This House would require the ICC to allow a defence of “cultural relativism” to the crime of recruiting and using child soldiers.

The use of children (for the purposes of this article, anyone younger than eighteen years-of-age) in warfare has been a continuous feature of all human conflicts, but declined rapidly in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century. The intensive development of the laws and customs of war that took place between the First World War and the collapse of the USSR placed an increasing emphasis on the role of supranational bodies and treaties in regulating the conduct of states in armed disputes and protecting the rights of civilians caught up in war zones.

In 1998, following the creation of ad hoc tribunals designed to investigate and punish the perpetrators of war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the Rome Statute created the International Criminal Court. Since 2002 the ICC has had jurisdiction over events occurring in the territory of parties to the Statute, or over situations referred to it by the United Nations Security Council. The ICC was intended to be complementary to the domestic law of states party to the treaty, investigating war crimes in circumstances where a state’s judiciary is unable to do so itself. The use of children in combat roles in armed conflict is prohibited by Article 8.2.26 of the Rome Statute - "Conscripting or enlisting children under the age of fifteen years into the national armed forces or using them to participate actively in hostilities" is defined as a war crime.

While a number of western liberal democracies continue to admit sixteen-year-olds to their state militaries, these recruits are usually kept away from frontline combat duties. The use of children as soldiers is much more problematic in the developing world. Statistics gathered by Human Rights Watch in 2007 indicate that between 200,000 and 300,000 children in 20 countries around the world are direct participants in armed conflicts[i]. The majority of these children fight in states with low levels of economic and political development. Some 17,000 children fought in the civil conflict that led to the breakup of Sudan. South Sudan now has a GDP of only $1546 per capita. Some 500 to 600 children[ii] are injured or killed in inter-tribal combat in Yemen- which has a per capita GDP of $1061- every year.

The ICC is taking an increasing interest in breaches of child participation controls contained in the Rome Statute and in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. In 2006 Thomas Lubanga, a prominent leader of a DRC based rebel faction was arrested on an ICC warrant and charged with conscripting child soldiers. Charges brought against the president of Sudan, Omar Al Bashiri, in part relate to money funnelled to client groups in the south of the country who were involved in recruiting children to pursue ethnically motivated conflicts in the region. The use of child soldiers by pro-independence Southern Sudanese rebels during this time has yet to produce a prosecution[iii].

Although many post-colonial states may be signatories to the Rome Statute, they often govern highly plural societies that contain diverse forms of cultural and social grouping. Indeed, the representativeness of such governments, and the extent to which “fourth world” communities within the borders of established nations are consulted about participation in international institutions, is often a contentious issue within post-colonial states. In many of these communities, military participation by boys as young as twelve is considered a necessary measure for the protection of isolated settlements and an important marker of a boy’s passage into manhood.

[i] “Campaign page: Child Soldiers”, Human Rights Watch,

[iii] ICC Cases, The International Criminal Court,


Cultural relativism and adapting to conflict

The issues underlying all debates on child soldiers go to the very heart of intercultural justice, politics and governance. International and supranational legislation notwithstanding, the notion that children should be protected from all forms of violence at any cost is expressly western.

The facts stated in the introduction are not sufficient to support the creation of a defence of cultural relativism to charges of recruiting and using child soldiers. “Cultures” are not simply sets of practices defined by history and tradition. They are also methods of living, of survival and of ordering societies that change and develop in response to societies’ environments. Within many communities, children are inducted (or induct themselves) into military organisations as a result of necessity. The traditional providers of physical safety within a society may have been killed or displaced by war. Communities left vulnerable by long running and vaguely defined conflicts may have no other option but to begin arming their children, in order to help them avoid violent exploitation. A great many child soldiers in South Sudan actively sought out units of the rebel army known to accept child recruits[i]. Following the death of parents and the dispersal of extended families, children gravitated towards known sources of safety and strength – organisations capable of providing protection and independence within nations utterly distorted and ruined by conflict.

