ForcesWatch comment


ForcesWatch comment

Today is the International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers. Today also sees the start of a court martial of 16 instructors at Army Foundation College Harrogate which trains young recruits aged under 18. They are charged with numerous counts of bullying and abuse.

Today, February 12th, is Red Hand Day: the International Day against the Use of Child Soldiers.

ForcesWatch are part of the "Zero under 18" or the #MakeIt18 campaign, which aims at the universal ratification of the UN's Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict.

Although the UK has ratified this treaty, and although we do not deploy soldiers until they are 18, we are under heavy human rights and child right based criticism for continuing to recruit from 16.

In 2016, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (UN CRC) reviewed the UK’s implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and made a number of important points which we are still bringing to the attention of the UK government today.

Areas of concern raised by the UN CRC were:       

  • The State party maintains the wide scope of its interpretative declaration on article 1 of the Optional Protocol, which may permit the deployment of children to areas of hostilities and their involvement in hostilities under certain circumstances;
  • The minimum age for voluntary recruitment as 16 years has not been changed and child recruits makes up 20 per cent of the recent annual intake of United Kingdom Regular Armed Forces;
  • The Army Board endorsed increasing the recruitment of personnel under 18 years old to avoid undermanning, and children who come from vulnerable groups are disproportionately represented among recruits;
  • Safeguards for voluntary recruitment are insufficient, particularly in the light of the very low literacy level of the majority of under-18 recruits and the fact that briefing materials provided to child applicants and their parents or guardians do not clearly inform them of the risks and obligations that follow their enlistment;
  • In the army, child recruits can be required to serve a minimum period of service up to two years longer than the minimum period for adult recruits.

And the recommendations made by the Committee were that the UK:

  • Consider reviewing its position and raise the minimum age for recruitment into the armed forces to 18 years in order to promote the protection of children through an overall higher legal standard;
  • Reconsider its active policy of recruitment of children into the armed forces and ensure that recruitment practices do not actively target persons under the age of 18 and ensure that military recruiters’ access to school be strictly limited;
  •  In recruiting persons under the age of 18, strengthen its safeguards required by article 3 of the Optional Protocol, in order to ensure that the recruitment is genuinely voluntary and based on fully informed consent of the recruit and their parents and legal guardians, and ensure that recruitment does not have a discriminatory impact on children of ethnic minorities and low-income families;
  •  Ensure that the minimum period of service applied to children who enlist into the army is no longer than that applied to adult recruits.

The UK is flying in the face of each recommendation made by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child. It continues to recruit under the age of 18, despite evidence that early enlistment is connected with detrimental health outcomes and long-term deprivation.

It continues to actively target under 18 year olds through marketing campaigns and recruitment activities in schools, which are neither adequately balanced nor scrutinised. It is actively targeting low-income families and children of ethnic minorities as a matter of policy, and manipulative, glamourised and targeted marketing campaigns undermine voluntary informed consent. 

Raising recruitment to 18 and achieving a higher legal standard protecting children would be no small thing.

It would set an example to other countries who have yet to protect children from involvement in armed conflict. It would place greater incentive on minors thinking of enlisting into the military, and their educators and caregivers, to gain better and further qualifications beforehand, which would greatly enhance their social mobility prospects.

recruitment age, risks

ForcesWatch comment

We report on a recent meeting in Parliament with a range of speakers on the urgent need to raise the age of recruitment to the armed forces in the UK.

Our campaign to raise the age of military recruitment to 18 was discussed in the Westminster Parliament recently (17 January 2018) before representatives of all the mainstream parties.

The gathering was held under the banner Catch 16: Risks & consequences of enlisting minors into the British Armed Forces.

It was hosted by Liz Saville Roberts MP, who’s party – Plaid Cymru – are supportive of 'Straight 18' along with the SNP and the Greens.

