Child Soldiers: Should we protect or prosecute?

The following is a blog post by undergraduate students from UoP’s Geographies of Children and Young People module.

Many of you might want to put the idea of child soldiers to the back of your mind or not be aware of the severity of the topic. Surprisingly, there are estimated to be over 300,000 child soldiers globally. The United Nations definition states that any child under the age of 18 years-old that is either associated or partaking in armed conflict, is categorised as a child soldier. This raises the question of whether child soldiers should be classed as victims of war or criminals that need to be punished for their actions.

International criminal law has distanced itself from the prosecution of children by allowing countries to decide through using their own legislation. Across the world the age for criminal responsibility differs from country to country, starting from as young as six years-old. However, Article 38 in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) states that if a child is fighting in an armed conflict under the age of 15, it is recognised as an international war crime. Therefore, children below the age of 15 who have been child soldiers are protected from prosecution, but children between the ages of 15 to 18 can be held accountable. Only one child has ever been convicted of war crimes since World War II, with many others being seen as victims.

It must be remembered that child soldiers are often drugged and are regularly threatened with physical or life threatening consequences if they do not comply with soldiers’ orders. Consequently, Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) have tried to prevent children’s involvement in war) have tried to prevent children’s involvement in war, whilst also providing protection and aiding rehabilitation in the aftermath. These campaigns often portray the innocence of childhood, drawing upon Western ideologies. These ideologies did not exist prior to the fifteenth century but have developed to focus on education, protection and a nurturing environment, producing a socially constructed childhood. War Child has used emotive imagery in their campaigns, highlighting that the reality of a child soldier’s life is far from the ideal of the perfect childhood pictured in the Western world.

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War Child Campaign poster – Authors’ own

The value of rehabilitation for child soldiers has been recognised by UNICEF with their work in Sri Lanka. They have opened up centres in order to provide support, safety and security for child soldiers in a ‘non-military’ environment before they re-enter society. Their goal is to create a safe place where they can start to rehabilitate child soldiers in order to try and restore their childhood.  Schemes like this have enabled child soldiers to have a life after war. For example, Rajeewan an ex-child soldier who was kidnapped by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam at the age of 13 was forced to fight until the age of 19. The rehabilitation scheme run by UNICEF allowed him to rebuild his life and he now makes a living as an ice-cream truck driver, enabling him to support his family.  The work addressing the issue of child soldiers appears to focus on supporting them in the aftermath of their involvement in war. This work is crucial but with a large number of child soldiers actively fighting in wars, more may need to be done to prevent their involvement in the first place.


Thirteen-year-old Vietnamese Soldier

The reality is that many children have formed political beliefs. We can see this on a formal platform such as the UK’s youth parliament and in the commentaries of young people in online political debates. The political agency of young people can influence their everyday life decisions and spark a participation in political activism. The height of political activism can be seen as fighting for your cause and what you believe in. Children are encouraged to participate in political activism and the UN state that it is their right to do so. Article 12 and 15 of the UNCRC establish the right of the child to express their own views and opinions, alongside the right to participation, within the constraints of the law.

It appears that the political agency of the child is only to be only to be recognised if it aligns with mainstream beliefs. Child soldiers may be fighting for a cause they believe in, but their political agency may be overlooked if they are viewed solely as innocent. A disregard for the root cause of their criminality is a challenge for those working to prevent the child’s involvement in war. If a child grows up in a war zone, feelings of fear can often develop into anger.

Screen Shot 2017-07-20 at 14.25.48It is much harder to feel sympathy for that grown man with a gun


Scholars have shown the ‘in-betweeness’ of young people adds more complexity to the debate associated with child soldiers and their accountability. The case of Omar Khadr has been particularly controversial. Omar was convicted at the age of 15 and detained in Guantanamo Bay for killing a US solider in Afghanistan. The argument presented by the Canadian government to oppose his release was that he should have ‘known better. This case has divided opinions with civil rights groups condemning Omar’s prosecution.

