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When Soldiers Go Back to Being Children
The unlikely success of Sudan and the FARC proves minors can be protected from conflict.
In the United Nations’ most recent report on the protection of children during armed conflict, Secretary-General António Guterres delisted three armed forces that had previously been called out for their terrible track records: Sudanese government security forces, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and Saudi troops operating in Yemen. Their success in doing so may prove instructive. If other states that rely on child soldiers learn the right lessons, an ever greater proportion of the estimated 350 million children currently affected by armed conflict will be far better off.
By most measures, 2017 was, as UNICEF called it, a “nightmare year” for children caught in conflict zones. According to Guterres’s report, the year saw 21,000 verified grave violations of children’s rights in armed conflict zones. The sheer number and the increase—35 percent over the 2016 number—is alarming. It reflects rises in the numbers of children forced to be suicide bombers, for example in Afghanistan and Nigeria; in abductions; and in incidents of sexual violence against children. Militias and other armed forces continue to recruit and exploit children by the tens of thousands.
The most consequential (and thus, controversial) elements of Guterres’s report are its annexes, which name the groups responsible for the worst violations of children’s rights. Inclusion on the so-called blacklist triggers continued monitoring and reporting by the United Nations. Twenty countries and 66 combatant groups were designated—three more groups than in 2016. Militias in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, and Yemen were added for the first time for violations including widespread rape, abduction, and large-scale recruitment of minors.
At the same time, however, Sudanese government forces and the FARC made sustained progress on ending child recruitment and were delisted.
In 2016, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, not known for his compliance with international law, entered into a multiyear action plan with the U.N. special representative for children and armed conflict. There was likely no single reason for his sudden cooperativeness. Rather, a combination of factors, including a desire to move beyond global pariah status, less military need for children to take up arms, almost a decade of gentle encouragement from U.N. officials, and four years of negotiations, among other things, probably pushed him toward agreeing to the plan.
Since the signing, Sudanese government forces have worked with the U.N. to complete all the prescribed measures to put an end to child recruitment. These included new government directives and police regulations prohibiting the practice as well as a procedure for communities to report violations. Time will tell if these measures persist, but for now Sudan’s progress has been (and should be) lauded.
For the FARC, the decision to release all of its child soldiers was part and parcel of the peace process with the Colombian government. Over four decades of conflict, the FARC had allegedly enlisted 12,000 children before banning child recruitment in 2015. Over the years that followed, it progressively released all known child soldiers remaining among its ranks, according to studies done by the U.N. Another hopeful sign came last year with the establishment of a Colombian transitional justice mechanism, including the “Peace Tribunal,” which is expected to give many young victims of war crimes (perpetrated by government and guerrilla forces alike) their day in court.
More inexplicably, the secretary-general also omitted Yemeni government forces and the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen from its main blacklist of child-rights violators in armed conflict. This is despite the fact that the United Nations attributed over 600 child casualties to Saudi-led forces in 2017 and despite reputable allegations of intentional Saudi shelling of schools and hospitals. Instead, Yemeni and Saudi forces were both listed in a separate section for “parties that have put in place measures … aimed at improving the protection of children.” This comes after former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon controversially removed Saudi Arabia from his 2016 report’s blacklist. Moon cited Saudi threats to withdraw U.N. funding to justify his decision, and similar calculations may be at play this time.
Further, even though the report named some Iraqi militias for their crimes against children (including child recruitment), it failed to include the Iraqi government in its annexes. And neither Israel nor any Palestinian group has ever been listed, despite the report noting that the secretary-general is “extremely concerned” about the ongoing violence against children in Israel and the Palestinian territories. In all these instances, politics clearly plays a role.
Despite its shortcomings, the secretary-general’s annual report remains a useful tool for drawing the international community’s attention to the plight of children in armed conflict. It is also clear from the positive steps taken by the likes of the Sudanese government and the FARC that being on the list can be a spur toward better behavior.