Liz Saville Roberts made it clear she was “not against the army per se” but said she was concerned that “we are being sold a myth that the army is the right solution for young people”.

As someone from an educational rather than a military background she also sounded a grave warning – of “a tragedy” linked to age that was likely to occur if the law remained as it is today on the recruitment age.

She was joined by Rachel Taylor, the Director of Programmes at Child Soldiers International, who told the gathering that “the MoD uses 16 and 17 year olds to mitigate shortfalls in infantry”. Nearly one quarter (23%) of army recruits are under 18, yet other countries do not need to rely on this age group. Even in countries like the U.S., which still recruit at 17, a far smaller number of recruits comes from this age group.

Rachel detailed how research now shows that young recruits fair least well (higher drop out rates, less likely to be promoted, higher unemployment rates and generally poorer outcomes, higher mental health and injury rates) and debunks the myth that army enlistment is a sure way of improving a young person's prospects.

In front of the MPs, Lords, Parliamentary staff, journalists and campaigners the army recruit turned filmmaker, Wayne Sharrocks, gave a compelling and emotional account of his experience of joining the British Army as a minor.

In 2006, aged 17, he joined the British infantry without even asking the basic questions about terms and conditions. He described the continual conditioning and punishment that training involves, particularly in order to be able to kill “at the flick of a switch”.

At 18, he was deployed to Afghanistan. While on tour he had numerous traumatic experiences including suffering major facial injuries, and witnessing the death and maiming of friends at close hand.

Life-long mental health problems

After being discharged in 2013, Wayne suffered serious depression resulting in a breakdown. It was only after leaving that he started to question what he had been through. He said that, with the mind still forming at the young age at which he enlisted, the conditioning would leave permanent effects.


ForcesWatch comment on the 2018 British Army recruitment advertising campaign

A shorter version of this article is published by The Huffington Post

The new British Army advertising campaign focuses on its ability to ‘emotionally and physically’ support recruits from all backgrounds. It is designed to promote an inclusive image, saying that it is fine to be emotional, to be gay, to be from ethnic minority backgrounds - everyone is accepted and treated well in the Army.

ForcesWatch welcomes any commitments and improvements the military makes to the welfare of soldiers. If the British Army is truly to be ‘the best’ then it must treat its personnel with dignity and respect and it must champion human rights.

However, we caution that the reality of military life is not accurately represented in this new campaign, and that the welfare of the core group of recruits into the Army should not be overlooked.

The British Army is struggling with recruitment, but it is also struggling with retention. Improving the conditions for soldiers, and recruiting an adult-only force, would improve retention rates and save money. This would be far better than continuing to splash out on expensive and often unpopular recruitment advertising campaigns.

What’s behind this new campaign?

While the core recruitment pool for the British Army is white, young, male and working class, they are seeking to diversify their intake by recruiting more females and more black, Asian and ethnic minority people. They are however, continuing to target young people and the working class as a matter of policy.

The UK is the only country in Europe and the only major military power to recruit at 16. Although under 18 year olds cannot be deployed until they turn 18, there are dangers and long-term disadvantages associated with early enlistment and training. The very youngest recruits are channelled into the most dangerous roles. Over one third of recruits into the UK army are under 18, and four fifths of under 18 year olds in the military go into the army. 

This campaign is part of the 'This is Belonging' marketing campaign launched a year ago, which has attracted criticism for its highly unbalanced view of military life and for taking advantage of the developmental stages of the adolescent brain, particularly among the most vulnerable – namely, the formation of social identity and the need to feel a sense of belonging.


ForcesWatch comment

Members of the Scottish Parliament have decided they need to hear more from ForcesWatch and Quakers in Scotland before making decisions about our petition calling for greater guidance and scrutiny around military visits to schools.

After taking oral evidence from the armed forces and the MoD in person on 9 Nov 2017, Holyrood’s Public Petitions Committee agreed that we should be allowed to respond before MSPs consider further steps.

