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Children War

September 28, 2011

A UN study examines to what extent children who commit crimes during armed conflicts should be held accountable and how those traumatized in wars can seek justice.

Child soldier with machine gun in Sierra Leone
Child soldiers need to be held accountable, but their recruitment was also a crimeImage: DPA

Millions of children are victims of armed conflict. Many are killed, maimed, raped and psychologically traumatized for their whole lives. Many children are recruited to fight for governments and rebel groups. They are forced to commit atrocities and are often prosecuted for these crimes.

A United Nations study, called "Children and Justice During and in the Aftermath of Armed Conflict," examines how children caught in wars can seek justice for the grave violations they have suffered. The other big question, also analyzed in the study, is the extent to which children who commit international crimes during conflict should be held accountable for their actions.

Waiting to die

Bosnian refugees in Kuplensko's refugee camp on the Bosnian-Croatian border
Hearing cannon firing every night traumatized many childrenImage: picture-alliance / dpa/epa

Among a group of experts who recently convened in Geneva to discuss these issues, was the Ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Emina Keco-Isakovic, who said she is still haunted by memories from the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which broke out in 1992, because she remembers how anxious her son was. The siege of the capital, Sarajevo, lasted nearly four years. Almost 10,000 people were killed, including 1,500 children.

Every night, Keco-Isakovic recalls, when the cannon firing would start over the city, her 10-year-old son asked her whether he would die that night. "And every night I answered ‘no, no, you shall not die,' and I touched him and held him while he was falling asleep." Emina Keco-Isakovic is convinced that all children from besieged Sarajevo still suffer from trauma in the form of waiting to die.

While the UN study says children should be permitted to seek reparations for violation of their rights, the children of Sarajevo have never received justice commensurate with the crimes committed against them.

"When you kill a European in a car accident, you get 10 years in prison," says Keco-Isakovic. "When you kill thousands of people in Balkans, Asia, Africa, you are in prison for five or six years." Many war criminals, she criticizes, are released prematurely simply because of their good behavior and age.

Give them back their rights

A boy sits against a wall covered with drawings of weapons and military vehicles, including guns and a helicopter, in a transit and orientation centre for former child soldiers,
Child soldiers need to be recognized as victims - not perpetrators - of crimesImage: © UNICEF/NYHQ2010-1152/Asselin

Among the participants at the meeting in Geneva was Messeh Kamara, a child during Sierra Leone's decade-long civil war. He lost his parents, learned to survive and eventually became a child activist for children's rights. At age 24, he's studying to become an international human rights lawyer. His goal is to give the millions of children a voice whose voices would otherwise go unheard. "They are out there suffering from conflict," he says.

Children who lived through this brutal war need to see those who created this havoc brought to justice, Kamara is convinced. He himself was 11 when he was thrown into a conflict he did not cause to happen. "But I suffered the most. So justice and accountability to us is very important."

Those who were children when they were traumatized need to be given back their rights, Kamara believes. "They stole our rights from us. When they steal something from someone it is most important that you return what they stole."

Kamara regards the trials of suspected war criminals at the Special Court for Sierra Leone and the war crimes trial of former Liberian President Charles Taylor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague as very important. According to him, they are giving the children and young adults in Sierra Leone a sense of hope that justice will be done.

Victims, not perpetrators

Former child soldiers in the Liberian government forces play soccer with friends at the Don Bosco youth rehabilitation centre in the Liberian capital Monrovia
Child soldiers have to accustom themselves to civilian lifeImage: AP

While children undeniably are victims of war, the UN study notes some children also are involved in committing crimes. The United Nations estimates that hundreds of thousands of children are recruited around the world every year. It reports about 10,000 child soldiers were demobilized last year, for instance in Sudan, by the Sudanese People's Liberation Army.

UNICEF Senior Advisor for Child Protection in Emergencies, Pernille Ironside, says children who commit crimes should be held accountable, but that there is also a growing consensus these children should be viewed primarily as victims and not as perpetrators.

There is a need for an accountability mechanism, she says, but children should not be prosecuted as the primary approach to seeking accountability for any violations that they may have committed solely on the basis of their membership with a group.

"We need to bear in mind that their association from the beginning is actually in itself a crime," Ironside stresses. The Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court in 1998, defines the recruitment and use of children under the age of 15 in hostilities as a war crime.

Radhika Coomaraswamy, Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict and lead author of the study, says children who are abducted and forced to commit atrocities by their military commanders should not be prosecuted and judged in the same manner as adults.

Prosecution last resort

A former child soldier, looks at the countryside from atop the crumbling roof of a barracks in the village of Bagram on the Shomali Plain in the Central Region province of Parwan. An AK 47 rifle is slung over his shoulder.
There need to be alternatives to prosecution for child soldiersImage: UNICEF/NYHQ2004-0654/Brooks

Rather, a so-called 'diversion' proces should kick in, meaning that children are diverted away from the judicial and prosecutorial system into some alternative mechanism. "This can be either a truth and reconciliation commission, truth-telling, restorative justice or some kind of rehabilitation process," Coomaraswamy stresses and adds that prosecuting them must absolutely be the last resort.

According to the UN study, states are increasingly arresting and detaining children associated with armed groups on the grounds they are a threat to national security or because they have participated in hostility. It contends children held in administrative detention during armed conflict are particularly vulnerable.

Few are granted access to lawyers or are given reasons why they are being detained. The study argues states should not use administrative detention for children under 15 and detention conditions should comply with international standards and judicial guarantees. It also says the United Nations should be allowed to monitor child detention centers.

Author: Lisa Schlein (nh)

Editor: Sarah Steffen

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