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Reimagining Child Soldiers in International Law and Policy by Mark A. Drumbl (review)

From: Human Rights Quarterly
Volume 35, Number 2, May 2013
pp. 520-528 | 10.1353/hrq.2013.0031

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Omar Khadr, the only Canadian detainee at Guantánamo, was brought to trial before a military commission for alleged war crimes committed in Afghanistan when he was fifteen years old. In the face of world-wide media attention, Khadr's case became a kind of Kabuki Theater, with Khadr cast as a stock character pulled between two polarizing images. To the prosecution, he was cast as the irredeemable bad seed, born into an Al Qaeda family and the inevitable product of his environment and heritage. He was a perfect fit within what Professor Mark Drumbl calls the "demon and bandit" image: "irredeemable, baleful, and sinister." By the defense, he was portrayed as an innocent victim, what Drumbl calls the "guileless naïf—hued as clueless and dependent." Drumbl goes on to say that "[t]his image telescopes the child soldier as a helpless object manipulated locally by adult malevolence, yet at the same time to be rescued transnationally by adult humanitarianism."

The image of the child soldier as a "faultless passive victim" appears early, but resonates throughout Drumbl's newest book, Reimagining Child Soldiers in International Law and Policy. The faultless passive victim image dominates the international discourse on child soldiers, almost always to the detriment of the child in question. Reimagining Child Soldiers seeks, among other goals, to deconstruct the dominant narrative of the faultless passive victim and to recast the child soldier in more nuanced narratives. Drumbl invokes Khadr's detention and trial at Guantánamo repeatedly, which made the book of particular interest to me, as I was one of Khadr's several defense lawyers in the US federal courts and in the first military commission proceedings at Guantánamo in 2006. Of the Khadr prosecution, more later. For now, it suffices to say that criminal trials inherently tend to exaggerate the positions taken by both sides: as Drumbl notes, "[n]uance stands at cross-purposes with the prosecutorial imperative to convict." The same may be said of the defense imperative to acquit or mitigate guilt.

Drumbl brings the same creativity to this project that pervades his first book, Atrocity, Punishment, and International Law. Both books derive their fresh perspectives on well-tilled academic topics from exhaustive exploration of cross-disciplinary studies and data, which are then applied to substantive and structural law and policy contexts. These books emerge from Drumbl's scholarly pursuits as "an international lawyer with an interest in political transitions from episodes of systematic human rights abuse." Both books vivify our thinking in new ways, challenging us, as Drumbl suggests, to expand the scope of our collective international legal imagination—the "normative, aspirational, and operational mix of international law, policy, and practice" that is constituted by the broad constellation of legal and non-legal international actors. This is the call to the "reimagining" of the title. His efforts to dispel the narrow image of the child soldier as a faultless passive victim alone make this book well worth close study. This narrow image hobbles our approaches to the topic of children in armed conflict as both victims and perpetrators in international criminal justice, whether that justice is achieved by tribunal, truth commission, or other means.

Much of the research for this work comes from outside the traditional international legal sources of treaties, custom, standards, and jurisprudence. By this means, Drumbl seeks to "interrogate" legal and policy choices—his is "research conducted and published by a broad range of scholars and practitioners, who pursue diverse methodologies, including surveys, participant observation, and qualitative studies." His goal is ambitious, for he seeks to "energize a discussion at a cross-national, interdisciplinary, and 'big picture' panoptic level." This book is chock full of data, making it unlike any other of the many sources that my students, colleagues, and I examined during my representation of Omar Khadr. To give an example, we learn from one survey of former child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) that "9% were abducted or joined out of fear, 34% joined for material reasons, 21% joined because of belief in the group's ideology, 10% for revenge, and 11% because they wanted to leave their home." To rebut the contention that...

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