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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.

Besides ourselves, other authors have recently challenged the view of child soldiers as entirely passive victims of adult perpetrators (e.g., Jo Boyden and Joanna de Berry (2004), Mark Drumbl (2012), and Kirsten Fisher (2013)). We agree with these authors that the universalized-passive-victim account of child soldiers is morally inadequate, empirically unsupported, and often at odds with the aim of securing the wellbeing of former child soldiers.

Of course, the claim that child soldiers can be morally responsible is compatible with acknowledging that many child soldiers are in fact passive victims of adult agency, with correspondingly reduced or eliminated responsibility. Among those most likely to fall into this category are those young children who were abducted and forced into military service, subjected to brutal coercion, forced to ingest narcotics before being sent into battle, and so on. But as an Amnesty International report notes, while coercion, forced drug, and other responsibility-undermining factors account for a number of cases, there are some cases in which the child soldier concerned was clearly in control of his or her actions, and not coerced, drugged, or forced into committing atrocities. Some have become child soldiers voluntarily and committed atrocities voluntarily (Amnesty International 2000, 2).

At this end of the spectrum (where obvious excusing conditions are absent), we are much more likely to encounter child soldiers who possess, and exercise, agential capacities that support at least limited moral responsibility.

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To say that someone is morally responsible for her behavior is to say that this behavior is attributable to her in a way that makes her an appropriate target of the emotional responses involved in holding people accountable. These responses include blaming emotions like resentment which, in our view, is properly aroused by behavior that expresses objectionable judgments about the standing of others and how they may be treated. For example, a military torturer’s behavior may express active contempt for, or cool professional indifference toward, those he mistreats. In either case, the torturer’s  behavior has an expressive significance that licenses blaming responses on the part of a victim.

To ask whether a person is blameworthy is, then, to ask whether blaming responses are appropriate in her case. And this question is to be resolved by reflecting on the interpersonal moral significance and meaning of that agent’s behavior. This in turn requires us to consider the meaning that an agent’s behavior has for her. Thus, in the case of child soldiers, we must look to what Jo Boyden describes as “the subjective meanings children give to war events” (2004, 248). That is, we must look to how child soldiers regard and explain their own behavior in order to reach a (revisable) conclusion about the meaning that their behavior may plausibly have for those affected by it.

Research on child soldiers suggests that some of them “find meaning in violence and killing by viewing fighting as a legitimate instrument for achieving liberation, social justice, or religious redemption” (Wessells 2006, 80). In this context, Michael Wessells (who does not share our views on the responsibility of child soldiers) quotes a child soldier in the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a rebel group in the Philippines:

It feels great to kill your enemy. The MILF does not initiate attacks. If the military didn’t attack us, there will be no trouble. They are the ones who are really at fault. They deserve to be killed. The other children, they are happy too. They are not sad. I really do not regret killing. If they are your enemies, you can kill them. But if they are not your enemies, you shouldn’t kill them (2006, 81).

Wessells notes that there are also more extreme possibilities: “some children, like some adults, learn to enjoy killing” (2006, 83). These child soldiers are among the small number that “become hardened perpetrators … and initiate or participate willingly in atrocities that no one ordered them to commit” (Wessells 2006, 74). Here, for example, is a former child soldier reflecting on his wartime experiences in Sierra Leone:

I liked it in the army because we could do anything we liked to do. When some civilian had something I liked, I just took it without him doing anything to me. We used to rape women. Anything I wanted to do [I did]. I was free (Drumbl 2012, 88).

The child soldiers quoted above do not appear to entirely lack agency: their behavior is explicable in terms of their aims, motives, and normative judgments. And if these judgments embody an objectionable perspective on how others may be treated, then, on our account, the subjects of this mistreatment may respond with moral blame.

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One might reply to this perspective by arguing that it is the adults who recruit and use child soldiers who ought to bear moral responsibility for these children’s acts, and not the children themselves. Thus, Wessells asks, “If … adult exploitation of children lies at the heart of the problem of child soldiers, should it not be adults who are held accountable for what child soldiers have done?” (2006, 219). However, this proposal faces difficulties.

As Mark Drumbl asks, if we attribute the behavior of child soldiers “to the malevolent adult recruiter … then why should this attribution entirely cease once the abductee reaches the age of eighteen?” (2012, 91). Perhaps the thought is that a former child soldier is responsible for his behavior because, when he reaches adulthood, he can reasonably be expected to conform his behavior to moral standards. But can we reasonably expect a 19-year-old soldier to recognize the moral status of his behavior when he is the product of the very forces that have supposedly undermined his 17-year-old self’s capacity in this regard? And if the answer to this question is no, does this mean that we should conclude that many former child soldiers—that is, adult perpetrators—are not blameworthy for their actions?

