LONDON (AP) — Rights campaigners are taking aim at a British military policy that puts the U.K. in the same league as North Korea and Iran: recruiting soldiers under the age of 18.
Two groups said in a report published Tuesday that Britain’s military is wasting up to 94 million pounds ($143.4 million) a year training recruits who are under 18. They argued that it is an unnecessary drain on taxpayers at a time of austerity and urged an end to the practice.
Britain is the only member of the European Union and only permanent member of the United Nations Security Council that allows military recruitment from the age of 16 — though soldiers cannot deploy until they turn 18. Most countries recruit from the age of 18, though Britain and a handful of other countries, including Iran, North Korea and Zimbabwe, allow the recruitment of younger soldiers.
Child Soldiers International and ForcesWatch said it costs the U.K. military — which has borne severe cuts under government austerity measures — twice as much to train a soldier recruited at 16 than it does at 18 due to longer training requirements and higher dropout rates.
They called on Britain’s Ministry of Defense to revisit its “outdated” policy of recruiting minors.
“Recruiting minors into the army is a practice from a bygone era,” said David Gee of Forces Watch. “It’s not just young recruits who pay the price for outdated MoD policies – taxpayers do too.”
Britain’s Ministry of Defense rejected the report, saying it does not agree with its interpretation of figures and will not alter its recruitment policy. It added that the report ignored the benefits a military career affords young people.
“We take pride in the fact that our armed forces provide challenging and constructive education, training, and employment opportunities for young people equipping them with valuable and transferable skills,” it said in a statement.
The report by the rights groups said figures showed that initial training for minors lasts either 23 or 50 weeks while adult recruits can complete a similar “phase one” course in 14 weeks. Plus, at any given time, around 150 soldiers are fully trained but too young to be deployed, the report said, arguing that paying those salaries is a waste of taxpayer funds.
Citing Ministry of Defense figures, the report said that in 2010-2011 it cost an estimated minimum of 88,985 pounds ($135,000) to recruit and train each new soldier between the ages of 16 and 17-and-a-half, compared with 42,818 pounds for each adult recruit.
Data also showed that 37 percent of minors dropped out during training, compared with 28 percent of adult recruits, the report said.
Over the past decade, Britain’s Defense Select Committee, the Joint Committee on Human Rights — a British parliamentary committee — and the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child have urged the Ministry of Defense to review its minimum recruitment age.
However, the Ministry of Defense also said Tuesday that its policies on under-18-year-olds are “robust” and comply with international law.
“We remain fully committed to meeting our obligations under the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, and have taken steps to bestow special safeguards on young people under the age of 18,” it said.
Britain’s military is shrinking from 102,000 troops to 82,000 by the end of the decade — part of efforts to make steep cuts to public spending ordered by Prime Minister David Cameron.
The report Tuesday from ForcesWatch and Child Soldiers International also noted the “numerous ethical and legal concerns” related to recruiting minors.
Campaigners such as Child Soldiers International have long argued that the military is targeting high-risk youth for recruitment and failing to give them the needed skills or high-standards of education promised to them, leaving them in the lurch when they ultimately exit the military.
While British soldiers cannot participate in combat until they turn 18, in a handful of cases over the past few years some minors have slipped through.
In January 2012, the Ministry of Defense acknowledged that a soldier was mistakenly sent to fight on the front line in Afghanistan when he was still 17 years old.
Cassandra Vinograd can be reached at http://twitter.com/CassVinograd