The Children and Armed Conflict Agenda and the United Nations: Assessing a Decade of Engagement

July 28, 2006

The international community first began a co-ordinated effort to confront the complexities of the relationship between war and children with Graça Machel's groundbreaking 1996 United Nations study entitled The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children. Since then many non-governmental organizations, United Nations agencies and governments have addressed the severity of abuses of children in wars more proactively, and have advocated better protection of their rights and security.

The children and armed conflict agenda is a broad canvas encompassing several themes such as education in emergencies, small arms, and land mines. It also subsumes broader issues of displacement, human security and non-combatant immunity. Amidst this range of concerns, it is the issue of child soldiers which has in recent times evoked much international attention, largely because of its implications in doctrinal and military-strategic terms.

Child Soldiers: New Agents of Warfare

Definitional complexity with regard to 'child soldiers' stems from the fact that while international law clearly defines who is a child, as well as a combatant, there is no category for someone who is both a child and a combatant. As the law stands, once a minor wields a weapon, he or she is considered a legitimate target. Interestingly therefore, the concept of child soldier or child combatant does not exist in international law. Who then is a child soldier? Based on the Cape Town principles (1997), child soldiers are generally defined as "any person under eighteen years of age who is a member of or attached to the armed political forces or an armed political group, whether or not there is an armed conflict."

The global scope of the child soldier problem also adds credence to international engagement. Children are to be found serving as foot soldiers in conflicts ranging every continent. Algeria, Angola, Burundi, Djibouti, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa and Uganda provide recorded instances of child soldier use in Africa. In the Americas, Colombia is a prominent case where child soldiers have been used by both government and opposition forces. Called "Little Bells" by the military and "Little Bees" by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas, nearly 85 per cent of certain militia units are made up of children.

In Europe, the Bosnia-Herzegovina conflict provided ample instances of child soldier use. Besides, Croatia, Ireland, the Russian Federation, Chechnya, Turkey, Kurdistan and even Britain recruit under-18 year olds for their armed forces. In the Middle East, the Palestinian territories have witnessed the phenomenon of stone throwers, and along with the 'Ashbal Saddam' or Saddam's Lion Cubs, have been cited as examples of children's involvement in conflict. Afghanistan, Myanmar, Cambodia, India, Indonesia/East Timor, the Philippines, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Tajikistan all witness child soldier recruitment and use in Asia.

These realities are compounded by important strategic implications. Transcending established notions of their role in warfare as innocent bystanders and victims, children today pose as active participants and perpetrators of violence. Child soldiers provide a cheap yet effective means particularly to non-state armed groups for augmenting their ranks and mobilising greater force.

Gauging the International Response

The international response has been primarily legalistic, concerned with widening the ambit of law by framing newer codes and treaties. Apart form these legal norms, efforts and campaigns by international human rights groups have essentially underlined the need for an international consensus on delegitimising and stigmatising the issue of under-age recruitments. This has formed the basis of the UN Security Council's 'name and shame' strategy followed by way of periodically publishing a list of offenders. These instruments and efforts have their own drawbacks, and have failed to provide a foolproof mechanism to counter the child soldier problem. Proliferation of the abuse and use of children in combatant roles and sexual violence against girls in conflict zones has meant that a certain compliance gap is implicit in the normative prohibitions meant to deter both recruitment and disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) processes in war-to-peace transitions.

Fact Sheet on Child Soldier DDR

Countries where DDR of child soldiers have been carried out or under way include Sierra Leone, Mozambique, Angola, Southern Sudan, Uganda, Afghanistan, Liberia, Burundi, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Cote d' Ivoire and Sri Lanka.

Against this backdrop the UN Security Council (UNSC) has of late sought to design a more substantive monitoring and enforcement mechanism. This, it hopes, would provide for a more stringent denial regime and mark the genesis of a more adequate response. Thus the trajectory of the UNSC's engagement with the children and armed conflict agenda has been one of steady engagement and needs to be traced to gauge the future parameters of this evolving agenda.

UNSC Efforts to Secure Compliance

The UNSC has at least since 1998 addressed the issue of children and armed conflict as a priority and also adopted a series of resolutions aimed at stronger enforcement of international standards. These resolutions signify a calibrated attempt to attach prominence to the children and security discourse within the Security Council's peace and security agenda.

UNSC Resolutions on Children and Armed Conflict
Resolution Scope
1261 (1999)

The UNSC "strongly condemned" the abduction and recruitment of children in armed conflict. It also recommended that welfare of children should be promoted throughout the peace process.

1314 (2000) The UNSC urged its members "to sign and ratify the OP-CRC.
1379 (2001)

Members were called upon to "consider appropriate legal, political, diplomatic, financial and material measures, in accordance with the UN Charter, in order to ensure that parties to armed conflict respect international norms for the protection of children."

The UN Secretary General was asked to compile and publish a list of specific parties to armed conflict that were recruiting or using child soldiers in violation of their obligations.

1460 (2003)

The UNSC called for the preparation of a report on the progress made by parties listed in the previous report (which was limited to parties to armed conflict on the UNSC agenda) in supporting the use of child soldiers.

The UNSC also pledged that it would consider taking "appropriate steps" to further address the issue if, upon reviewing the next report of the Secretary-General, it deems that insufficient progress is made.

1539 (2004)

Moved by the flagrant violation of children's rights, the UNSC resolved that concrete gestures must accompany well-meaning words.

1612 (2005)

The UNSC decided on setting up a comprehensive monitoring mechanism that will report on specific violations by governments and insurgents. These violations include killing and maiming of children, the recruitment and use of child soldiers, attacks against schools or hospitals; abduction of children; and the denial of humanitarian access for children.

