Children’s cognitive development and moral capabilities to give informed consent during armed conflict

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Kühn, Vanessa
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The recruitment of children into military entities and their participation in warfare has increased in the past 20 years (Bloom, 2018) with an estimated 300,000 children worldwide identifying as members of armed forces (Kohrt, Rai, and Maharjan, 2015). A child soldier is considered as anyone under the age of 18 who is part of any regular or irregular armed forces. The popular image of child soldiers depicts them as vulnerable victims of violent conflict. Several studies have illustrated that children join armed forces ‘voluntarily’. Legal instruments, relevant to child rights, demonstrate ambiguities and fail to acknowledge children’s cognitive and moral development to give ‘voluntary’ consent to military recruitment and other types of armed groups. This work aims to determine whether children possess the ability to give informed consent to recruitment. To that end, Piaget’s cognitive and moral developmental theories and Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory were integrated into the analysis of children’s cognitive ability to consent and their capabilities to give informed ‘voluntary’ consent in context settings of armed conflict. It was found that children’s cognitive and moral development only allows for decision making judgments when they are in their adolescent ages, 12 years and above. Yet, they understand the difference between ‘just’ and ‘unjust’ acts of moral behavior from as young as 6 years. Additionally, the socio-economic context of armed conflict that child soldiers are usually brought up in creates a barrier for ‘voluntary’ recruitment to be perceived as children genuinely giving informed ‘voluntary’ consent to join military services. In the presence of war, becoming a child soldier is the best available option for some children. Therefore, ‘voluntary’ recruitment into military service cannot be considered to be a ‘voluntary’ consent by children as they are presented with a no-choice situation. A number of policy recommendations are subsequently given with the crucial aim of preventing children’s participation in armed conflict.
Second semester University: University College Dublin - National University of Ireland, Dublin
child soldiers, psychology, ethics, moral and ethical aspects