Nevertheless, the politicization of the U.N. blacklist is emblematic of bigger concerns. Grave violations against children’s rights during conflict are on the rise, and too little is being done to protect the next generation from the ravages of war. The current international legal regime designed to protect children during conflict is failing them.
To strengthen the protections for children in war, several gaps and inconsistencies should be addressed. For instance, international humanitarian law includes no express prohibition on the abduction of children during conflict. Moreover, the various treaties that offer protections to civilians in conflict zones use different language to describe the minimum standard of care specifically owed to children.
Perhaps most conspicuously, international law provides less protection for schools in conflict zones than it does for hospitals and medical facilities. Whereas the Geneva Conventions explicitly prohibit attacking hospitals—and grant them special protected symbols (the Red Cross and Red Crescent)—schools are given neither. In fact, schools are only offered as much protection from attack as any other civilian infrastructure. And that isn’t much. For example, in Afghanistan, schools are regularly bombarded and their staffs beheaded. According to UNICEF, in Yemen, 2 million children have already been taken out of school. More than 4 million more are under threat of losing their access to schooling due to a lack of funding, teachers, and buildings.
A growing coalition of governments and civil society organizations is dedicated to addressing this gap. In 2015, a coalition of them (led by Argentina and Norway) created the “Safe Schools Declaration” and invited states to commit to protect schools from being used for military purposes and from being attacked. Over 80 countries have already signed on to this initiative, including many European and African states. Signatories should encourage more countries to join—notable absences from the list of supporters include Australia, China, Russia, and the United States. All should move beyond mere political commitments to actual implementation of the declaration’s guidelines for protecting schools and universities from military use during armed conflict.
Beyond that, the U.N. Security Council should reconsider how it decides to add countries to its blacklist. At present, only five of the six grave violations against children’s rights during armed conflict that it recognizes are triggers for inclusion. Denying humanitarian access to children is the odd one out, and strangely so. It is a well-established principle of international law that civilians—especially children—should be given the care and aid they require. It is also relatively easy to verify instances in which humanitarian access to children has been denied (think: besieging a city or denying passage to an aid convey). The council should swiftly rectify this anomaly in the U.N. monitoring and reporting regime.
Doing so would signal that all six violations are of equal and utmost concern. Of more consequence, it may prompt the U.N. (and other humanitarian actors) to more closely monitor and respond to situations like that in famine-ravaged Yemen, where millions of children are at risk of starvation, and help end the impunity of warring parties that deny or restrict aid deliveries to children in conflict zones.
For now, breaching any of the six grave violations of children’s rights during armed conflict may amount to war crimes, which opens up the possibility of prosecution at the International Criminal Court or in a host of individual countries’ domestic courts. In fact, Thomas Lubanga Dyilo—the first person to face trial at the ICC—was convicted on charges of recruiting child soldiers. But his was an exceptional case. The court and its supporters should reprioritize the prosecution of perpetrators of war crimes against children.
Finally, UNICEF and the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict need more support from national governments interested in safeguarding children’s rights. Together with civil society organizations, they are working to educate armed forces to promote better treatment for children in conflict. They are also developing ever more sophisticated mechanisms for gathering and publicizing information on violations of children’s rights. Increased funding from participating governments would help accelerate these efforts. The money could also support the post–conflict work to rebuild children’s lives and communities. The disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of former child soldiers have been a particular focus of the U.N., but it has had only mixed success, in part due to a lack of resources. Aside from tending to the physical and psychological effects that often endure long after hostilities end, countries also need to rebuild schools and other institutions.
Above all, there is perhaps a singular, shared lesson to be learned from Sudan and Colombia’s progress in protecting children during war, and, by contrast, Yemen’s continued slide into humanitarian catastrophe. That is: In preventing and resolving armed conflicts and rebuilding after them, all parties need to have a clear-eyed focus on protecting and championing children’s rights. Protecting children affected by armed conflict is a moral imperative. They are the most vulnerable and innocent victims. When it came together in July to discuss this issue, the U.N. Security Council titled its debate: “Protecting Children Today Prevents Conflicts Tomorrow.” That is true, and we can do a better job of it.