The subject matter of the accountability of child soldiers is a current affair and one that requires debate. The inconsistency in the treatment of child soldiers must be addressed, there is a lack of clarity on how a child soldier should be treated if they have committed crimes which breach the law. The desire to view child soldiers as innocent victims cannot be universally applied. Some children want to fight and have committed war crimes, in these instances their political agency cannot be ignored. We do not suggest all child soldiers deserve convictions. However, we do see the value of considering both the age of the child and a political agency they may have when working to address this issue.


Harriet Whitfield, Sophie Edwardson, Lydia Kane


Can we still teach about media bias in the post-truth age?

Following on from our earlier re-blog of David Buckingham’s insightful piece on the role of media literacy in response to fake news, here is his latest piece focusing on the matter of media bias.

David Buckingham

Bias – along with related ideas like objectivity, impartiality and balance – is a staple issue in public debates about media, and in media literacy education. Yet in the wake of the Brexit referendum campaign, the victory of Donald Trump, and the attacks on the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, many have argued that we are entering a ‘post-truth’ era. In this context, is bias still a useful and meaningful concept in media literacy education? And if so, how should we teach it?

Two weeks ago, the BBC Trust – the body that regulates the UK’s national public service broadcaster – ruled that its chief political correspondent, Laura Kuenssberg, had breached impartiality and accuracy guidelines in her reporting of a story involving the British Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn. Given that the Trust is not exactly the most ferocious of media regulators, the ruling might have been rather surprising; although…

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How to talk to children about politics… and Donald Trump


screen-shot-2016-11-14-at-10-57-17Article in the Orlando Sentinel

As we’ve been finding out through our research, many parents question whether they should discuss world events with their children, or if it’s best to just to try to shield them from worrying events all together. As Stephens (1995, p14) notes in her discussion of the sentimentalisation of childhood, our ideal conception of the child is one founded on innocence, with no engagement with matters of sex, money and politics. 

“Modern children are supposed to be segregated from the harsh realities of the adult world and to inhabit a safe, protected world of play, fantasy, and innocence”

Parents we’ve meet during our ethnographic research have expressed how they sometimes struggle to respond when their children demonstrate knowledge of events such as beheadings by terrorist groups. Such concerns demonstrate how it is naive to believe we can shield children from the realities of the wider world. This is especially the case with the growth of social media.

“Children today are more exposed to world events than ever and despite the urge to protect our children from what’s happening, this can mean their worries build up. (John Cameron, Head of NSPCC Helplines, quoted in the Huffington Post)”

A recent NSPCC study revealed there has been a 35% rise in children who have had counselling for anxiety in 2016, compared to last year. Alongside personal and family issues, concerns about world affairs such as the EU referendum, the US election and troubles in the Middle East were also frequently mentioned as causes of anxiety.

Dr Amanda Gummer, founder of the Good Toy Guide Ltd, CEO of Fundamentally Children and member of the Ludic Geopolitics Project Advisory Board, recently offered advice on how to talk to children about world affairs and politics in an interview with the Huffington Post.

“Conversations that happen in front of a child, that don’t involve the child can be scary, so try and hold the conversation in a way that the child could join in with if they wanted to, otherwise leave the more complex or disturbing topics for when the children are out of earshot.”

Read the full article here.

Young People and the EU Referendum — materialsensibilities

This morning’s #Brexit news gives pause for thought as I put together the material for a new third year geography unit we’re launching this coming academic year: Geographies of Children and Young People. An understanding of young people’s agency and participation sits at the core of this unit. Polls from a variety of sources show […]

via Young People and the EU Referendum — materialsensibilities

HOT OFF THE PRESS! Ludic Geographies

Hot on the heels of the first academic publication arising from our Ludic Geopolitics project is a chapter on ‘Ludic Geographies’ in the Evans and Horton edited collection Play and Recreation, Health and Wellbeing. This collection is volume 9 of the Living Reference Work Geographies of Children and Young People edited by Tracey Skelton.