The Committee – in a session on the petition lasting over an hour – quizzed four senior military officers, one from each Service and the MoD.

The public was not allowed to see witnesses’ faces after Parliament accepted a plea concerning personal safety fears (despite some of those giving statements walking to Holyrood in full uniform).

There was also a shake-up in Committee membership – with Michelle Ballantyne, who won a by-election for the Conservatives earlier in the year, replacing party colleague Maurice Corry.

Another Conservative MSP – Edward Mountain – was also present to ask questions. MSPs are allowed to attend any Committee meeting in which they have an interest, but may not take part in decision making.

At no point did any witness giving evidence from the armed forces say that the proposed modest changes suggested in the petition would have a negative or disproportionate effect to the military in terms of recruitment or any anything else.

A number of key points emerged from the session.

Brigadier Paul Buttery, the MoD’s Head of Training, Education, Skills, Recruiting and Resettlement, said the forces only visit schools when invited by the head teacher.

Brigadier Buttery explained that the data they provided the committee, which covers rounghly a 15 month period, shows just over 1,000 school visits in 2016. The Army attended 70 schools three times or more, while the Navy attended 14 and the RAF just 12.

Overall, 98 schools were visited twice by two different services. 22 were attended by the Army, Navy and the RAF. See below for our analysis of the data.

However, pressed by the Labour MSP and Committee Convenor, Johann Lamont, witnesses admitted that in fact the Services write to all schools in Scotland each year.

Therefore it was not a case of the military waiting to be asked into schools, but rather they undertake an active strategy on visits. Also once a relationship is established visits tend to be repeated year-on-year.


Forceswatch Comment

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.
From Dulce et Decorum Est by Wilfred Owen


Matt Haig, an author perhaps best known for his books Reasons to Stay Alive and How to stop time and his work to support people with depression, recently entered the annual Great British Poppy Debate, saying: 

‘I’m not wearing a poppy this year. I think it is shifting from a symbol remembering war’s horror, to a symbol of war-hungry nationalism.’

Scrolling down his Twitter feed, you can see some of the vitriol directed towards him and those who are making the same choice. Most common were remarks along these lines: ‘People died for your freedom, your rights and your family’s rights (you should wear a red poppy out of respect and gratitude to them).’

Others went further, calling him a ‘vile man’ with a ‘warped mind’ who should leave the country, and calling for people to boycott his books. Matt said that he has never been ‘booed’ for anything more than this

Some red poppy dissenters choose to wear a different symbol of remembrance instead – the white poppy – but are almost unanimously attacked for this when interviewed on radio and television shows. Red poppy dissenters, whether they replace it with a different symbol or not, are perceived as cold, ungrateful, unempathetic people, and simultaneously lily-livered ‘snowflakes’ who simply cannot understand bravery and sacrifice.

People respond so aggressively because of a perceived disrespect towards those who have died fighting for Britain – usually in 20th century wars, but also in more recent and ongoing wars.

But if you listen to Matt and many other dissenters like him, they are in fact remembering in a thoughtful, empathic way, and displaying courage in their willingness to endure being attacked, as well as heartfelt respect towards the memory of those who have died. Matt spoke of his Jewish great-grandmother who ‘was nearly murdered by Nazis’ and his great-grandfather who ‘saved lives at Dunkirk.’

For Matt, the red poppy is not the most respectful or fitting way to remember them.

Like many others, he has grown uncomfortable with the way in which red poppy remembrance portrays war, death and destruction.

For some, the Cenotaph’s ‘glorious dead’, the ‘died for our freedom’ rhetoric and the red poppy displays that rival Christmas decorations, seem to embody Wilfred Owen’s war-hungry ‘old Lie’ of ‘desperate glory.’ 

For others, the British Legion’s acceptance of arms company sponsorship, particularly given the arms race that fuelled the first world war and more recently the ongoing war waged on Yemen, is both ironic and distasteful.