WASHINGTON - Pressed by the demands of the "global war on terrorism", the United States is violating an international protocol that forbids the recruitment of children under the age of 18 for military service, according to a new report released Tuesday by a major civil rights group that charged that recruitment practices target children as young as 11 years old.
The 46-page report, "Soldiers of Misfortune", which was prepared by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) for submission to the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, also found that the U.S. military disproportionately targets poor and minority public school students.
Military recruiters, according to the report, use "exaggerated promises of financial rewards for enlistment, [which] undermines the voluntariness of their enlistment." In some cases documented by the report, recruiters used coercion, deception, and even sexual abuse in order to gain recruits. Perpetrators of such practices are only very rarely punished, the report found.
"The United States military's procedures for recruiting students plainly violate internationally accepted standards and fail to protect youth from abusive and aggressive recruitment tactics," said Jennifer Turner of the ACLU Human Rights Project.
The increased aggressiveness of military recruiters is due in major part, according to the report, to the increased pressure to meet enlistment quotas caused by ongoing U.S. military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan to which nearly 200,000 soldiers and marines are currently deployed.
The pressure created by current military commitments has not only translated into enhanced recruitment efforts among children under 18. The armed forces have also lowered their standards for minimum-intelligence tests, made it easier to enlist individuals with criminal records, and increased re-enlistment bonuses for soldiers who might otherwise be tempted to leave the service.
The report, which also detailed Washington's failure to protect foreign child soldiers being held by U.S. forces at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and elsewhere around the world as part of its submission to the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child, assesses Washington's compliance with the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict.
The Protocol, which is attached to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, is designed to protect the rights of children under 18 who may be recruited by the military and deployed to war.
Among other provisions, the Protocol sets an absolute minimum age for recruitment of 16 and requires that all recruitment activities directed at children under 18 be carried out with the consent of the child's parents or guardian, that any such recruitment be genuinely volunteer, and the military fully inform the child of the duties involved in military service and require reliable proof of age before enlistment.
While the United States is one of only two countries -- the other being Somalia -- to have never ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the U.S. Senate ratified the Protocol in 2002, making it binding under U.S., as well as international, law. Unlike most other industrialised countries that set their minimum recruitment age at 18, the Senate decided on 17 as the absolute minimum for the United States.
According to the ACLU report, however, the U.S. armed services "regularly target children under 17 for military recruitment, heavily recruiting on high school campuses, in school lunchrooms, and in classes."
The army's own Recruiting Programme Handbook, for example, instructs its more than 10,600 recruiters to approach high school students as early as possible, and explicitly before their senior year, which, for most students, starts at age 17. "Remember, first to contact, first to contract...that doesn't just mean seniors or grads...," according to an excerpt quoted in the report. "If you wait until they're seniors, it's probably too late."
Once recruiters are inside their assigned high schools, the Army's Recruiting Command instructs them to "effectively penetrate the school market" and "(b)e so helpful and so much a part of the school scene that you are in constant demand", with the goal of "school ownership that can only lead to a greater number of Army enlistments." That includes volunteering to serve as coaches for high school sports teams, involvement with the local Boy Scouts, attending as many all school functions and assemblies, and even "eating lunch in the school cafeteria several times each month".
The report documents a number of specific cases, mostly in New York and California -- the two most populous states with the largest number of minority high school students -- in which recruiters clearly followed these instructions. In a survey of nearly 1,000 children, aged 14 to 17, enrolled in New York City high schools, the ACLU New York affiliate found that more than one five respondents -- equally distributed among the different grades -- reported the use of class time by military recruiters, and 35 percent said military recruiters had access to multiple locations in their schools where they could meet students.
The report also noted that the Pentagon's central recruitment database systematically collected information on 16-year-olds and, in some cases even 15-year-olds, including their name, home address and telephones, email addresses, grade point averages, height and weight information, and racial and ethnic data obtained from a variety of public and private sources. The explicit purpose of the database is to assist the military in its "direct marketing recruiting efforts". As the result of a 2006 ACLU lawsuit, the Pentagon agreed to stop collecting data about students younger than 16.
But recruitment efforts even dip below 15-year-olds, according to the report, which found that the Pentagon's Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC), which operate at more than 3,000 junior high schools, middle schools, and high schools across the country, target children as young as 14 for recruitment. The report cited recent studies that found that enrollment in some JROTC programmes was involuntary.
JROTC "cadets", of whom there were nearly 300,000 in 2005, receive military uniforms and conduct military drills and marches, handle real and wooden rifles, and learn military history, according to the report, which noted that the programme is explicitly designed to "enhance recruiting efforts". African American and Latin students make up 54 percent of JROTC programmes.
JROTC also oversees the Middle School Cadet Corps (MSCC), in which children ages 11 to 14 can participate, according to the report. Florida, Texas, and Chicago schools offer military-run after-school MSCC programmes in which children take part in drills with wooden rifles and military chants, learn first-aid, civics, military history and, in some cases, wear uniforms to school for inspection once a week.
The Army also uses an online video game, called "America's Army", to attract potential recruits as young as 13, train them to use weapons, and engage in virtual combat and other military missions. Launched in 2002, the video game had attracted 7.5 million registered users by September 2006.
"Military recruitment tools aimed at youth under 18, including Pentagon-produced video games, military training, corps, and databases of students' personal information, have no place in America's schools," said Turner.
© 2008 Inter Press Service