Academic journal article Melbourne Journal of International Law

Reimagining Child Soldiers in International Law and Policy

Academic journal article Melbourne Journal of International Law

Reimagining Child Soldiers in International Law and Policy

Article excerpt


An annual reminder that the practice of child soldiering endures globally is provided by the 'list of shame' published by the United Nations Secretary-General. (1) The international focus on the phenomenon has resulted in high profile criminal trials of those allegedly most responsible for the recruitment and use of child soldiers in specific conflict situations. It has also led to the release and attempted reintegration of former child soldiers. But there is a long way to go in balancing the scales of retributive and restorative justice in respect of this relatively novel area of international law. In his book, Reimagining Child Soldiers in International Law and Policy, Mark Drumbl provides a timely and compelling contribution to a continuing discussion by first understanding and then re-imagining the entire legal and political architecture surrounding child soldiers.

Drumbl's aim is not modest. He is critical of what he views as the international community's tendency to 'replay the same narratives and circulate the same assumptions' about child soldiers. (2) These narratives and assumptions relate to the 'themes of vulnerability, frailty, victimization and incapacity' (3) characterising former child soldiers. Drumbl argues that this well-intentioned 'reflexive response' is nonetheless short-sighted and verging on the 'palliative'. (4) The book therefore 'aspires to refresh law and policy so as to improve preventative, restorative and remedial initiatives while also vivifying the dignity of youth'. (5)

The book is moulded in rich prose and illuminating vocabulary. Key terms and concepts are highlighted throughout the text and a preliminary overview of Drumbl's central thesis can be provided by weaving together these threads. The 'normative, aspirational and operational mix of international law, policy and practice' (6) developed by a multitude of actors constitutes the international legal imagination. The modern concept of children associated with armed forces or armed groups reflected, for example, in the 'Paris Principles and Guidelines on Children Associated with Armed Forces or Armed Groups' ('Paris Principles'), (7) which defines as children those under the age of 18, provides the definitional scope for the purposes of the book, as emphasised in ch 3. There are different possible images of the child soldier or the former child soldier as a faultless passive victim, an irreparable damaged good, a hero or a demon and bandit. According to Drumbl, the international legal imagination has become saturated by the faultless passive victim image of the child soldier. This image is a legal fiction. It must be re-imagined. It fails to account for the under-explored and under-appreciated notion of youth volunteerism, itself connected to the idea that children are capable of being social navigators who understand, especially when adolescents, more than the international legal imagination wishes to acknowledge. Drumbl puts forward a model of circumscribed action which is presented as a spectrum or continuum embracing diversity in the sense that '[a] circumscribed actor has the ability to act, the ability not to act, and the ability to do otherwise than what he or she actually has done'. (8)

Each conflict has a before, a during and an after and each of these stages may be relevant to transitional justice, which

   designates the range of processes by which societies come to terms
   with histories of widespread violence, how they reckon with
   terrible human rights abuses and how people within afflicted
   constituencies come to live together again. (9)

In terms of transitional justice options, a preoccupation of the book is the rationale for excluding children from the criminal process and the ensuing policy result which may be correct even though the rationale overshoots its mark by offering too much protection. …

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