Western notions of inviolate childhood, free of worry and violence, are merely a cultural construct. This construct cannot be duplicated in societies beset by forms of privation and conflict that have been alien to western liberal democracies for the last seventy years. Attempting to enforce this construct as law- and as a form of law that can trump domestic legislation- endangers vulnerable communities, inhibits the creation of democratic norms and can even criminalise the children it claims to protect.

[i] “Raised by war: Child Soldiers of the Southern Sudanese Second Civil War”, Christine Emily Ryan, PhD Thesis, University of London, 2009


Side proposition are attempting to make an argument in favour of reforming the ICC’s prosecution guidelines, but are doing so in terms of the culturally relative definition of adulthood. In other words, side proposition are trying to discuss war, realpolitik and international justice using the language of social anthropology. This approach is flawed.

Arguments about the appropriate age to allow a child to hunt, to leave school or to marry pale beside the life-and-death significance of participation in warfare. A child does not become an adult by acting like a soldier, and those who recruit children into military organisations do not necessarily view them as adults. Indeed, children are seen as easy targets for recruitment, due to their emotional immaturity, their gullibility and deference to those who wield authority.

Children may join armed groups out of necessity, and in the interests of survival, but this does not mean that those armed groups should accept child volunteers, or should escape criminal liability when they do so. Although the west is now a safe and prosperous place to live, the categories of war crime that the ICC prosecutes were created in response to the depravity and ruthlessness of conflicts that liberal-democracies experienced directly.

The developed, liberal democratic world is not blind to the sense of necessity that drives children to take up arms. However, it understands only too well that child soldiers are unnecessary. Children do not autonomously organise into armed militias – they are recruited by states and groups with defined political and military objectives. Such groups should be aware that there is no value or necessity underlying the use of children in combat, and should be made legally accountable when they flaunt this norm.

The failure of rule of law

As the anthropologist and lawyer Sally Falk-Moore observed “law is only ever a piecemeal intervention by the state in the life of society.”[i]

Laws are, ultimately, social norms that are taught, enforced and arbitrated on by the state. The value of these norms is such that they are deemed to be a vital part of a society’s identity and the state is entrusted with their protection. However, this ideal can be difficult to achieve. Debate as to which norms the state should be custodian of is constant. Where there is a disconnect between a law and the daily lives, aspirations and struggles of a society, it becomes unlikely that that law will be complied with. Generally, a state will not be able to give a pronouncement the force of law if it does not reflect the values held by a majority of a society.

Compliance with the law can be even harder to obtain in highly plural societies. Even in plural societies ruled peacefully by an effective central government (such as India), communities’ conceptions of children’s rights may be radically different from those set down in law. The Indian child marriage restraint act has been in force since 1929, but the practice remains endemic in southern India to this day[ii]. Governments can attempt to enforce compliance with a law, through education, incentives or deterrence.

What if the state that is intended to mount the “piecemeal intervention” of banning the use of child soldiers is weak, corrupt or non-existent? What if a state cannot carry out structured interventions of the type described above? Norms that state that the conscription of children is acceptable- due to tradition or need- will be dominant.

Situations of this type will be the rule rather than the exception in underdeveloped states and states where conflict is so rife that children have become participants in warfare. The ICC has jurisdiction to prosecute individuals with command over military units who use children as combatants[iii], but how should the concept of a “commander” be defined in these circumstances?

In order for the juristic principles underlying the authority of the ICC to function properly, it is necessary for there to be a degree of certainty and accessibility underlying laws promulgated by a state. While ignorance of the law is not a defence before the ICC, it impossible to call a system of law fair or just that is not overseen by a stable or accepted government. This is not possible if a state is so corrupt that it does not command the trust of its people; if a state is so poor that it cannot afford to operate an open, reliable and transparent court and advocacy system; if territory with a state’s borders is occupied by an armed aggressor. Western notions of rule-of-law are almost impossible to enforce under such conditions. All of these are scenarios encountered frequently in Africa, and central and southern Asia.

Some regions within developing nations are so isolated from the influence of the state, or so heavily contested in internecine conflicts, that communities living within them cannot be expected to know that the state nominally responsible for them has signed the Convention of the Rights of The Child or the Rome Statute. Nor can the state attempt to inform them of this fact. Laws still exist and are enforced within such communities, but these are not state-made forms of law.

