UK government is urged to end recruitment of “children” into armed forces

BMJ 2016; 355 doi: (Published 18 October 2016) Cite this as: BMJ 2016;355:i5595
  1. Anne Gulland
  1. London

The UK’s armed forces are facing a call to stop recruiting 16 and 17 year olds, who are not yet physiologically or emotionally mature enough to make such a life changing decision.

The campaign group Medact said in a report that the UK is one of few countries in the world to recruit 16 year olds into the military, despite calls from human rights organisations such as the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Equality and Human Rights Commission for the recruitment age to be raised to 18.1

The report said that in 2015-16, 22.2% of recruits into the UK army were under the age of 18 and that those recruited as children were more likely to end up in frontline combat roles than those recruited over the age of 18. Soldiers who enlisted at 16 were approximately twice as likely to be killed or injured in Afghanistan, compared with soldiers who enlisted above the age of 18, the campaign group said.

Young recruits into the army—those aged 16 to 24—were at greater risk of suicide than the general population, and between 1984 and 2013 suicide rates among military personnel aged under 20 were 47% higher than in the general population aged under 20.

The report said that adolescents were still maturing emotionally and intellectually. “This period of development is characterised by more impulsive and emotionally driven decision making, which is only tempered by more cognitive and rational decision making later on in the development process.”

The group also warned that the armed forces’ traditional message that military life provided discipline and security for troubled young people was inappropriate. It highlighted recruitment campaigns that glamorised war, using terms such as “big guns,” “awesome armour,” and “big boys’ toys.” It said that the material did not depict the downsides of military life or the risks that recruits faced.

The report’s release comes two weeks after Michael Fallon, the defence secretary, announced further expansions in cadet army units in state schools at the Conservative Party conference. Medact said that this could be a recruitment channel into the armed forces.

David McCoy, director of Medact, said, “Minimum age laws exist to protect children from smoking, drinking, driving, and watching violent films. It’s time for the UK to fall in step with the vast majority of countries and raise the minimum recruitment age to 18.”


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