The ‘problem’ of ‘the child soldier’ is a touchstone of our contemporary time. It names an impassioned concern with the exploitation and victimization of children in situations of armed conflict by more powerful state and non-state actors – a concern which is understood to reflect a global humanitarian sentiment that has emerged in response to the grave violence and injustice that occurs in the world. Influential international actors and institutions frame child soldiering as ‘one of the most deplorable developments in recent years’ and a ‘crime against humanity’, cautioning that ‘[e]mpathy alone with the suffering of boys and girls in times of conflict is not enough. We must act.’ The problem of child soldiering thus justifies a variety of humanitarian campaigns, international justice initiatives and political interventions designed to end the practice. In the name of preventing and redressing the scourge of child soldiering, individuals, communities and organizations come together to denounce this practice and respond to its effects. And at the heart of many of these collaborations and campaigns lies an image of the vulnerable (often African) child compelling protection and care. This is an image that can appear as transparent as it is problematic; an unquestionable depiction of injustice that seems to demand a certain reaction. This is the work of problematization. Problematization refers to the socially, legally, politically, culturally and historically located processes whereby a particular issue or concern emerges on the social and legal scene. It is the giving of form to something which previously did not exist as such, in particular ways. Problematization refers to ‘the totality of discursive or non-discursive practices that introduces something into the play of true and false and constitutes it as an object for thought (whether in the form of moral reflection, scientific knowledge, political analysis)’. Here then, problematization refers to the way in which the complex array of contexts and experiences that have been described so carefully in the preceding pages come to be understood as parts of a whole, as different perspectives on ‘the problem of the child soldier’. And it is from this understanding and articulation of a shared problem that potential solutions can then be crafted – solutions which are always delimited to the terms and truths upon which the initial problematization is based. An attention to problematization, therefore, separates an acknowledgement of the reality of children’s participation in conflict from the current, somewhat cohesive and consistent, way of understanding (and indeed pathologizing) this participation, its nature, causes and potential solutions.
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Mark A. Drumbl and Jastine C. Barrett
Throughout history, armed conflict has ensnared children. On occasion such children have been lauded as heroes or, at least, praised for their martial courage in the darkness of desperate times. Increasingly, however, the involvement of children in armed conflict is no longer seen as unbecoming or an anguished last stand but, instead, as flatly impermissible with the affected children projected as afflicted victims. Global consciousness has shifted. The drift of international human rights law, international criminal law and international humanitarian law both reflects and hardens this shift. The relationship of the child with armed conflict has migrated from one informed by ethics, needs and morality to one regulated by law, rules and public policy. The international community is progressively moving towards a position where the conscription, enlistment or use in hostilities of persons under the age of 18 – in particular by armed groups but also increasingly by armed forces – is seen as unlawful. Many activist and humanitarian groups commit to the cause of ending child soldiering. UNICEF and other United Nations (UN) organs have deeply invested themselves in this mission as well. In 1996, pursuant to a UN General Assembly resolution, Graca Machel of Mozambique submitted a ground-breaking report entitled Impact of Armed Conflict on Children (widely known as the Machel Report). The Machel Report firmly put children and violent conflict on the international agenda and has had considerable social constructivist influence. In light of one of its recommendations, for example, the Office of the Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict was established within the UN system. The UN Security Council, generally fractured, has unified to issue 12 resolutions over the past two decades on children in armed conflict. The focus of law- and policymakers has further expanded to address the place of children in terrorist groups and to interrogate how counter-terrorist strategies and initiatives should approach such children.