In some parts of the world children as young as seven are forced into armed combat, by rebel groups and sometimes even governments. This practice has constituted a war crime since 2002. According to figures from the United Nations, there are 250,000 child soldiers fighting in countries including Zimbabwe, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2004 the UN Office of Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs revealed that as many as half of the world's child soldiers were based in Africa. In 2008 lawsuits were filed against three commanders of Congolese rebel groups at the International Court of Justice in The Hague in relation to the recruitment of child soldiers.
There are three main ways a child can be used by militia. The most obvious is turning them into armed soldiers, but children can also be used as spies or political tools such as human shields to prevent enemy attacks. This is typically done under duress and children may be drugged to keep them complicit. Child soldiers are considered easier to brainwash and a source of cheap labor; girls can be forced into sexual slavery. The use of force or compulsory recruitment of anyone under the age of 18 years to take part in armed conflict was named as one of the worst forms of child labor and also as a form of slavery by the International Labor Organization in 1999. Organizations dedicated to the eradication of the use of child soldiers have been working since the 1970s to raise awareness of their cause, with an international day, Red Hand Day, held on February 12 each year.
Under the UN's Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989), Article 38 outlines the guidelines for countries to follow to prevent the use of children in conflict. It reads: "State parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure persons who have not attained the age of 15 years do not take a direct part in hostilities." At that time, the use of minors aged from 15 to 17 years old was permitted on a voluntary basis, however in 2002 further protocol was added to the Act. It underlined state parties "shall take all feasible measures to ensure that persons below the age of 18 do not take a direct part in hostilities and that they are not compulsorily recruited into the armed forces." Further articles of the Act declare member states take "all feasible measures to prevent such recruitment…including the adoption of legal measures necessary to prohibit and criminalize such practices," and that any member states with child soldiers as citizens would be required to demobilize them and aid with their physical and psychological recovery.
In July 2002 the use of child soldiers was officially defined as a war crime under Article 8.2.26 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. It stated: "Conscripting or enlisting children under the age of 15 years into the national armed forces or using them to participate actively in hostilities is a war crime." International law does not prohibit the prosecution of children for war crimes, but the UN's Convention on the Rights of the Child ruled there were exceptions to the type of punishment a child should receive. It states: "Neither capital punishment, nor life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offences committed by persons below the age of 18 years of age."
Under the Paris Principles of the UN Human Rights Commission, children who participated in armed conflict "…who are accused of crimes under international law allegedly committed while they were associated with armed forces or armed groups should be considered primarily as victims of offences against international law; not only as perpetrators. They must be treated in accordance with international law in a framework of restorative justice and social rehabilitation, consisted with international law which offers children special protection through numerous agreements and principles." This was followed by the Special Court for Sierra Leone when trying child soldiers who fought in conflict when they were aged between 15 and 17. Prosecutors in America wanted to abandon the Paris Principles when sentencing the former child soldier Omar Khadr, who was 15 when he killed an American soldier in Afghanistan in 2002. Their appeal for life imprisonment was eventually reduced to eight years as a result of a plea bargain.