Significance of Resolution 1612

Pertinent and prominent here is Resolution 1612, which launched the much touted 'era of application', and is being viewed as a leit motif for success of the children and armed conflict agenda. It is at once a testament to the Security Council's resolve to transcend mere naming and shaming. Today it seeks to initiate more specific action by operationalising an effective monitoring and reporting mechanism.

Another related document is the Secretary General's Report (S/2005/72) of February 9, 2005, which provides information on compliance and progress in ending the recruitment and use of children and other violations being committed against children between November 10, 2003 and December 2004. In view of the widespread and unacceptable patterns of violations recorded in this report, the Secretary General has recommended that the Security Council take targeted and concrete measures where insufficient or no progress has been made by parties named in the lists annexed to previous reports in accordance with its resolutions going back to 2001. Such measures should include imposition of travel restrictions on leaders and their exclusion from any governance structures and amnesty provisions, the imposition of arms embargoes, a ban on military assistance and restrictions on the flow of financial resources to the parties concerned.

Design of the Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism

Under Resolution 1612, a clearly designated system for reporting on grave violations against children from the field level through the Secretary General's Office has been set up in order to address the situations of children in conflict-affected areas more diligently. The Security Council has also called for specific action plans to stop the recruitment and use of children as soldiers, giving parties a framework to ensure compliance. The Security Council Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict and its bi-monthly meeting schedule ensures that the Council remains seized of the issue of children and peace and security throughout the year.

According to the Office of the Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict (OSRSC/CAAC), the various constituents of the Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism are as follows. The monitoring and reporting task force is comprised of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (UNDPKO), UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), UN Development Programme (UNDP), and key non-governmental organizations. Several task forces are to employ UN country teams and peacekeeping operations, as well as international child protection NGOs, local NGOs, civil society actors, and local government authorities and institutions to document all incidence of the killing or maiming of children, recruiting or using child soldiers, attacks against schools or hospitals, rape or other sexual violence against children, abduction of children, and denial of humanitarian access to children.

The task forces are expected to report their findings to a working group, also created by Resolution 1612 and representing all 15 members of the Security Council. The working groups will be able to recommend punitive measures against groups exhibiting little or no progress in reducing their abuses of children during armed conflict. It is envisaged that recommendations are to be made to the Security Council and the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), national governments, regional organizations, the Commission on Human Rights and the International Criminal Court, as well as other relevant bodies.

Critics, however, allude to the fact that the monitoring and reporting system is perhaps another palliative or band-aid meant to side-step direct action by the UN against offending parties. Sanctions have been recommended in previous UNSC resolutions (1379, 1460, 1539), though no concrete punitive action against any group for their use of child soldiers has yet been taken.

Another abiding problem pertains to the resource crunch that undermines these ventures. Reportedly, no additional resources have been allocated for the implementation of Resolution 1612 in 2005. Besides, the entire programme is overtly dependent on the UNSC taking action based on the information it receives from the task forces.

At the open debate in New York, the present UN Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict (SRCAC) Radhika Coomaraswamy related several achievements in the arena of children and armed conflict during the past year. The Security Council Working Group met on four occasions and has set its programme of work for the year. The United Nations system including UNICEF, UNDPKO and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and its partners have worked diligently, abiding to a tight deadline in bringing this mechanism to fruition in pilot countries. The first report, on the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), was submitted to the Security Council Working Group in June 2006. The NGO community has also been an active adjunct to the process, supporting the monitoring and reporting agenda, and together with civil society actors co-ordinating efforts for strengthening their interface on monitoring and reporting.

Institutional and local support for Resolution 1612 and the monitoring and reporting exercise in particular has been strong. The situation on the ground has also witnessed marked improvement for children in Sierra Leone, DRC, and Liberia. Yet, these are small gains considering the scope and intensity of the problem. An oft-repeated estimate suggests that some 250,000 children continue to be exploited as child soldiers by armed forces and groups around the world. According to the latest estimate by the OSRCAC, since 2003 over 14 million children have been forcibly displaced within and outside their home countries and between 8,000 and 10,000 children are killed or maimed each year by landmines.

Coercive recruitment is also on the rise. The problem of re-recruitment is particularly acute in case of countries in Central and West Africa where regional spread of conflicts ensures that children demobilized from the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone are re-recruited and trafficked to neighbouring Liberia to fight in the ranks of Liberians United For Reconciliation And Democracy (LURD). Stigmatisation and poverty in their home communities prompts demobilized child soldiers to fight as voluntary mercenaries in regional conflicts. This recycling of children into conflicts that shift across borders poses a tremendous challenge to successful healing and reintegration of former child soldiers.

Thus, the challenges confronting successful functioning of the monitoring and reporting mechanism are significant. While it is being touted as the leit motif of an era of application, its success has an intrinsic linkage with the successful disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) planning and programming for child combatants in war-to-peace transitions and post-conflict peace building. The story so far as child soldier DDR is concerned has been one of dismal outcomes. The paradox which underlies this practice and one the UN needs to address more cogently is that unless reintegration of ex-combatants succeeds the entire rationale for DDR programming is undermined and the cycle of violence along with human rights violations continues unabated.

In sum, the ongoing first phase of implementation of Resolution 1612 has been rather limited in scope. The SRCAC suggests that the present aim is to broaden the geographical scope of the monitoring and reporting mechanism to all situations where grave violations are perpetrated against children in armed conflict. Thus, at the end of a decade, as one traces the genesis and growth of the UN's engagement with the Children and Armed Conflict Agenda, the verdict stands ambiguous at best. While impressive normative structures have been put in place, and advocacy activism has mainstreamed the discourse from benign neglect to prominence, the key to substantive progress and concrete results lie quintessentially in effective implementation and follow-up.