For an individual living within a community of the type described above- an individual living in the DRC, in pre-secession South Sudan[iv] or an ethnic minority enclave on the border of Myanmar[v]- the question is a simple one. Does the most immediate source of authority and protection within his world- his community- condone the role that children play in armed conflict? He should not be made liable for abiding by laws and norms that have sprung up to fill a void created by a weak or corrupt central state. There is little hope that he will ever be able to access the counter-point that state sponsored education and engagement could provide.

Child soldiers and their commanders are simply obeying the strongest, the most effective and the most stable source of law in their immediate environment.

[i] “Comparative Law in a Global Context: The Legal Systems of Asia and Africa”, Werner Menski, Cambridge University Press, 2006

[ii] “State of the World’s Children 2009”, UNICEF, United Nations, 2008

[iii] “Elements of Crimes”, International Criminal Court,

[iv] “Child Soldiers: Global Report 2008”, Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, 2007, p315,

[v] “Child Soldiers: Global Report 2008”, Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, 2007, p240,


Opposition agree that the culture and law of a nation has a prodigious impact on the conscience of its civilians. However, according to Alcinda Honwana, an anthropologist and authority on the topic of child soldiers, the problem does not "have its roots in African traditional culture."[i] Although culture has an impact on society, the issue of child soldiers is not affiliated with it.

Side proposition implied that conscripting children should be excusable if it is permitted by an authoritative body of local law. However, are laws based on value-sets that do not aspire to an accessible law making process more valid than the abiding law of that nation? No. Side opposition believe that the "rule of law is a legal maxim according to which no one is immune to the law.” The fundamental purpose of government is the maintenance and promotion of basic security and public order. Without it the nation will deteriorate.

The proposition mentioned the Democratic Republic of Congo as an example. The DRC signed the “Convention on the Rights of the Child” on 21 September 1990. During this time era, Congo was not a declared democracy. However they have hitherto developed a more democratic and stable government. Additionally, DRC has not withdrawn from the Convention on the Rights of the Child, thus accentuating the fact that they are strongly against conscription of children.

Being oblivious of the fact that conscripting child soldiers is illegal is no defence. As side opposition’s substantive material will show, both national and international systems of law are expected to take account of the fact that cultural, environmental and social plurality will lead to variable rates of compliance with particular laws. While it may be difficult to make community leaders liable for the creation of child soldiers, the ICC frequently seeks to make officials linked to state actors liable for failing to protect children from military recruitment[ii].

Moreover, cultural relativism originally assumed some degree of parity and open exchange between communities with diverging cultural values. There is no parity between the value-sets of stable liberal democratic states and the adaptations that vulnerable cultures undergo in order to survive amongst prolonged military conflict.

Finally, it would damage the reputation and reduce the efficiency of the ICC if states were permitted to argue that regions in which child soldiers were active had an established tradition of military activity among the young.

[i] “Children’s Involvement in War: Historical and Social Contexts”, Alcinda Honwana, The Journal of the history of Childhood and Youth, Vol 1 2007

[ii] The Prosecutor v Thomas Lubanga Dylio, The International Criminal Court,

Removing barriers to demobilisation, disarmament and rehabilitation

It can easily be conceded, without weakening the resolution, that war and combat are horrific, damaging experiences. Over the last seventy years, the international community has attempted to limit the suffering that follows the end of a conflict by giving soldiers and civilians access to medical and psychological care. This is now an accepted part of the practice of post-conflict reconstruction, referred to as Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR)[i].

The effects of chronic war and chronic engagement with war are best addressed by a slow and continuous process of habituation to normal life. Former child soldiers are sent to treatment centres specialising in this type of care in states such as Sierra Leone[ii].

What is harmful to this process of recovery is the branding of child soldiers as war criminals. The stigma attached to such a conviction would condemn hundreds of former child soldiers to suffering extended beyond the end of armed conflicts.