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To whet your appetite:


In many ways, twenty-first century (western) childhood may be characterized by a cacophony of moral panics. Spatiality is pertinent, if not central, to these moral panics, not least those concerning contemporary children’s play. Yet, despite this, the presence of spatiality within play research beyond the geographical discipline is, at best, marginal. This chapter examines how geographical work is well placed to challenge problematic characteristics of agenda-setting discourses about children’s play. This is not restricted to the marginal presence of spatiality but extends to the nostalgic reification of “innocent” play, the valorization of a developmental approach, and a limited apprehension of embodiment and materiality. The chapter begins with an overview of geographical work that has favored the outdoor spaces of the playground, street, and neighborhood and emphasizes how children’s independent spatial mobility has changed over time. It then introduces more recent and emerging trends, namely, attempts to (1) position children’s play within a broader context and stress its contribution to the reproduction and shaping of “adult” society and (2) recognize vitality as the intrinsic purpose and value of play and the role of materiality, embodiment, and affectivity to this. While it is shown there is much to celebrate in relation to geographical research on play, it is argued that geographers could and should do more to better understand play from the player’s perspective and challenge the prevailing direction of play research beyond the discipline.


British Armed Forces – Cold War – Developmentalism – Embodiment, Industrial capitalism – Industrial Revolution – Learning process – Materiality Public space – Social agency – Social transformation – Socialization Toxic childhood syndrome – UK Ministry of Defence (MOD)

(Woodyer et al 2016 pp.1-2)

The chapter includes a discussion of war play and how it does not merely reflect the socio-political life of its period, but rather actively helps to shape and reproduce geopolitical climates and cultures. We use Fraser MacDonald’s (2008) work on toy rockets to show how this was the case in the Cold War era. We then draw upon our research with Action Man enthusiasts to discuss this in relation to the Falklands War, before using our research material on the more contemporary HM Armed Forces action figure range to show how this continues in relation to the War on Terror.

See more…

Thanks to Bethan Evans and John Horton for inviting us to be part of this interesting collection and for their work alongside editor-in-chief, Tracey Skelton, in putting it together.


Children raise money to buy a Mediterranean island

Children from the village of Mosso in Piedmont (Italy), have launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise €3 million to buy Budelli island, an uncontaminated paradise between the bigger islands of Sardinia and Corsica. The island, part of La Maddalena archipelago, is famous for its pink sandy beaches and is considered one of the most beautiful islands of the Mediterranean sea.


Image source: Facebook ‘Non si s-Budelli l’Italia’ (here)

In 2013, the island was bought by a New Zealand banker, Michael Harte, for €2.94 million . His plan was to turn the island into an open-air history museum. However, rumors that he may have also wanted to make it accessible to mega-yachts or turn it into a luxurious resort made local population and politicians oppose his plans. Eventually, Mr Harte gave up his projects and plans.

Stimulated by their teachers, Mosso middle school’s children discussed the news and then decided to take things in their hands to keep Budelli away from businessmen, maintain it Italian, and name it The Children’s Island (L’Isola dei Ragazzi). To do so, they organised themselves: the best maths pupils calculated how much each Italian pupil would be asked to donate; some studied the history of the island; and the others worked on social media strategies to collect money and contacted banks to open an account. As the children themselves explain “The message we want to convey is this: if all Italian school pupils donate €0.50 each we could raise the €3 million needed to win the next auction, which means this piece of heritage won’t fall into the hands of a stranger” (here).

Engaging with ideas of public and private spaces, Frencesco Grillo, one of Mosso’s pupils, says “We read about the businessman trying to buy it and at the point we thought ‘we could make the dream of maintaining it in public hands a reality'” (here).

The initiative was praised by many. Giuseppe Bonanno, Chairman of Ente Parco de La Maddalena (La Maddalena Archipelago National Park), explained how this campaign shows an appreciation for Budelli island’s environmental heritage. As he asserts, if this initiative will be successful, the island could become a ‘permanent laboratory of environmental education’ in which civil society will have a say (here).

Bonanno’s words were echoed by Paolo Maddalena, former Constitutional Court Judge, who declared that Mosso’s children deeply grasped the spirit of the Italian Constitution which asserts that people’s and public property comes before private one.

