Entries written by Matthew Talbert and Jessica Wolfendale

The Moral Responsibility of Child Soldiers and the Case of Dominic Ongwen

By Matthew Talbert and Jessica Wolfendale

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At least 100,000 people under the age of 18 serve in various capacities in armed groups around the world. In the public imagination, and from the perspective of international law, child soldiers are viewed as passive victims of adult agency and as therefore not responsible for their actions. This stereotypical view of child soldiers is widespread both because it captures an important aspect of the truth, and because it is uncomplicated and arouses sympathy: from the perspective of organizations working to end child soldiering, it is a useful image for the public to have. However, here we argue that the stereotype that child soldiers are universally exempt from responsibility is problematic. We contend that the non-responsibility of child soldiers is far from obvious once their capacities for independently motivated and goal-directed agency are taken into account, a view we explore in our forthcoming book, War Crimes: Causes, Excuses, and Blame (Oxford University Press). As we shall see, the case of Dominic Ongwen illustrates some of the problems with the assumption that child soldiers cannot be responsible for their actions.

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Published 5th March 2018