The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

« Calling things by the wrong name adds to the affliction of the world. » Albert Camus.


The age at which a person reaches legal majority varies from country to country—mostly between eighteen and twenty-one. The age of majority is when a person attains the full exercise of his or her rights. Below that age, the person is considered a minor and is entitled to special care and protection. In principle, minors are not regarded as legally responsible for their actions—they have not yet attained full juridical personality (full recognition as subjects of the law). This also means that they do not have obligations to society.

However, there are legal subcategories of minors, and these vary even more in different national laws. This is reflected in the fact that the Committee on the Rights of the Child (which monitors the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child) requires that States provide the Committee with the definition of a child provided in their laws and regulations. It is this definition that determines the age at which children may voluntarily and independently participate in the political and social life of society by exercising the right to vote, join the armed forces, testify in court, have sexual relations and get married, as well as the age at which they may be held criminally liable or may be deprived of their liberty.

Many judicial systems establish an age of criminal responsibility that is younger than that of legal majority (often around the age of thirteen). From this age until they reach legal majority, youths (sometimes also called juveniles ) may be held responsible for their acts if they commit grave crimes, but they usually will be judged and sentenced under a different regime than adults.

International law does not speak of minors since the age at which a child reaches legal majority varies from country to country, as do the possible criminal procedures that may exist for juveniles. Instead, it refers to children .

A regime of specialized protection is crucial since, for the most part, children depend on others to be able to exercise their rights, from having their voices heard to obtaining refugee status. Humanitarian law establishes rights and guarantees specifically for their protection. For instance, children must be given priority when receiving relief during international or internal armed conflicts. Furthermore, children under the age of fifteen may not be recruited into the armed forces.

In times of peace, there are additional norms regulating children’s rights that must be respected, as established in international human rights conventions. For instance, these may concern their right to health and education; freedom from any form of maltreatment, sexual or other forms of abuse, exploitation, neglect, and traffic of children; and rules governing conditions of adoption and detention.

ChildrenCommittee on the Rights of the ChildDetentionJudicial guaranteesUNICEF

For Additional Information: Campbell, Tom D. “The Rights of the Minor: As Persons, as Child, as Juvenile, as Future Adult.” In Children’s Rights and the Law , edited by Philippe Alston, Stephen Parkes, and John Seymour. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.

Fox, Mary-Jane. “Too Young to Die: Exploiting Minors in Armed Conflict.” World Today 60, no. 7 (2004): 14–17.

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