This shows how children can and should be involved in political decisions. While the issue of the island was discussed in class with teachers, it was children who decided they could do something about it. They expressed their political agency and intuition as they developed strategies, organised and divided tasks, and involved other adults and children in their campaign. On the one hand, they wish to keep Budelli Italian. On the other, they very much hope to maintain it as a public space by following their idea(l) of social (and economic) order which puts the public above the private. In so doing, they also negotiate the meaning of public on their own terms as they would like to name the island after children.

Not only does this example show the importance of education and of keeping children up to date with current debates around political, economic and social orders, but it also demonstrates that children do make political geography!

Mosso’s children’s campaign can be found here.

For more info and sources see here, here, here, here and here.


Some Reflections on a Visit to the Playing with History Collection

A guest blog post by Andreas Haggman

The Weston Library in Oxford is currently exhibiting a selection of its Playing with History collection of historical board games. The games on display span across some of the most eventful periods of the mid-late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially for Britain. For this reason, the games are not only supremely interesting artefacts in themselves, but also provide useful insight into contemporary attitudes towards the pressing economic, geopolitical and strategic issues of the time.

Reflecting Britain’s unquestionable position as the leading world power of the time, the games from the 19th century are overwhelmingly concerned with the grand strategy of the day. Specifically, this concerns Britain’s rule of the seas and the maintenance of trade routes and lines of communication with its colonies across the globe. Halford Mackinder shared this preoccupation and even urged greater public understanding of the seas closer to home, as epitomised in his book, Britain and the British Seas in 1902.

Untitled1It is surprising to note that these games (Pictures 1 and 2) pre-date the popularisation of wargaming that came with H.G. Wells’ Little Wars of 1913, yet the games seem ‘targeted’ at a generalist audience. The relative simplicity of the games indicate that they are not aimed at military strategists, who already had recourse to highly intricate Kriegspiel for operational planning. Kriegspiel (German which literally translates as “wargame”) had been introduced to the Prussian general staff by Baron von Reisswitz in 1811, and by the end of the century the German military was using wargames to devise the strategy which was to underpin their Schlieffen Plan of attack in the First World War. Games used for this purpose require a great level of accurate, often boring, detail which the games on display in this exhibition lack. Indeed, the admission of the makers of The Tar of all weathers (1857) to have considered the element of fun betrays a desire to make the game accessible to non-specialist players.

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Perhaps more intriguing, however, are later games that address less grandiose topics (Picture 3). Trench Football, a simple maze game aimed at First World War soldiers, for example, has the player guiding a ball through the trenches of the Western front, dribbling past various German generals to score a goal through the open mouth of a hapless caricatured Kaiser. Insofar that the prospective players of this game were British soldiers at the front, the game constitutes a piece of interactive propaganda intended to boost the morale of fighting troops.

Also tackled are important social issues, the most notably the suffragette movement. The game Suffragetto, published by the Women’s Social and Political Union in 1909, sees two players take to a chess-like battlefield of central London, each with an army under their command – one player controlling the suffragettes and one the London constabulary. As a piece of social commentary, the game paints a picture of a world where those striving for change must recourse to physical action, having unsuccessfully exhausted all diplomatic means.


A point worthy of further discussion and debate is how the ratio of games representing war and conflict to games dealing with social and cultural topics such as women’s civil and political rights in the exhibition compares to games available today. Much has been made of the preponderance of violent video games, yet many genres of games are not in the slightest concerned with assassinating terrorists or blowing up space aliens. Anything from skateboarding (Tony Hawk series) to courtroom dramas (Ace Attorney series) to inane simulators (Euro Truck Simulator, Farming Simulator, Goat Simulator…) is now covered in video game format. It seems like there may be exciting avenues for research here, comparing historical and modern games, gaming behaviour and societal attitudes. Much of the current work in this field concentrates solely on contemporary forms of entertainment, without contextualising their analysis through reference to the past. One can only wonder how the #Gamergate controversy would have unfolded a hundred years ago.

