Prosecuting Child Soldiers For Their Own Safety

Redefining Justice for Child Soldiers
By Stephen Leahy

BROOKLIN, Canada, Oct 25 (IPS) – Should child soldiers be held accountable for war crimes? If they aren’t, legal experts argue in a new policy brief, they may be more likely to chosen by warlords to perform the worst atrocities.

Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga Dyilo is currently being prosecuted by the Hague-based International Criminal Court for orchestrating ethnic massacres, torture and rapes in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). He is also the first person ever to be prosecuted for recruiting or using children under age 15 in such atrocities.

While there is no doubt that child recruitment is a grave crime, child soldiers also commit serious crimes.

“Child soldiers are both victims and perpetrators,” said Vesselin Popovski, director of Studies on International Order and Justice at the Tokyo-based United Nations University (UNU) Peace and Governance Programme.

“Victims and their families want justice to be done even if the crimes were committed by child soldiers,” said Popovski, who is co-author of a UNU policy brief titled “International Criminal Accountability and Children’s Rights” published Wednesday.

Paradoxically, not prosecuting child perpetrators could indirectly expose child soldiers to greater risks, since military commanders might delegate the “dirtiest” orders to children because of their immunity from prosecution, he said.

Some 300,000 combatants under age 18 — some as young as six and 40 percent of them girls — are illegal recruits in more than 30 conflicts around the world, Popovski and co-author Karen Arts say in the brief, which is based on a forthcoming book that examines how a child rights approach has been gradually introduced into the operation of international tribunals.

Child soldiers are made to commit serious crimes alongside adults in such strife-torn places as Darfur, Sudan, the DRC, Sierra Leone, the Philippines, Nepal and Colombia. But there are cases of child soldiers clearly in control of their actions, “who were not coerced, drugged or forced into committing atrocities. Some have become child soldiers voluntarily and committed atrocities of their own discretion,” the brief says.

“Children often volunteer because their family members have been gunned down by paramilitaries or other groups,” said Marco Puzon of UNICEF East Asia about the armed conflict in the Philippines.

In some regions, children are detained and tortured by government forces, which drives recruitment, Puzon told IPS last June.

“Each circumstance involving children is different, requiring different approaches,” he said.

There are situations where it could be in the interest of children to be held accountable — but international courts are not the place, Popovski said.

Domestic courts are better suited to holding children accountable in ways that serve justice and the child’s interests in the short and long terms. This does not necessarily involve criminal responsibility. Specialised participation in post-conflict truth and reconciliation tribunals and peace-building exercises are ways in which children can be held responsible for their actions and reintegrated into their communities, he said.

Disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programmes in Sierra Leone, Mozambique and Uganda offer good examples of this. However, such efforts almost exclusively focus on boy soldiers.

Girls represent up to 40 percent of the estimated 300,000 children associated with armed groups and, though they remain largely invisible, many are engaged in direct combat. Girls suffer double discrimination as participants in violence and as “rebel wives” and are often rejected by their communities, says Popovski.

Less than two percent of the children participating in the DRC rehabilitation programmes were girls, note the authors of the UNU brief.

And a large majority of them suffer severe sexual violence.

“The trauma and stigma attached to such violence often makes it very difficult for them to open up with their experiences once the conflict has calmed down. Girls returning home are often marginalised and excluded from their communities. They are viewed as violent, unruly and promiscuous,” they write.

Most girls are forcibly abducted and given roles as cooks, porters, spies, “wives” and in combat, says Susan McKay of the University of Wyoming, who has interviewed girl soldiers throughout central Africa.

“The first person they have to kill is someone in their own family — or be killed themselves,” McKay told IPS last June.

Governments, civil society and health groups have largely ignored girl soldiers. Often the mothers of “rebel babies”, they are rejected by communities and forced into prostitution and begging to feed themselves and their children, she said.

Save the Children and World Vision have started programmes to help girl soldiers relearn their roles as women in communities, for example, no smoking or bad language as well as skills training.

“Women need better involvement in the peace-making process, but are rarely included in the official process,” said McKay.

Children are often crucial witnesses, especially in cases relating to the recruitment of child soldiers, abduction and other crimes that explicitly target children. However, such exposure may exacerbate trauma and “child-specific measures of protection must be woven into the law and practice of the tribunals”, Popovski said.

The authors note that courts are developing special measures and elaborating policies for working with child victims and witnesses. Integrating the principles of the child-rights based approach — meaning the best interests of the child, participation and nondiscrimination — represents a “formidable challenge”, however.

