“My squad was my family, my gun was my provider and protector, and my rule was to kill or be killed.”
–Ishmael Beah (A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier)
When Ishmael Beah was 12, the Sierra Leone Revolutionary United Front (RUF) rebels backed by Liberian warlord Charles Taylor attacked his village and killed his family. He spent a year running from the war before joining up with the army in order to survive.
Empowered by the rifles they carried, and often high on marijuana or cocaine, many of the thousands of children who took part in Sierra Leone’s 10-year civil war visited unspeakable atrocities on the civilian population. Child soldiers were known to have cut open the bellies of pregnant women just to see what sex the child was.
Charles Taylor is currently on trial at the Special Court for Sierra Leone on several charges, including the recruitment of children under the age of 15 years into armed forces in violation of international humanitarian law.
The United Nations Childrens Fund (UNICEF) defines child soldiers as “any child—boy or girl—under eighteen years of age, who is part of any kind of regular or irregular armed force or armed group in any capacity.” This age limit was established in 2002 by the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
February 12, 2009, also known as ‘Red Hand Day,’ marks the seventh anniversary of the entry into force of the Optional Protocol.
The Optional Protocol entered into force in 2002 and requires States Parties to 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 forcibly recruited into their armed forces. States must prevent the recruitment and use of child soldiers by non-state armed groups and must adoption the necessary legal measures necessary to prohibit and criminalize such practices within their State. It also enjoins States to provide assistance for the physical and psychological recovery of child soldiers and to facilitate their social reintegration.
Prior to 2002, the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the 1977 Additional Protocols set fifteen as the minimum age for participation in armed conflict. Almost 80 percent of conflicts involving child soldiers include combatants below the age of fifteen, with some as young as seven or eight.
The very first trial of the ICC serves to highlight the plight of child soldiers and reveals how seriously the Court considers the military use of children. Former child soldiers have testified throughout the trial of Thomas Lubanga.
One former child soldier told the Court on February 10 that he killed and mutilated people during a battle at a church school in eastern Congo. “At the mission we killed those who were there, also the priests,” he said. “We captured some of them, took them hostage. We cut their mouths off. We would destroy their faces.”
Lubanga is charged with the war crimes of recruiting and enlisting child soldiers during the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2002 and 2003. This approach reflects one of the ‘Paris Principles,’ namely, that “children who are accused of crimes under international law allegedly committed while they were associated with armed forces or armed groups should be considered primarily as victims of offences against international law; not only as perpetrators.”
The Paris Principles (PDF) or ‘The Guidelines on Children Associated with Armed Forces or Armed Groups’ establish two ways to address the issue of child soldiers: One is to build a serious international commitment to abolish the practice; and the other is to make sure that commitment is translated into real, ongoing protection for children and their families as they resume civilian life.
In contrast, Canadian citizen Omar Khadr – who was 15 years old at the time of his alleged offences – is currently in detention at Guantanamo Bay over war crimes charges.
On January 12, leading human rights and civil liberties groups – including Amnesty International, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers and Human Rights Watch – delivered a letter to President-elect Barack Obama, urging him to suspend the Guantánamo Bay military commissions and to ensure that the trial of the Khadr did not proceed. Now 22, Khadr was charged with war crimes and terrorism offences alleged to have been committed when he was a 15-year-old fighting with the Taliban. The human rights groups have stated that if there is evidence to support it, Khadr should instead be prosecuted in US federal courts in accordance with international juvenile justice and fair trial standards.
The trial had been scheduled to begin on January 26, six days after the presidential inauguration. However, all charges before the military commissions system have been suspended at the request of the Obama administration, and the new President has directed the closure of the Guantanamo Bay prison camps within a year. However it is not yet clear what form future trials will take. The option of using some form of military tribunal remains a possibility.
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said publicly that his government’s ‘legal position’ is that Khadr was not a child soldier because he was not a member of an army at the time. The Harper government has said it will not make any decision to repatriate the young Canadian until there are assurances that the US will drop the charges against him.