Sentencing guidelines binding on the ICC state that anyone convicted of war crimes who is younger than eighteen should not be subject to a sentence of life imprisonment. Their treatment, once incarcerated, is required to be oriented toward rehabilitation.

Many child soldiers become officers within the organisations that they join. Alternately, they might find themselves ordered to seek more recruits from their villages and communities. For these children participation in the conflict becomes participation in the crime itself. What began as a choice of necessity during war-time could, under the status quo, damage and stigmatise a child during peace-time[iii]. Even if their sentence emphasises reform and education, a former child soldier is likely to become an uninjured casualty of the war, marked out as complicit in acts of aggression. When labelled as such children will become vulnerable to reprisal attacks and entrenched social exclusion.

Discussing attempts to foster former Colombian child combatants, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers state that, “The stigmatization of child soldiers, frequently perceived as violent and threatening, meant that families were reluctant to receive former child soldiers. Those leaving the specialized care centres moved either to youth homes or youth protection facilities for those with special protection problems. While efforts continued to strengthen fostering and family-based care, approximately 60 per cent of those entering the DDR program were in institutional care in 2007.”[iv]

Crucially, fear of being targeted by the ICC may lead former child soldiers to avoid disclosing their status to officials running demobilisation programs. They may be deterred from participating in the DDR process[v].

Moreover, the authority of the ICC is often subject to criticism on the international stage by politicians and jurists linked to both democratic states[vi] and the non-liberal or authoritarian regimes most likely to become involved in conflicts that breach humanitarian law. It cannot assist the claims of the ICC to be a body that represents universal concepts of compassion and justice if it is seen to target children- often barely in their teens- in the course of prosecuting war crimes.

As the Child Soliders 2008 Global Report notes, “Prosecutions should not, by focusing solely on the recruitment and use of child soldiers, exclude other crimes committed against children. Such an approach risks stigmatizing child soldiers and ignores the wider abuses experienced by children in conflict situations. It is on these grounds that some have questioned the exclusive child-soldier focus of the ICC’s charges against Thomas Lubanga. After all, the Union of Congolese Patriots (UPC/L), the armed group he led, is widely acknowledged to have committed numerous other serious crimes against children, as well as adults.”[vii]

[i] “Case Studies in War to Peace Transition”, Coletta, N., Kostner, M., Widerhofer, I. The World Bank, 1996

[ii] “Return of Sierra Leone’s Lost Generation”, The Guardian, 02 March 2000,

[iii] “Agony Without End for Liberia’s Child Soldiers”, The Guardian, 12 July 2009,

[iv] “Child Soldiers: Global Report 2008”, Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, 2007, p103,

[v] “Child Soldiers: Global Report 2008”, Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, 2007, p16,

[vi] “America Attacked for ICC Tactics”, The Guardian, 27 August 2002,

[vii] “Child Soldiers: Global Report 2008”, Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, 2007, pp32-33,


The proposition understates the extent to which the needs of child soldiers are catered to by international justice bodies. The Paris Principles[i], which are used to guide the formation and functions of national human rights organisations, state that

“3.6 Children 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...

3.7 Wherever possible, alternatives to judicial proceedings must be sought, in line with the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other international standards for juvenile justice.”

Although not strictly binding, an onus is placed on bodies such as the ICC to seek alternatives to the trial process when dealing with children. (The Principles define a child as anyone less than 18 years of age).

Even where children are placed in the role of officers or recruiters, they are unlikely to be tried in the same fashion as an adult.

This leaves only the issue of social exclusion following the process of demobilisation and treatment. Many of the problems of reintegration highlighted by the proposition do not seem to be uniquely linked to ICC prosecutions. Columbian child soldiers are as likely to be perceived as threatening whether or not they have come to the attention of the ICC. The ICC does not create negative stereotypes of former child soldiers.

As noted above, it seems perverse to give military commanders an opportunity to use cultural relativism to excuse their culpability for what would otherwise be a war crime. Ranking officers are much more likely than Yemeni tribesmen or orphaned Sudanese boys to understand the intricacies of such a defence, and much more likely to abuse it. Realistically, the commanders of child solders, and the politicians who sanctioned their use are the only class of individuals pursued by the ICC.

