The Pentagon has agreed to keep 17-year-olds in the armed forces out of combat under a draft international treaty on child soldiers approved in Geneva yesterday. If adopted by the U.N. General Assembly and ratified by its members, the treaty would establish 18 as the minimum draft age for the world's armies and require signatories to raise the minimum age for volunteers from the current global standard of 15.
The United States joined about 50 other countries in approving the draft, which is aimed at eliminating the use of child soldiers. Under current policy, 17-year-olds can join the U.S. military with their parents' permission; Pentagon officials had argued that raising the age minimum to 18 could hurt military readiness.
Under the compromise worked out in Geneva, the armies of the world--including that of the United States--could still accept 17-year-old volunteers but they would not be eligible for combat until they turned 18. The practical effect of the policy shift on the U.S. military is likely to be small: Out of a force of 1.2 million, only about 1,000 to 2,500 are 17-year-olds "who might be eligible for armed conflict," an administration official said.
Still, the administration's willingness to change its policy carried important symbolic weight. Human Rights Watch, for example, favorably compared the administration's approval of the draft treaty with its rejection of the Landmine Ban Treaty. "The accord marks the first time the United States has ever agreed to change its practices in order to support a human rights standard," the group said in a statement.
Administration officials too expressed relief that they had found a way to satisfy the military's concerns while supporting a treaty with international appeal. "For us, it was very gratifying," one said. "All of our critical objectives were met. It was extremely important that we continue to be able to recruit 17-year-olds."
Under the draft treaty, signatories would be required "to take all feasible measures to ensure that armed forces personnel who are not yet 18 do not take a direct part in hostilities." Administration officials acknowledged that the details of the new policy have yet to be worked out. It is still unclear, for example, whether a 17-year-old cook would be barred from serving aboard an aircraft carrier.
The draft treaty is also vague on the question of a new minimum age for voluntary recruits. It says only that signatories should "raise their minimum age for voluntary recruitment to an age above the current 15-year international standard." The new global standard for compulsory recruitment, however, would be raised to 18.
U.S. officials said they expect the draft treaty, which would become part of the International Convention on the Rights of the Child, to be adopted by the U.N. General Assembly in the fall. Each member state will then have to ratify it. The convention has been ratified by every country except the United States and Somalia. Administration officials noted, however, that any country can ratify the new protocol separately, regardless of whether it has approved the convention.