Red Hand Day, held on February 12, is an annual commemoration day created to draw attention to the fate of children who are forced to serve as soldiers in wars and armed conflicts. The aim of Red Hand Day is to call for action against this practice, and support for children who suffer from this severe form of child abuse. Examples for massive use of children as soldiers in recent years include armed conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Uganda, Sudan, Cote d'Ivoire, Myanmar, Philippines, and Colombia.
Red Hand Day was initiated in 2002 when the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict entered into force on February 12, 2002. This protocol was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations in May 2000. It currently has signatures from 92 different states. A number of international organizations are active against the use of children as soldiers. These organizations include, for example, the United Nations Child Fund (UNICEF), Amnesty International, Terre des Hommes or the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.
The work of these organizations can be summarized by the acronym DDR:
The most important reason that armed groups or even some governments recruit children as soldiers is their diminished capability to distinguish between right and wrong, as well as between reality and an adventurous game. Up to a certain age, children don't have a full grasp of the finality of death and the severity of the act of killing a human being. They lack the ability to correctly identify dangers and to assess the risks of specific situations. Last but not least, children are easy to influence and be made to follow a specific cause.
The military use of children is addressed by a number of international legal norms. These include International human rights law and International humanitarian law. According to the Additional Protocols I and II to the Geneva Conventions, adopted in 1977, children who have not attained the age of 15 years shall neither be recruited in the armed forces or groups, nor allowed to take part in hostilities. For persons older than 15 but younger than 18 years, the State Parties to the Geneva Conventions shall endeavour to give priority to those who are oldest. The "Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict", adopted in 2000, stipulates that its State Parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure that persons below the age of 18 do not take a direct part in hostilities, and that they are not compulsorily recruited into their armed forces. In addition to these legal norms, The Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention of the International Labour Organization, adopted in 1999, includes forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict as one of the worst forms of child labour. In the context of this convention, the term "child" applies to all persons under the age of 18 years.
The worldwide number of child soldiers is estimated to be between 250,000 and 300,000 (as of 2006), a third of whom are girls; however it is difficult to know the correct number, as most of them are deployed in armed rebel groups.