An estimated 230 million children live in armed conflict-affected countries. Of these, approximately 250,000 children are involved in the conflicts themselves. Some are used for fighting; they themselves turned in to tools of war. Others may act as messengers, porters, cooks, or sex slaves. The UN Secretary-General’s 2016 report on children and armed conflict identified 58 parties to current conflicts that recruit and use children. This includes 7 government security forces and 51 non-state armed groups in countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Nigeria, and Syria. As some of the most vulnerable members of society, children deserve and require concentrated efforts from the international community to protect them in times of conflict, to prevent their use in war, and to aggressively go after those who violate international law by victimising them in conflicts.
On 16 November 2016, the ICC Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) launched its Policy on Children aimed at strengthening ongoing efforts to address atrocity crimes against children as well as providing a framework for helping the OTP in their interactions with children from preliminary investigations to post-trial. On 18 November 2016, Canada hosted a side event at the ICC Assembly of States Parties (ASP) on “Child Soldiers: Prevention and Accountability”. This event united speakers on the preventative efforts of the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative with ones on the accountability measures (from preliminary investigation to post-trial) of the ICC OTP.
“War has changed,” began LGen Dallaire (Ret’d), “therefore our tactics need to change.” As Commander of the UN Mission to Rwanda during the Rwanadan Genocide, LGen Dallaire faced first-hand the horror of children turned into weapons of war and the fundamental moral dilemma all soldiers and police forces face when confronted with an enemy combatant that is not merely a combatant, but also a child. These members of professional forces face the choice: don’t react and either take casualties or give up ground; or, react and have to live with the fact that they have used armed force against a child, they suffer. The Dallaire Initiative aims to address this gap that professional forces have in addressing the child dimension as well as to address the recruitment of children as tools of war. To achieve these ends, it focuses on training, research, and advocacy. Training to military, police, and peacekeepers to provide the necessary tools and knowledge to recognize and prevent the recruitment and use of child soldiers. Research to understand patterns of child recruitment, to identify that such recruitment and use can be a warning sign for mass atrocity and genocide, and to gain insights from former child soldiers. High-level advocacy with states, the United Nations, NATO, the African Union and so on, in an effort to have a direct impact on policy and procedures relating to child soldiers. Critically, the Dallaire Initiative takes a very practical approach to the issue rather than a legalistic approach. In other words, it focuses on practical reasoning for breaking down support among armed forces that recruit and use children, rather than merely on what the law says. Ultimately, the organization seeks to prevent the recruitment of children before they suffer the horrors of being used as tools of war.
The work of the ICC OTP, on the other hand, is reactive and comes into the picture when there is sufficient information available to warrant the commencement of a preliminary examination. Consequently, harms against children will have likely already occurred. The ICC provides the platform for accountability of those most responsible for crimes against children, including the recruitment and use of children (Article 8(2)(b) (xxvi) & 8(2)(e) (vii)). It has had accountability for the recruitment of children on its agenda since the Lubanga case where a conviction was secured for the crime. The work in Lubanga is being continued in current cases Ntaganda, where the accused is charged with child recruitment as well as rape and sexual slavery of children within the accused’s own armed forces, as well as the soon to begin Ongwen case in which charges include child recruitment as well as other crimes against children such as murder, torture, sexual slavery, and forced marriage. Furthermore, the extremely grave nature of sexual crimes against children were considered aggravating circumstances in the 2016 conviction in Bemba. The OTP’s new Policy on Children seeks to build upon the existing work of the Court and ensure a child-sensitive approach throughout all stages of investigation and prosecutions. Children will have already been victims at the stage of the OTP’s involvement, but the OTP Policy seeks to ensure that any potential for further traumatization is minimized, if not avoided, while justice and accountability is sought.
Together, the Romeo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative and the OTP are moving prevention and accountability for the recruitment and use of children in war forward, but there remains a missing piece of the puzzle: rehabilitation. The Dallaire Initiative recognizes the significant challenge faced by child soldiers after they have been removed from the conflict situation; however, LGen Dallaire advocates focusing attention on low cost training in the front end of forces to render child soldiers less effective and therefore less likely to be recruited, rather than devoting limited funding to costly, long-term rehabilitation efforts. Former child soldiers face a high risk of re-recruitment, sometimes even after rehabilitation efforts, as seen by child soldiers from the Sierra Leonean Civil War who went on to fight in Côte d’Ivoire. Former child soldiers often face stigma in their communities when they return after conflict and many turn to drugs to self-medicate their trauma and a life of crime to finance their addiction. Certainly, the ICC’s Trust Fund for Victims can provide some reparations for some victims, but this process is slow and funds limited. The term used is ‘symbolic reparations’ and certainly this targets only those who served as victims and witnesses in the trial. Similar to the Dallaire Initiative, the Trust Fund also devotes some efforts to education and transforming opinions in the communities to which child soldiers return.
The necessary rehabilitation required by former child soldiers is not readily available. Prevention is necessary, but will not end the recruitment and use of children in war overnight. Prosecution of perpetrators is essential to fight impunity. Yet, if the ICC is truly for the victims, then greater will on the part of States and other actors is needed to ensure that these victims, former child soldiers, receive the assistance they need to recover their lives.
The Canadian Partnership’s Delegation to the 15th Assembly of States Parties to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court is supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada through the project “Strengthening Justice for International Crimes: A Canadian Partnership.