Related questions arise when we note that adult soldiers who recruit child soldiers may themselves have been forcibly recruited as children. This is allegedly what happened to Dominic Ongwen, whom the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda abducted as a child, and who later rose to the rank of brigade commander in the LRA. Ongwen was arrested in 2014, and his trial before the International Criminal Court began in 2016. He faces charges including murder, attacking civilians, torture, sexual enslavement, and “the conscription and use of children under the age of 15 to participate actively in hostilities” (International Criminal Court 2017).

“The embrace of the LRA’s ideology is bad for anyone because it makes a person morally worse, and it is unlucky for anyone because it must ultimately be explained by factors over which a person is powerless…”

Let us assume that Ongwen committed the acts of which he is accused. Perhaps the children Ongwen is alleged to have recruited are not responsible for any crimes they subsequently committed. But does this responsibility devolve (in part) onto Ongwen? If the answer is yes, then we again must explain how someone who was exposed for much of his life to supposedly responsibility-undermining pressures could become a morally responsible adult. If the answer is no, then not only is Ongwen not blameworthy for the actions undertaken by those he forcibly recruited, he is presumably also excused from blame (and on the same grounds) for forcibly recruiting those children. In this case, it would, for example, be inappropriate for the parents of the abducted children to blame Ongwen. But this is an odd result. After all, Ongwen willingly and intentionally abducted the children. Their abduction was monstrous, but it is not inexplicable—we are assuming that Ongwen acted deliberately and on the basis of considerations that he counted in favor of so acting. If this is the case, then it is difficult for us to see why the parents of the abducted children should not blame Ongwen for his intentional behavior and for his willingness to harm their children.

Alternatively, we might say that it is those who abducted Ongwen who are centrally responsible and blameworthy for his subsequent actions (and perhaps also for the actions of the children that Ongwen abducted). But this is problematic for several reasons (some of which we will present below). After all, it was Ongwen who, we are assuming, personally abducted the children. Maybe others share in the blameworthiness, but it is too much to overlook Ongwen’s personal and intentional victimization of specific children when it comes to apportioning blame for these acts. A final option is to deny that there is any blameworthiness to go around at all. But this strikes us as morally unserious: it asks us to put the intentional victimization of children on the same plane as harms brought about through accident or non-culpable ignorance.

Here is our way out of this conundrum. Given the environmental factors to which Ongwen was exposed, it may not be reasonable to expect him, even as an adult, to have recognized the wrongfulness of, and to have refrained from, certain actions. Still, it is appropriate to blame Ongwen insofar as his behavior was willing and was expressive of his objectionable judgments about the sort of treatment to which others are open. And to the degree that Ongwen’s behavior before the age of 18 also had these characteristics, he is appropriately blamed for at least some of that behavior as well.

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We recognize that this assessment may seem too stern given what Ongwen suffered as a child. A thoughtful and informative “field note” on Ongwen’s case, authored by Erin Baines and published by The Justice and Reconciliation Project, based in northern Uganda, emphasizes Ongwen’s victimization. The document does not contest the charges against Ongwen: instead, it aims “to complicate his status” and to raise questions about his moral responsibility (Baines 2008, 2). Relevant observations include the following:

“Ongwen grew up in one of the most brutal environments known to humanity, with little room for moral development that would enable him to later take decisions independent of the LRA” (Baines 2008, 2);

Ongwen “was a victim of circumstances, and these circumstances shaped his choices significantly. His motivations are a product of the context he lived in as a victim” (Baines 2008, 10);

“Ongwen was not yet fully formed as a human and was thus moulded by adults to carry out the gross human rights violations he did” (Baines 2008, 16).

Perhaps these considerations speak against Ongwen’s responsibility. However, the field note also admits that, “At some point, Ongwen embraced the ideology of the LRA and picked up a panga (a machete), a gun, a stick, and brutally carried out their genocidal wishes” (Baines 2008, 6). Now we might think that someone who embraces an objectionable ideology, and acts to promote its ends, is blameworthy for his behavior. However, in Baines’s account we see an element of the offloading of responsibility that we discussed above: Ongwen is only carrying out “their genocidal wishes.” Similarly, Baines emphasizes the way in which Ongwen “became the image of his oppressors” (Baines 2008, 17), and that he merely “mimicked his oppressors” (Baines 2008, 6). These passages seem to question Ongwen’s ownership of his own commitment to the LRA by framing it in terms of mimicry or slavish obedience. There is also an implicit contrast drawn between Ongwen’s commitment to the LRA and that of his oppressors (with the latter presumably being more authentic). But this distinction is surprisingly difficult to maintain.

