldier, brought upon them either by the person they were supposed to kill, or by their commander.
There are many who would say that the age of a child soldier is irrelevant when it comes to granting them amnesty; everyone chooses their own actions, and everyone should be held accountable for their choices. In the case of child soldiers, however, although there are some who manage to escape from the violence, the majority of child soldiers are unable to do this for a multitude of reasons. To begin with, child soldiers are unable to fight back against the people commanding them. The commanders are in a position of power, whereas the children are soldiers — easily punished and easily replaceable. If they disobey, fight back, or try and fail to escape, there is every chance that they will be killed. We cannot possibly expect every child soldier to even attempt to escape with the odds backed up so high against them. Alongside this, child soldiers are not necessarily mature or developed enough to formulate or implement complex and successful escape plans. Child soldiers, here referring to children under the age of 20, are not old enough to do so. According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, “[t]he rational part of a teen’s brain isn’t fully developed and won’t be until he or she is 25 years old or so.” Children are simply not capable of making life altering decisions, primarily decisions that result in life or death. Their brains are not developed enough to do so. Child soldiers are not old enough to be reasonably held accountable for their actions, particularly when under the threat of death for disobedience.
Even if a child soldier was mentally capable of formulating a suitable escape plan, chances are that prolonged exposure to violence and drugs, combined with the loss of their family would keep the child from implementing their potential plan. It is also the case that after having lost their safety, security, and family, children “want to belong to something, especially if they live in a society that has collapsed completely. Their communities are broken down, they want to belong to anything slightly organized and these groups become that.” This testimony was given by former child soldier Ishmael Beah, now an author and UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador. Ishmael Beah stated in an interview with George Stroumboulopoulos that “this [violent/military] group, in a weird way, sort of becomes your surrogate family, you begin to look up to the commander as a father figure because you’ve lost everything dear to you. ” Children end up transferring feelings of attachment and safety that would otherwise go to their parents to the figures in their lives with authority and who provide them with food and shelter; the very same commanders that have the power to kill the child soldiers for disobedience or cowardice. This attachment that many child soldiers feel towards their commanders can provide another incentive to obey.
Brainwashing can not only create a feeling of attachment towards those in power, it can also cause child soldiers to enjoy the violence they are witnessing/inflicting. In Somalia, where “[m]ost children have never been in a classroom or played in a park,” 12 year old Awil Osman is a member of Somalia’s military. When asked by what he enjoys, he responded “’What do I enjoy?’” Awil asks. ‘I enjoy the gun.’” This enjoyment of violence can often be mistaken for menacing, unstable, or even terroristic. Although it is certainly easy to see why quotes like these would be interpreted thus, it is imperative to remember that even the most toxic mindset can be unlearned to some extent. Although children like Awil may never be completely free of these thoughts and feelings, through sufficient therapy and rehabilitation they may be able to recognize that pro-violence mindsets are dangerous and a direct result of the trauma they experienced. Brainwashing must be reversed so that child soldiers are no longer a danger to their communities. The effects can be reversible. Former child soldiers like Sierra Leonean Ishmael Beah are living proof of that.
It is evident that rehabilitation is key to allowing child soldiers to reenter society as functioning members of the community. Once brainwashing and programing has been lessened and/or undone, child soldiers are able to see and process the negative effects of their actions. They are able to realize that their actions were harmful and not to be repeated. Eventually, child soldiers can be integrated into society without fear that they will be a danger to themselves or the community. Providing child soldiers with rehabilitation and amnesty provides an opportunity to recover and have a new life. A brilliant example of how child soldiers can be constructive to society is author Ishmael Beah, to whom I have made references above. Beah is a former child soldier who was rescued by UNICEF and rehabilitated. He has used his experiences as a child soldier in Sierra Leone to spread awareness about child soldiers, violence, and the necessity of rehabilitation. Beah has used and continues to use his own trauma and recovery as a way to spread awareness about a topic that many consider uncomfortable. All things considered, child soldiers have a right to amnesty on the grounds that they will be provided adequate rehabilitation and therapy. As I have made clear, child soldiers deserve rehab because they are victims of war, have undergone brainwashing and trauma, and are simply not old enough to be prosecuted or denied amnesty for their actions.