Where the boundaries between community leader, military officer and political leader become blurred, the court will always be able to fall back on its discretion. Practically, however, this mixing of roles is only likely to be observed in marginal communities a few major conflict zones. This does not favour stepping away from established judicial practice in order to create an entirely new form of defence.

[i] “Principles and Guidelines On Children Associated With Armed Forces or Armed Groups”, International Workshop on National Institutions for the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, 2007,

The cultural construction of armed conflict

The jurisdiction of the ICC is primarily exercised according to culturally constructed assumptions about the way war works – that there will be a clear division between aggressors and defenders, that armies will be organised according to chains of command, the civilians will not be targeted and will be evacuated from conflict zones. But countless conflicts in Africa and central Asia have proven these assumptions to be flawed.

It should not be forgotten that almost all formulations of this motion define cultural relativism only as a defence to the use of child soldiers. It will still be open for ICC prosecutors to prove that the use of child soldiers has been systematic, pernicious and deliberate, rather than the product of uncertainty, necessity and unstable legal norms. Moreover, not all defences are “complete” defences; they do not all result in acquittal, and are often used by judges to mitigate the harshness of certain sentences.

It can be argued that it was never intended for the ICC to enforce laws relating to child soldiers against other children or leaders of vulnerable communities who acted under the duress of circumstances. At the very least, those responsible for arming children in these circumstances should face a more lenient sentence than a better-resourced state body that used child soldiers as a matter of policy.

Due to the nature of conflicts in developing nations, where the geographic influence of “recognised” governments is limited, and multiple local law-making bodies may contribute to an armed struggle, it is difficult for the international community to directly oversee combat itself. United Nations troops are often underfunded, unmotivated and poorly trained, being sourced primarily from the same continent as the belligerent parties in a conflict. When peacekeepers are deployed from western nations, their rules of engagement have previously prevented robust protection of civilian populations. Ironically, this is partly the result of concerns that western states might be accused of indulging in neo-colonialism. It is outrageous for the international community to dictate standards of war-time conduct to communities and states unable to enforce them, while withholding the assistance and expertise that might allow them to do so.

Therefore, the ICC, as a specialist legal and investigative body, should be encouraged to use the expertise it has accumulated to distinguish between child military participation driven by a desire to terrorise populations or quickly reinforce armies, and child military participation that has arisen as a survival strategy.


The ICC is not likely to target children or the leaders of marginalised communities when prosecuting the use of child soldiers. Officials of states parties who play a role in commanding and deploying military units can be held liable for failing to prevent the use of child soldiers at a local level.

If the agony of their circumstances forces a community to recruit ever younger boys into its militia, then officers, ministers or heads of state, along with the commanders of non-state actors, can be brought to trial for allowing children to be used as soldiers. This will be the case whether these individuals do so negligently or by omission. A guilty party need not engage in a positive act.

ICC prosecutors and judges exercise their discretion in order to avoid the types of injustice that the proposition describes. The lack of prosecutions relating to the ad-hoc use of child soldiers by pro-independence groups in South Sudan underlies this fact[i].

Moreover, the ICC is bound by the principle of complementarity, an obligation to work alongside the domestic courts and legislators of the states that refer potential war crimes to the international community. If a state’s corpus of law allows for a margin of appreciation in judging the actions of isolated and endangered communities, these principles must also be reflect in the investigation and inquiries conduct by the ICC.

Complementarity enables the ICC to function with the flexibility and insight that proposition assume it lacks.

[i] “Raised by war: Child Soldiers of the Southern Sudanese Second Civil War”, Christine Emily Ryan, PhD Thesis, University of London, 2009

Making children military targets

The purpose of the ban on the use of child soldiers is to prevent the normalisation of such tactics in conflict zones. It is not an inflexible implementation of a lofty European ideal. The ban, and the role of the ICC in enforcing it, is designed to reduce the likelihood that civilians will be deliberately targeted in developing world war zones. Why is this necessary?

