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Forced military conscription describes the recruitment of civilians into an armed group through the use of physical force. State military conscription, in which a country legally requires its citizens to serve in its military, has existed for centuries. Popularly known as “the draft” in Western countries, conscription became the model for maintaining a large standing army in Europe in the 19th century. Although many countries around the world have required all able-bodied men (and sometimes women, as is the case in Israel) to serve in the military, a number of countries eliminated the requirement in the 20th century as a result of moral arguments opposed to the practice: Many have argued against it as an instance of structural violence, in which state institutions do harm to individuals and populations. Military conscription was abolished in favor of voluntary recruitment in Great Britain in 1960 and the United States in 1973.
Military conscription becomes a form of interpersonal violence when it involves forcible abduction of individuals who are then ordered to complete military training and participate in combat against their will. This practice has been documented recently in Burma and Turkey. In Burma, local leaders are required to send a certain number of residents for military training, for which they must pay. In more extreme cases, reports state that adolescent males have been tied with ropes by military recruitment personnel and taken to remote military training camps. Family members seeking their release are told to pay bribes to have their relatives released. Witnesses in Turkey have reported similar incidents, as well as cruel treatment of trainees and imprisonment of conscientious objectors.
With the decrease in interstate warfare and the increase in intrastate or civil wars, forced military conscription by paramilitary groups has risen in the past few decades. Civilians caught between rebel factions are ordered to join militia to avoid being killed. Through a range of controlling tactics, civilians are trained in warfare and forced to engage in armed conflict. This practice often involves the abduction of children because they are typically less able to resist, physically and psychologically. The most grievous example comes from northern Uganda, where the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) has been abducting children and forcing them to fight against government troops since 1992. It is estimated that the LRA has forcibly conscripted as many as 30,000 children. If children are caught trying to escape, other abducted children are forced to kill them as part of their socialization into the LRA fighting force.
Aside from the brutality employed in forcible military conscription, many experts consider both state and paramilitary forced conscription to be forms of involuntary servitude and thus human rights violations.
Despite protests, forcible conscription continues to be a prevalent tactic of military recruitment.
- Cheney, K. E. (2005). “Our children have only known war”: Children’s experiences and the uses of childhood in northern Uganda. Children’s Geographies, 3(1), 23—15.
- Flynn, G. Q. (2002). Conscription and democracy: The draft in France, Great Britain, and the United States. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
- Steinberg, D. L. (2002). Burma: The State of Myanmar. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.
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