Children in Armed Conflict

On 28 January, The Hague Institute and the Canadian Embassy to the Netherlands hosted a high-level panel discussion entitled “Children in Armed Conflict: Victims, Survivors, Witnesses, and Perpetrators.” The panelists drew upon their extensive experience in the field and in academia to examine the impact of armed conflict on children and consider effective methods to prevent and mitigate this impact.

In his welcoming remarks, Dr. Abi Williams, President of The Hague Institute, reflected that examples of the impact of armed conflict on children abound. The number of refugee children worldwide is at its highest since the Second World War. Hundreds of thousands of children serve in armed forces and groups, often as a result of forced recruitment. Dr. Williams expressed concern that children in conflict situations are also vulnerable to abuse by those who are mandated to protect them, as demonstrated by reports concerning the sexual abuse of children by UN peacekeepers in the Central African Republic. He concluded that grave violations perpetrated against children, including recruitment and use during armed conflict, abduction, sexual violence and enslavement, and attacks on schools and hospitals, squander human potential and undermine efforts to create sustainable peace.

H.E. Sabina Nölke, Canadian Ambassador to the Netherlands moderated the panel discussion, and noted that in the past 20 years, considerable progress has been made in the development of international norms concerning children. Despite this progress, however, children are exposed to more violent conflict than ever before. While increased reporting of violations and robust accountability measures signal a welcome shift in attitude, implementation and practice lag behind norms. Ambassador Nölke urged the international community to formulate an adequate and just response to the plight of children in conflict situations, and elaborated on Canada’s substantial contribution to efforts to prevent the recruitment of children by armed forces and groups, as well as support the rehabilitation of child soldiers.

Lt. Gen. The Honourable Roméo A. Dallaire, former Senator and Force Commander of the UN Assistance Mission in Rwanda, asserted that children are now a “primary weapons system” in armed conflict, and that efforts focused on preventing recruitment and use of children are imperative. Lt. Gen. Dallaire observed that children who are exposed to violent conflict often perpetuate this violence. He argued that different approaches are required to tackle this issue, ranging from pedagogical to legalistic and military, with the express aim of making it less attractive for belligerents to use children in conflict.

Stephen Rapp, former U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes and Distinguished Fellow at The Hague Institute reflected that children are both victims and offenders in armed conflict, and suffer disproportionately. Drawing on his experience as former Prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, Mr. Rapp argued that the risk of criminal prosecution for using child soldiers must outweigh the benefits to military leaders in order to have a sufficient deterrent effect. Unfortunately, despite continued efforts by international justice institutions such as the ICC and ICTY, this is not yet the case. Grave crimes against children in conflict situations continue to occur, especially at the hands of groups such as ISIS.

Dr. Ton Liefaard, Professor of Children’s Rights at Leiden University posited that the international legal framework of children’s rights offers guidance and inspiration for the protection of children in armed conflict. His presentation centred on two categories of children: Child offenders and children in detention. Dr. Liefaard argued that legal frameworks and processes should work towards the reintegration of child offenders and aim to provide them with a constructive role in society. Children in detention are particularly susceptible to rights violations due to a range of factors including a lack of legal safeguards, a lack of information and charges, hazardous living conditions, and violence at the hands of fellow inmates. Efforts to protect children in conflict situations should aim to prevent the detention of children in the first place, and attempt to improve detention processes and conditions where prevention is not possible.

Shamila Batohi, Senior Legal Advisor to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, provided an overview of the ICC’s policy on children, which is currently under development. Following the adoption of a policy on sexual and gender based crimes, the Prosecutor has identified children as a policy priority for the Court. Ms. Batohi stated that the legal process can be a daunting prospect for children affected by conflict. She emphasized that legal practitioners must make an effort to understand what children experience during armed conflict and attempt to make their path through the legal system more bearable. To this end, the Court is engaging with children through consultations in several countries and incorporating their feedback into the policy for children. It is hoped that the new policy will provide clarity on how to apply the Rome Statute in relation to international crimes committed by and against children and foster good practice.

For more information about the panel discussion and the Q&A session with the audience, please listen to the audio recording of the event.

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