If the defence set out in the motion is used to reduce the number of war crimes convictions attendant on the use of child soldiers, not only will numbers of child soldiers rise, but children themselves will become military targets. Communities ravaged and depleted by war, under the status quo, may be seen as minimally threatening. Armies are not likely to target them as strategic objectives if it is thought that they will offer no resistance. However, if there is no condemnation and investigation of the use of child soldiers, they will become a much more common feature of the battlefield. The increasing militarisation of children will make those children who do not wish to participate in armed conflict- children pursuing some alternate survival strategy- automatic targets. All children will be treated as potential soldiers. The communities that children live in will become military targets.

The resolution, although seeking to enable children to protect themselves, will simply make them targets of the massacres, organised displacement and surprise attacks that characterise warfare in Africa and central Asia.


The purpose of the resolution is not to eliminate conflict in the developing world. Side proposition are merely seeking to remove the harmful side effects of the way in which the use of child soldiers is currently prosecuted – the risk of criminalising children and teenagers, the stigma attached to being a child soldier, and the condemnation of communities that rely on child soldiers for protection.

Children are already the victims of atrocities perpetrated against civilians. They already volunteer to engage in military service. Armed groups that target civilian populations have already broken international law and have proven willing to do so repeatedly. Children will always be a target, whether or not they have sought out the means with which to defend themselves.

With the international community unwilling to provide wide-ranging policing and supervision of international legal norms, it is not just to condemn individuals and communities who unwillingly take up arms to try to survive attacks by groups who flagrantly disregard international law.

Peaceful communities forced to adopt abnormal survival strategies in the face of lawless aggression should be given the opportunity to compel the ICC to make situation specific judgments.

Punishing objectively harmful conduct

Of the tens of thousands of children exposed to armed conflict throughout the world, most are recruited into armed political groups. Quite contrary to the image of child soldiers constructed by the proposition, these youngsters are not de-facto adults, nor are they seeking to defend communities who will be in some way grateful for their contributions and sacrifices. Child soldiers join groups with defined political and military objectives.

Children may volunteer for military units after encountering propaganda. Many children join up to escape social disintegration within their communities. Several female child soldiers have revealed that they joined because to escape domestic violence or forced marriage. Many children who do not volunteer can be forcibly abducted by military organisations. One former child soldier from Congo reported that “they gave me a uniform and told me that now I was in the army. They said that they would come back and kill my parents if I didn’t do as they said.”[i]

Once inducted into the army, children are vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. They are usually viewed as expendable, employed as minesweepers or spies. The inexperience and gullibility of children is used to convince them that they are immune to bullets, or will be financially rewarded for committing atrocities. Many children are controlled through the use of drugs, to which they inevitably become addicted[ii].

For every account the proposition can provide of a child who took up arms to defend his family, there are many more children who were coerced or threatened into becoming soldiers. Whatever standard of relativist morality side proposition may choose to employ, actions and abuses of the type described above are object4ively harmful to children.

Moreover, the process of turning a child into a soldier is irreversible and often more brutal and dehumanising than combat itself. Proposition concedes that child soldiers will be in need of care and treatment after demobilising, but they underestimate the difficulty of healing damage this horrific.

The use of child soldiers is an unpardonable crime, which creates suffering of a type universally understood to be unnecessary and destructive. It should not be diluted or justified by relativist arguments.

It would undermine the ICC’s role in promoting universal values if officers and politicians complicit in the abuses described above were allowed to publicly argue cultural relativism as their defence. Moreover, it would give an unacceptable air of legitimacy to warlords and brigands seeking to operate under the pretence of leading legitimate resistance movements

[i] Child Soldiers International,

[ii] “Child Soldiers: Global Report 2008”, Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, 2007, p299,



It is not sufficient to observe that there exist groups that use brutality to recruit and control child soldiers. As accounts of conflicts in South Sudan and Myanmar show, politically motivated recruitment of children is less common than children volunteering through necessity.