The curators of the collection have done a good job maintaining the upkeep of the games. The vibrant original colours remain on all pieces on display (though in some cases some restoration work has taken place), allowing the audience to see the games in the same splendour players over a hundred years ago did. Given that this is the case, it is truly a shame that visitors are not treated to a larger exhibition. The portion of the collection on view is squeezed into an oversized display cabinet tucked into the back corner of the Weston’s large entrance hall, which only serves to whet the appetite, leaving eager ludologists with a distinctly underwhelmed feeling. Nonetheless, the exhibition is a welcome addition to a growing recognition of the role games have had, and continue to have, in educating players about important issues of the time.

The exhibition is on until 6 March 2016. For more information see and


About the author: Andreas Haggman is a PhD researcher in the Centre for Doctoral Training in Cyber Security at Royal Holloway University of London. His thesis is on wargaming cyber attacks.

Thanks go to Klaus Dodds for his input on this piece.


HOT OFF THE PRESS ! Children, young people and critical geopolitics

The start of the new year saw the first academic publication arising from our ESRC funded Ludic Geopolitics project. This is a chapter entitled ‘Ludic – or playful – Geopolitics’ in the Benwell and Hopkins edited collection Children, Young People and Critical Geopolitics.


To whet your appetite:

‘Play is often considered inferior to the more ‘serious’ enterprises of work, endeavour and effort; at best, a rehearsal for adult life. In this chapter, we want to suggest otherwise; to take play, and those who play, more seriously. We do this with specific reference to toys, and build our argument in the following way. First, after a short literature review, we argue that toys need to be situated within specific geopolitical contexts; our focus is upon the history of the ‘action figure’ toy in both Britain and the U.S. In the second section, we show that while such discursive approaches are useful in addressing some of the broader aspects of the ludic, they form only part of the picture. In addition, we need to think more closely about how critical accounts of geopolitics might actually engage with children and children’s play. Potential ways that this might be achieved are discussed, with an attendant discussion of the challenges inherent in developing more affective and non-representational accounts of children’s play. The chapter finishes by offering a set of conclusions and suggestions for future research. In short, we contend that the ‘ludic’ is both under-theorised to date and increasingly important in a world where leisure time, and what children do with it, is becoming more and more complex (Livingstone, 2002). Social media and computer games, in conjunction with the continuing popularity of more traditional toys, such as action figures, are all part of a global toy industry that is now worth some $30 billion (Clark, 2007).’

(Carter et al 2016 p.61)

The chapter contains the first published empirical material from our project in the form of adult reminiscences of play with Action Man figures, interviews with former Palitoy workers (the British company who manufactured the original Action man range), and ethnographic accounts of visitor engagement with the V&A Museum of Childhood’s War Games exhibition.

Published by Ashgate, the wider collection engages with contemporary concepts in human geography including affect, emotional geographies, intergenerationality, creative diplomacy, popular geopolitics and citizenship. The chapters draw on research with children and young people from Europe, Asia, Australasia, Africa and the Americas.

‘The focus on the lives of children and young people problematizes and extends what we think of when considering ‘the geopolitical’ which enriches as well as advances critical geopolitical enquiry and deserves to be taken seriously by political geographies more broadly’

(from the cover of Children, Young People and Critical Geopolitics).

The collection has been well received:

How do children see and respond to prevailing geopolitical imaginaries in their everyday lives? Benwell and Hopkins have assembled an outstanding volume that advances both critical geopolitics and children’s geographies by probing their subjectivities and quotidian ways in which they are militarised. Children should be seen, heard and understood as actors who are not merely the humanitarian victims of violent wars, but brokers and makers of geopolitical knowledge. Drawing on emotional, feminist, and other intimate geopolitics, the authors in this collection mobilise rich original research to foreground the agency and relationships of young people to geopolitics, from Laos to London, India to Cyprus, Australia to the Falkland Islands, and more.

Jennifer Hyndman, York University, Canada

For those considering how everyday life is imbricated in geopolitics, this volume is a must-have. While its most obvious contribution can be found in foregrounding the role of children and young people in geopolitics, I think it more broadly pushes us to think carefully about the spaces and times in which geopolitical agency emerges in unexpected ways.

Jason Dittmer, University College London, UK

Thanks to Matt Benwell and Peter Hopkins for inviting us to be part of this exciting collection and for their work in putting it together.