The UN is increasing its efforts to eliminate the continued use of “child soldiers”. The latest UN effort is in Yemen where it has documented that about a third of the gunmen fighting for the Iran backed Shia rebels are, by UN definition, “child soldiers.” At the moment the rebels are vulnerable to UN pressure as they are losing and their patron Iran is pressuring the rebels to do what they can to placate the UN. That won’t be easy because the Arab tribes in Yemen and elsewhere have been using “child soldiers” for thousands of years and in the last few decades that has gotten even easier.
Blame it all on cheap AK-47s. The end of the Cold War has brought millions of cheap AK-47s to Africa and the Middle East. This increased the death toll as assault rifles can kill a lot more people than the traditional spears and bows long used in Africa. Indeed, previously only experienced hunters went to war, because it was up close, personal and very physical. Muscle mattered as did skills. You had to be tough, experienced and brave. With AK-47s any kid can become a bad ass blasting away from a distance just like in the movies. Where in the past women and children were generally spared, now they are the first victims of the AK-47 armed teenagers.
The five kilogram (11 pound) AK-47 could be handled by nine and ten year old kids, and children this young were easily manipulated by older men. But the UN got caught up in its own politically correct atmosphere and when it decreed anyone under age 18 was a "child," and included them in its campaign against the use of "child soldiers." This became a PR problem for nations like Britain and the U.S., whose all-volunteer militaries typically enlist 17 year olds (to accommodate recent high school grads).
To many Western nations the "17 year old guys are children" thing ignored the past. Throughout history, teenagers have made up a large segment of the battlefield population. Most of the older guys would stay home to tend the wife and kids. This was a purely practical matter, as one missed harvest could kill off everyone. For the teenage guys, war was a rite of passage and a form of population control. In many cultures, many female infants were killed for the same reason, but battle was seen as a suitable way for deciding which males were fit to breed.
The UN is out to change history, not learn from it. In 2002 the UN adopted rules that made using child soldiers a crime against humanity. Many of the worst offenders ignored the UN and by 2013 the UN bureaucrats noticed this and called for more vigorous enforcement efforts. Pressure was brought on nations most concerned about not offending the UN. Thus in January 2015 the UN proudly announced that the Burmese Army had, in 2014, discharged over 400 soldiers who were younger than 18. This was in compliance with the UN Child Soldier Protocol, which most nations have signed but not all have complied with. The UN Child Soldier Protocol bans the use of soldiers younger than 18 in combat, and only allows enlistment of soldiers under 18 with the permission of their parents.
These protocols have become more restrictive since the 1980s. At first the protocols banned the use of children under age 15 in combat. In much of the world it was and still is common to use kids under age 14 in the armed forces (regular or irregular). In the West this was the case until the 19th century and by the 20th century the Western custom was to take no one under 17. Thus before 1990s it was common to find 17 year old American soldiers, marines and sailors in combat zones.
There were also many cases of underage boys who enlisted using false identification, sometimes with the knowing consent of their parents. This was fairly common until the 1960s. The total number of underage American soldiers who died in Vietnam is unknown, but at least five of the U.S. troops killed in Vietnam are known to have been under 18 years of age. One, a Marine, seems to have been only 13. There were even more cases during World War II. If found out, such young soldiers were usually removed from the combat zone (especially if under age 18).
As it turned out setting 18 as the age one magically becomes an adult proved to be a contentious issue when the current Child Soldier Protocol was being drafted. Many nations had, for centuries, taken in recruits who were 17 or younger and saw no reason to change. Most of these nations agreed that, for all practical purposes, there was no difference between 17 and 18 year olds. But the UN bureaucrats had their way, and 18 became the age at which you were no longer a "child soldier."
Nevertheless, it's still popular for 17 years olds (usually recent high school graduates), to enlist in the military. Nearly 10,000 17 year olds do so each year (most for the army) in the United States. It was only two years ago that the U.S. Marine Corps, reluctantly, stopped sending 17 year olds into combat. These were usually 17 year olds only a month or two short of turning 18. They had already finished six months of very tough training, only be told they were "too young" to go off to combat with the guys they trained with. This hurt morale in the entire unit.
In Africa and the Middle East it has become common to use children as young as nine or ten as suicide bombers (often without telling the kids what was going to happen with that heavy vest they were wearing when they go to where they were supposed to go). More commonly kids this age are used as lookouts and couriers, as kids this age have been used for centuries. But the use of remotely controlled suicide bomb vests has made it easy to deceive a child to put it on and just “deliver it”. These deliveries rarely end well for the child. No Islamic terrorist group has signed the UN Child Soldier Protocol agreement.