Side opposition should not overlook the fact that there are few constructive alternatives available to children in such situations. Educational institutions are often the first forms of state support to be withdrawn when war breaks out. Many children are orphaned as a result of the indiscriminate targeting of civilians. Taking flight as a refugee may postpone a child’s exposure to conflict, but is rarely useful in escaping it.

Proposition have already established that child soldiers do not originate exclusively within state-based bodies or organised opposition groups seeking control of a state. They are just as likely to be the products of necessity or non-western conceptions of adulthood. The status quo is blind to this distinction, failing to recognise that military involvement is entirely consistent with other norms of adulthood in certain non-western cultures. Further, taking up arms as part of an organised, coherent force is often preferable to remaining a vulnerable, untrained civilian.

Finally, it should be noted that very few opposition-side speakers are likely to argue that individuals, including children, do not have a right to defend themselves against aggression. However, a right to self-defence can be rendered meaningless if weak individuals are not permitted to combine their strength and resources to defend themselves. For ICC prosecutors this would likely be seen as the first step to forming a militia. For a physically weak fourteen year old, it is simply a survival strategy.

Universal rights and collective compromises

Cultural relativism is the philosophical belief that all cultures and cultural beliefs are of equal value and that right and wrong are relative and dependant on cultural contexts. Accordingly, relativists hold that universal human rights cannot exist, as there are no truly universal human values. If rights are relative, the laws that protect them must also be relative.

If we accept proposition’s contention that culturally relative values can evolve in response to conflicts and crises, then any perverse or destructive behaviour given the force of ritual and regularity by a group’s conduct can be taken to be relative. If the group believes that a practice is right, if it ties into that group’s conception of what is just and good or beneficial to their survival, then there can be no counter argument against it – whether that practice has been continuous for a hundred years or a hundred days.

Systems of law, however, reflect the opinions, practices and values of everyone within a state’s territory, no matter how plural its population may be. Similarly, objections to specific aspects of the universal human rights doctrine are fragmentary, not collective. While a handful of communities in Yemen may object to a ban on the use of child soldiers, many more throughout the world would find this a sensible and morally valuable principle. It is necessary for both the international community and individual nation states to adjust their laws to reconcile the competing demands of plural value systems. Occasionally, a value common among a majority of cultures must overrule the objections of the minority.

It is perverse to give charismatic leaders who convince impoverished communities to send their sons and daughters into combat an opportunity to use cultural relativism to excuse their culpability for what would otherwise be a war crime. Officers, politicians or dissident commanders are much more likely than Yemeni tribesmen or orphaned Sudanese boys to understand the intricacies of such a defence, and much more likely to abuse it. The commanders of child soldiers are the only class of individuals who should fear the ICC.


As noted above, the definition of adulthood accepted within western liberal democracies is not a cultural absolute. It can be argued that the legal cut-off point- be it sixteen, eighteen or twenty-one years of age- is largely arbitrary. Children who care for disabled parents take on adult responsibilities inconceivable to many undergraduate students. Many developing world cultures would regard the under-emphasis of practical skills and physical training that exists in the education systems of knowledge-based western economies to be tantamount to neglect.

In both war-torn Afghanistan and peaceful Botswana, a boy of fourteen is considered old enough and able enough to hunt; to protect his younger siblings; to marry or to be responsible for a harvest. Why should an Afghani child or his parents be condemned for allowing him to participate in the defence of his community? A family in a similar position in Botswana may never have been confronted with that choice. Although they might find the idea appalling in peace-time, the pressing necessity of war can cause opinions and beliefs to become highly flexible.

This restatement of cultural relativism goes hand in hand with side proposition’s concluding objection. Although a culture can quickly assimilate and normalise necessary practices- such as arming children- it need not think that they are objectively good and valuable. It may be keen to abandon the practice.

A community that responds to an urgent need to arm children may not want to arm children.

Side opposition regard the use of child soldiers as symptomatic of cultural depravity, of a callous attitude to suffering. This approach patronises communities subject to privations and abuses now unknown in the west. It assumes that traditions cannot be overturned and that societies in the developing world will hasten to use their children as cannon-fodder for without devoting any thought or debate to the risks involved.