Despite the existence of international legal safeguards, around 300,000 child soldiers are currently fighting in 30 countries according to UN estimates. According to a 2008 report by Human Rights Watch, child soldiers continue to be used by armies and militias in 86 countries, and 17 conflicts.
In Sri Lanka, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) continue to use child soldiers. In the country’s long-running civil conflict, ethnic Tamil families are told that they must give at least one child for the rebels and that if they complain to authorities, they will never see the child again.
In Colombia’s 40-year civil war between government and paramilitary groups, between 10,000 and 14,000 children, or “little bees” as they are known to the paramilitaries, serve in combat, make and deploy mines, and gather intelligence. Child soldiers, a quarter of which are girls, are often forced to commit terrible human rights abuses.
In Cambodia during the 1970s, the Khmer Rouge regime exploited thousands of desensitized conscripted children to commit mass murders and other inhuman acts during the genocide. The brainwashed child soldiers were taught to “follow orders without hesitation,” according to Loung Ung, author of the book First They Killed My Father, even to the point of shooting and killing their own “traitor parents” if necessary. Ung was a five-year-old child when she and her family were forced to evacuate Phnom Penh. She was sent to a work camp for orphans. Both her father and mother were executed as “class enemies.”
It is not known if the prosecutors’ office of the ECCC will seek to bring charges either against former child soldiers or in relation to their recruitment. Cambodia ratified the Optional Protocol in July 2004.
Almost 200 child soldiers belonging to the pro-government Mai-Mai militia were released in the DR Congo last week. UNICEF estimates that the Mai-Mai still has 2,000 child soldiers among its ranks. On February 2, Human Rights Watch called upon the government of the DR Congo to arrest Bosco Ntaganda, a former rebel commander. He faces charges before the ICC including the crime of enlisting and conscripting and using children under the age of 15 as soldiers in hostilities between 2002 and 2003 in the Ituri district of eastern DR Congo.
Although the plight of child soldiers embroiled in conflicts across the globe is better known, the phenomenon of girl soldiers is globally under-reported and overlooked. They are often the victims of sexual violence and exploitation, recruited by rebel groups to serve as combatants and “sex slaves.” Nearly one-third of child soldiers in Northern Uganda are female and especially vulnerable.
Girls, especially adolescents, are more vulnerable to gender-based violence (including rape, sexual slavery, mutilation, trafficking, forced prostitution, forced marriage and forced impregnation). Many run the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS, and being recruited into militias as combatants, cooks, porters, spies and sex slaves.
A former militia member testifying in the ICC trial of Thomas Lubanga said last week that the militia commanders used young kidnapped girls to provide “sexual services.” The witness also testified that girls and boys received the same training and that the girls would shoot and fight in combat. The witness also said that the girls were flogged once for “spending the night in the trainers’ houses.”
The goal of Red Hand Day is to raise global awareness of the plight of child soldiers through public protests, demonstrations and other activities. The Red Hand symbol has been used all over the world by the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers and many other civil society organizations to protest against the recruitment and use of child soldiers. The Coalition’s goal is to promote the adoption and adherence to national, regional and international legal standards.
Katherine Iliopoulos is an international lawyer based in The Hague, Netherlands.
Ex-Child Soldier recalls Congo war atrocities
By Mike Corder
Associated Press, February 10, 2009
Father of Child Soldier Testifies
By Rachel Irwin
Institute for War & Peace Reporting, February 6, 2009
Child Soldiers: The brothers trained to kill each other
By Cassandra Jardine
The Telegraph, January 27, 2009
Leading Rights Groups Urge Obama to Stop Guantanamo Proceedings against Child Soldiers
January 12, 2009
Summary Table of IHL Provisions Specifically Applicable to Children (PDF)
International Committee of the Red Cross
Child Soldiers: Criminals or Victims?
Book Review: ‘War Child’ by Emmanuel Jal
By Carolyn See
Washington Post, February 6, 2009