Reimagining Child Soldiers in International Law and Policy

Reimagining Child Soldiers in International Law and Policy

Author: Mark A. Drumbl
Publisher: Oxford, UK; New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. 239p.
Reviewer: Simon Reich | November 2013

Are child soldiers perpetrators or victims? This is the central question at the heart of Mark Drumbl’s book, Reimagining Child Soldiers in International Law and Policy. According to the international community, the answer is quite simple: they are victims. This view, the author points out, is reflected in the narrative of NGOs, the protocols of international organizations, and the specificities of international law. This position, he suggests, leads to “discourses of abdicated responsibility” among NGOs and at the United Nations (page 39) and results in a “legal fiction” (page 101) between the legal status of, and the reality faced by, former child soldiers. His goal is to redress this “fiction.” As he states on page 24, “This book advises that the legal fiction of faultless passive victimhood should be dismantled and, therewith, its controlling effects deflated.” The alternative perspective, of child soldiers as perpetrators, does exist but – he suggests – is clearly unpopular and marginalized. Indeed, even broaching the debate is toxic.

Drumbl’s explicit goal is thus to articulate a novel position. He believes child soldiers have diverse degrees of accountability – contingent upon their actions. Transitional justice mechanisms should be established both as a means of ensuring accountability, culpability, and justice for the victims and bereaved, and as a legitimate path to reintegration for former child soldiers.

Drumbl’s book is more ‘composed’ than written, almost lyrical at times. Indeed, the book has much to commend it for both the reader unacquainted with some of the central issues and for those willing to entertain the question of the treatment of child soldiers. It is composed of three elements: a reference book about the state of the literature on child soldiers; a philosophical or normative argument about the issue of agency of youth and their culpability for their actions; and a legal treatise about the graduated processes by which former child soldiers should be treated in view of their varied former crimes.

Not surprisingly, as a lawyer, Drumbl is admirably forthright in declaring that he’s conducted no field research on child soldiers himself. Not surprisingly, he is therefore on his most solid ground in his description and interpretation of legal issues. Unfortunately, these are only superficially addressed in the first half of the book. These first three chapters, rather, predominantly serve as a reference book — a helpful introduction to the unacquainted reader but one that is only marginally linked to the subsequent discussion. It is true that the author introduces various legal concepts in these chapters, to justify his novel position regarding accountability. But rather than building upon this work early in the book, the author often digresses into unrelated issues or short synthetic case studies (e. g., pages 66-79).

Drumbl’s lack of research experience occasionally surfaces in problematic ways. He states, for example, that child soldiers generally declare that they volunteered for action when interviewed. In fact, the record on this issue is mixed: many claim that they were abducted, in order to avoid punitive actions by their home communities. He makes declaratory statements – such as his overt bias towards focusing on African states (page 5) because they are supposedly more violent. In fact, one of the key features of African conflicts is the varied degree to which child soldiers are used in violent conflicts. This latter point is reflective of a larger problem in the book: Drumbl is exhaustive in his review of both the NGO literature and work by philosophers, sociologists, psychologists and anthropologists. Yet he largely ignores the work of political scientists from which he would have benefited. One such example is Jens Andvig and Scott Gates’ rationalist model of recruitment that directly addresses some of Drumbl’s concerns about the purpose of child recruitment by rebel groups.1 The same is largely true of the work of criminologists, with only a passing reference to domestic legislation as applied to adolescent crime (e. g., pages 105-106). While it would be unreasonable to hold Drumbl to too high a standard, this wholesale exclusion of relevant literatures is mystifying.

 And, given his own lack of field experience, some of his comments are controversial. For example, Drumbl takes to task Roméo Dallaire – former UN commander in Rwanda during the genocide – for his statement that child soldiers are weapons of war and are“devoid of respect for human life and conventions of any sort.” He characterizes Dallaire’s statement as “excessively stylized” (page 89). While we should applaud Drumbl’s self-professed search for nuance, his criticism seems ill conceived given Dalliare’s extensive experience.

Drumbl’s position strengthens in the book’s fourth and fifth chapters — those dedicated to issues relating to international human rights law and humanitarian law. As a prelude to these chapters, on page 98, he offers a comprehensive definition of a model of circumscribed action. “A circumscribed actor has the ability to act, the ability not to act, and the ability to do other than what he or she actually had done. The effective range of these abilities, however, is delimited, bounded and confined. Circumscribed actors exercise some discretion in navigating and mediating the constraints around them. They disclose of an enclosed space which is theirs and in which they exercise a margin of volition. The acreage of this space varies according to an ever fluctuating admixture of disposition and situation. Although encircled, circumscribed actors are not flattened. Affected by conflict, they also affect others. Threatened and armed, they may, in turn, threaten and harm others.”

Linking the normative (and prescriptive) to a legal framework, he describes in great detail the standing of child soldiers according to current protocols (notably, the Paris Principles of 2007) and consequential legal frameworks (such as at the International Criminal Court). Again, his goal is to reinforce his claim that they are treated as passive victims, one that he does with enough regularity to risk redundancy. Again, the greatest value to the uninformed reader is Drumbl’s copious description of the current legal position. In essence, he decries the utility of international criminal proceedings and their lack of a deterrent effect (pages 163-165) in favor of “diverse accountability mechanisms” (page 164). Much of the blame, he suggests however, lies with the double standard applied by more powerful states to the treatment of child soldiers: they characterize adolescents committing acts of violence within their own borders as bloodthirsty purposive actors while those that do so in less powerful states are victims. The evidence Drumbl presents for this claim is thin. Furthermore, he largely ignores a third and perhaps more relevant question: how powerful states respond to acts of child soldiers against western troops operating outside the West. Given the continued significance of child soldiers in wars involving multilateral forces spreading from Asia to Africa and the Middle East, this omission is puzzling.

It is only in the last section of the book that we finally engage the heart of Drumbl’s argument: “Among possible reforms, I advance the normative claim that augmenting the robustness of transitional justice measures, other than criminal trials and imprisonment, could enhance the reintegration experience for this ill-served constituency of former child soldiers” (page 200). This assertion prompts his own question – as to whether “nimbly designed transitional justice interventions allay the likelihood of recrudescence, recidivism, or marginalization?” Yet the limited discussion of the costs and benefits of transitional justice that follows therefore does not begin until after far too long a preamble. Furthermore, despite his recounting of the use of transitional justice mechanisms in other contexts (South Africa, Sierra Leone), we never really get to the point where Drumbl discusses what this institutional process would look like operationally – a fundamental question but perhaps the subject of another book.

Reimagining Child Soldiers in International Law and Policy has significant utility, however, despite its flaws. As mentioned, it is useful as a reference work to the introductory reader. Its value as an exposition of existent law, protocols and how they are interpreted is significant. Its focus on graduated responses to issues of injustice and concerns about reintegration are novel and welcome. But the reader is left with a feeling that, although it will prove useful to scholars and policy makers alike, the product is less than the sum of the parts given its lack of attention to the issue of how the transitional courts he advocates would operate effectively.

Simon Reich, Professor of Global Affairs and Political Science, Rutgers University Newark

1 See Jens Christopher Andvig and Scott Gates, “Recruiting Children for Armed Conflict” in Scott Gates and Simon Reich, ed., Child Soldiers in the Age of Fractured States (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009).

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