In addition to their recruitment as soldiers, UNICEF research reveals a range of devastating impacts on children of armed conflicts in the last decade: more than two million killed; more than six million permanently disabled or seriously injured; an estimated 20 million children forced to flee their homes; and more than one million orphaned or separated from their families.

The children suffer directly as victims of atrocities and indirectly “as their childhood, education, family life and expectations are ruined”, the authors say.

The authors note that the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia gave stiffer sentences to defendants based mostly on the fact that many children were among their victims, a precedent that “must be further followed and strengthened”.

Related IPS Stories :

RIGHTS: Despite U.N. Force, Child Soldiers Multiply in Congo (


Blood diamond problem has largely been solved but now there may be “Blood Coltan” in your electronic devices…read here World’s “Grotesque Indifference” to Congo “Rape Mines”

More information see:

Coalition to stop the use of Child Soldiers

Human Rights Watch – Child Soldiers

4 thoughts on “Prosecuting Child Soldiers For Their Own Safety

  1. I believe you are correct. Child soldiers should be punished for what they have done. Even if they are just children or were forced to do the crime, every person in this world is in charge of themselves and they did a crime. If they were not a child they would be punished and that is saying that if you believe in something or you are a certain race that you don’t have to be punished.

    • I must disagree, Roby, if every person is in charge of themselves the legal system just doesn’t work. For example, you are in a kidnapping situation and to escape, you hit your kidnapper and kill him, with what you’re saying, the victim would be held accountable for that murder and go to jail. You may say that the circumstances are different but are they really? Think about it, these children are brainwashed into doing what they do and if they don’t fight in the wars and kill “enemies” they get silenced. If a victim doesn’t fight against the kidnapper then they could get raped or killed. And you’re right about what you’re saying that if it wasn’t a child they wouldn’t be granted amnesty. However, there is a HUGE difference between adults and children when it comes to susceptibility and mental strength. Children don’t know everything there is to know about right and wrong and when it is pounded into their heads a perverted version of this, what else are they to believe? What else CAN they believe? If they think anything else, it has long since been stamped down as false.

  2. Very thoughtful comment from Aryan Nandagopal:

    Children that go and fight in wars for their country should not be prosecuted no matter how many people they kill during war. It is estimated that over 300,000 children are fighting in war around the world (Cornwell, Rupert). These children need to protect themselves on the battlefield and killing your enemies is essential to staying alive. Some children do volunteer to join the army, but many are forced to this lifestyle against their or their parents’ decision. The fact that these innocent children are going to jail for protecting themselves from danger is unimaginable.(debatewise)

    People are entitled to argue, that many children volunteer to join the army just so they can kill people, nevertheless, there are also numerous children that are forced to fight. Adults in the army volunteer to enter the army, but they aren’t prosecuted. There are many reasons to why many children would like to stay back in the army. Children that work for the army suffer in extreme poverty and don’t have consistent access to food or to shelter, and fighting as a soldier will provide free shelter and food. Some children want to fight for their country or territory and protect people. These children do not necessarily stay in the army to continue killing people. (debatewise)

    Many children are being forced to be a soldier, although some children volunteer, many children are also being forced to leave their family and put themselves in a position of harm. Some children don’t fight, children are also used as cooks, human shields, messengers, spies or even for sexual purposes.(DoSomething) Not all children fight in the battlefield. There is no way of proving whether the intentions of the children was to kill for fun. Critics may argue that some children want to stay in the army to kill, nevertheless the army needs to children to fight for them so they have enough helpers and soldiers. The army benefits if a child volunteers to stay back. (debatewise)

    Adult soldiers almost never get prosecuted so why should children get prosecuted. Child soldiers put their life on the line every day and they need to protect themselves from firearms with the help of firearms. People may argue that child soldiers are the same as child criminals, there have been many child soldiers related incidents that have got out of hand. However, there is no proof that the children weren’t forced to do these things by the adult soldiers, so it is harsh to blame these children for doing all these things.
    Children should not be immunized from prosecution from what they do out of war, but whatever actions are taken at war should not be prosecuted.(debatewise)

    Children should not have to serve time in jail for what they do on the battlefield. They should not receive immunization from prosecution, but anything that is done at war should not be taken as a crime. Many children are forced to put their lives on the line with no say, and the children need to kill in order to stay alive.

    Aryan Nandagopal

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