“…we must look to how child soldiers regard and explain their own behavior in order to reach a (revisable) conclusion about the meaning that their behavior may plausibly have for those affected by it.”

Baines’s view appears to be that Ongwen is (to some extent) excused because he lacked control over the fact that he embraced the LRA’s ideology. But consider the adults who abducted Ongwen. They no doubt also lacked important forms of control over their embrace of the LRA’s ideology: surely they were also victims of bad luck. The embrace of the LRA’s ideology is bad for anyone because it makes a person morally worse, and it is unlucky for anyone because it must ultimately be explained by factors over which a person is powerless: for example, the genetic and environmental factors that explain why such a morally poor decision would seem choiceworthy to that person. But now we have the makings of an excuse that extends well beyond Ongwen. This general excuse might also be motivated on grounds of moral impairment. Perhaps no one can embrace the LRA’s ideology without suffering from such an impairment: no one, we might think, with clear moral sight could regard such an option as choiceworthy. The point is that if we start down the road of excusing perpetrators because their moral vision is impaired and because they have been shaped by factors beyond their control, we may not find an obvious place to stop.

Our contention is that the factors described above do not excuse perpetrators for their behavior. If someone willingly abducts children because of their allegiance (however acquired) to an ideology that regards this use of children as appropriate, then they are appropriate targets for blaming responses that register our moral anger at, and objections to, this practice. This is not to deny that Ongwen is himself a victim or to diminish the moral significance of his suffering. The question is whether the fact of his victimization has the significance of a moral excuse. We believe that it does not. Learning of Ongwen’s past gives his victims reason to see him as a fellow victim, and this may call forth a complex set of (we believe) compatible emotional responses: Ongwen may be an appropriate candidate for both pity and moral scorn, without one canceling out the other.

Works Cited

Amnesty International. 2000. Child soldiers: Criminals or victims?


Baines, E. 2008. Complicating victims and perpetrators in Uganda: On Dominic Ongwen. JRP Field Note 7. http://justiceandreconciliation.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/07/JRP_FN7_Dominic-Ongwen.pdf.

Boyden, J. 2004. Anthropology under fire: Ethics, researchers and children in war. In J.

Boyden and J. de Berry eds. Children and Youth on the Front Line: Ethnography, Armed Conflict and Displacement. New York: Berghahn Books. pp. 237-261.

Boyden, J. and de Berry, J. 2004. Introduction. In J. Boyden and J. de Berry eds. Children and

Youth on the Front Line: Ethnography, Armed Conflict and Displacement. New York: Berghahn Books.

Drumbl, M. A. 2012. Reimagining Child Soldiers in International Law and Policy. New York: Oxford   University Press.

Fisher, K. J. 2013. Transitional Justice for Child Soldiers: Accountability and Social Reconstruction in Post-Conflict Contexts. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

International Criminal Court. 2017. Case information sheet: The Prosecutor v. Dominic

Ongwen. https://www.icc-cpi.int/uganda/ongwen/Documents/OngwenEng.pdf.

Wessells, M. 2006. Child Soldiers: From Violence to Protection. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on The Ethical War Blog are solely those of the post author(s) and not The Stockholm Centre for the Ethics of War and Peace, Stockholm University, the Wallenberg Foundation, or the staff of those organisations. 

Published 5th March 2018

Matthew Talbert and Jessica Wolfendale

Associate Professors of Philosophy, West Virgina University

Matthew Talbert is Associate Professor of Philosophy, and Chair of the Department of Philosophy, at West Virginia University. He is the author of Moral Responsibility: An Introduction (2016) and a number of articles and book chapters on moral psychology and moral responsibility. His most recent book, War Crimes: Causes, Excuses, and Blame (coauthored with Jessica Wolfendale), is in production with Oxford University Press.

Jessica Wolfendale is Associate Professor of Philosophy at West Virginia University. She is the author of Torture and the Military Profession (2007), co-editor of New Wars and New Soldiers: Military Ethics in the Contemporary World (2011) and has published numerous articles and book chapters on topics including security, torture, terrorism, bioethics, and military ethics. Her work has appeared in journals including Ethics and International Affairs, Journal of Political Philosophy, American Journal of Bioethics, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism, and the Journal of Military Ethics. Her most recent book, War Crimes: Causes, Excuses, and Blame (coauthored with Matthew Talbert), is in production with Oxford University Press.

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