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Organisations and churches who have questioned the recruitment of under 18s into the armed forces are backing an amendment which could see children no longer able to enlist and bring the UK into line with international standards. The UK is the only country in Europe to routinely recruit people aged under 18 into the armed forces.
On Tuesday 14 June, the amendment (1) will be raised as part of the House of Commons debate on the Armed Forces Bill, five-yearly legislation that provides the basis for military law in the UK.
The organisations, including the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, Quakers in Britain, the Unitarian Church and ForcesWatch, have argued that, since the last Armed Forces Bill, there have been calls for the policy of recruiting minors to be reviewed from two significant authorities on children's rights - the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child and the UK Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights. These calls echo the recommendations made in 2005 by the Defence Select Committee. (2)
Support for a change in policy on recruiting children has also come from leading UK children's rights organisations including UNICEF UK, the Children's Society, and the Children's Rights Alliance for England who wrote to parliamentarians urging them to use the Armed Forces Bill as an opportunity to raise the recruitment age.
A recent report, "Catch 16-22: Recruitment and retention of minors in the British Armed Forces" highlights the risks involved for young people entering the forces and concludes that, "not only is the experience of recruits in the 16 - 18 age bracket adversely affected by their relative lack of maturity, but that their high drop-out rate results in millions of pounds in wasted expenditure." (3)
The organisations also support another amendment to the Armed Forces Bill (4) that would enshrine in primary legislation the right of under 18s to leave the armed forces if they are unhappy.
Emma Sangster of ForcesWatch (5), a network concerned with ethical issues involving the armed forces, said,
"The Government's recent announcement (6) that anyone under 18 will have a right to leave the armed forces, reflects a growing understanding that 16 and 17 year olds in the military require special consideration as minors - as those not old enough to enlist without parental permission, or deemed old enough to buy alcohol or vote, and requiring additional protection under the law. While we welcome this development, we are concerned that it should be included in primary legislation in order to create a unified approach across the forces and to raise awareness about the right to leave amongst youngsters themselves.
"The Government needs to go further in protecting young people from the risks and difficulties of military life and ensuring that they are not exposed to its challenges before they are ready. The UK should be taking the lead on enshrining children's rights in legislation, not lagging behind the rest of Europe and much of the rest of the world. Clearly other countries do not feel they have to recruit at 16. With so many calls from national and international bodies for the UK to review the whole policy of recruiting 16 and 17 year olds, it is becoming imperative for the UK to conduct such a study with a view to fully recognising the growing consensus that the military is no place for children."
Michael Bartlet, Parliamentary Liaison Secretary, Quakers in Britain said,
"Quakers in Britain are committed to the values of peace, equality and human rights. We oppose in principle the military training of those who are still legally children. We welcome proposed amendments to the Armed Forces Bill to end the enlistment of minors (New Clause 11) and give to all current under 18 year olds a discharge as of right (New Clause 7). The current regulations regarding under 18 year olds in the armed forces are inconsistent with the highest international standards of child protection. A change to the law is long overdue."
ForcesWatch 020 7837 2822 email@example.com www.forceswatch.net
1. Amendment NC11, Armed Forces Bill
2. Calls for a review of recruitment of under 18s into the UK armed forces include:
- UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, Concluding Observations on the Initial Report of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland under the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict (UN Doc: CRC/C/OPAC/GBR/CO/1) 2008
- Joint Committee on Human Rights report: Children's Rights, 2009
- House of Commons Defence Committee report: Duty of Care, 2005
- Joint Committee on Human Rights - Twelfth Report: Legislative Scrutiny: Armed Forces Bill, 17 May 2011
4. Amendment NC7, Armed Forces Bill
5. ForcesWatch is a network launched in 2010 concerned with ethical issues around armed forces recruitment and the rights of forces personnel.
6. Government response to the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill Special Report 19 May 2011
Currently, people joining the forces at 16 or 17 have no right to discharge themselves (after the first six months) until turning 22. They must rely on the discretion of commanding officers to get a discharge.