Event Summary: Child Soldiers: Prevention and Protection

The African Affairs Committee of the New York City Bar Association sponsored the program “Child Soldiers: Prevention and Protection” on April 8, 2015. A panel consisting of three experts provided an analysis of the multi-dimensional problem of recruiting and using children in military conflicts. The panelists were:

  • Jo Becker is the advocacy director of the children’s rights division at Human Rights Watch. As the founding chairperson of the international Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, Ms. Becker helped campaign successfully for an international treaty banning the forced recruitment of children under age 18 or their use in armed conflict. Ms. Becker has addressed the United Nations Security Council, testified before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, conducted trainings for U.S. and African military officers and testified as an expert in a Dutch war crimes trial. She is the author of Campaigning for Justice: Human Rights Advocacy in Practice (2012, Stanford University Press). Ms. Becker teaches human rights advocacy at Columbia University.
  • Daniel R. Mahanty developed and leads the Office of Security and Human Rights at the U.S. Department of State in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Mr. Mahanty has international experience in a variety of national security and human rights positions at the State Department to promote the alignment of US security and human rights policies and practices globally. He is a Colin L. Powell Fellow, a term member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a member of the Truman National Security Project and is on the board of directors for the non-governmental organization Women LEAD. Mr. Mahanty has published in The National Interest and co-teaches the graduate course “Human Rights and National Security” with his wife at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University.
  • Jan Brouwer, formerly with UNICEF, speaking for himself and not the U.N. agency, shared his own experiences working for the past ten years in humanitarian and peacekeeping operations as a child protection specialist in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Darfur and in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, the largest such camp in the world with approximately 600,000 residents. Mr. Brouwer attended the London School of Economics and is currently completing a graduate degree in social work at Columbia University with the aim of better supporting partners and communities with prevention and response interventions for children associated with armed forces and armed groups.

child soldiers prevention and protection event1

Child Soldiers Prevention Act Of 2008

Jo Becker introduced the topic by recounting the evolution of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which by a 2002 protocol established age 18 as the threshold below which a child could not be deployed in military hostilities. After changing its own policies to enable it to ratify the Convention protocol, the U.S. eventually adopted the Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008 (the “Act”). The Act, sponsored by Senators Sam Brownback and Dick Durbin, is intended to deny U.S. military support to nations that utilize children in their military operations.  The Act requires the U.S. Secretary of State to publish in the Department’s annual “Trafficking in Persons” report a list of governments that recruit and use child soldiers or support armed groups that do so. Ms. Becker noted that to the embarrassment of the U.S., when the first list of eleven governmental offenders appeared, nine of them were receiving U.S. military support. Since then, the withholding of funds, even the partial withholding, has produced some successes, notably, Chad and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which in 2012 signed U.N. action plans for ending the recruitment of child soldiers.

Panelists noted that the most controversial feature of the Act has proved to be the authority it grants to the President to waive the denial of such assistance. Daniel Mahanty explained that although criticized by some non-governmental organizations, the waiver process no longer dominates discussion of the Act, and the waiver controversy has likely generated welcome attention to the overall problem of child soldiers. In deliberating the issuance of waivers, the U.S. has become more nuanced than it initially was, and discussions do hone in on the “rhyme and reason” for each proposed waiver, Mr. Mahanty noted. His office has also been successful in exacting “soft” commitments by the U.S. military to address the situation with our allies. Partial waivers, permitted under the Act, also give the U.S. leverage to obtain practical strategic results in reintegrating former child soldiers back into society.

Mr. Mahanty reminded the audience that the Congressional process by which the U.S. grants military assistance to other countries can take up to three years from request to grant. In that time, a country can evidence social progress in this regard or show itself to be a repeat offender, either or which can affect the granting or not granting of a waiver. The waiver process, therefore, affords the U.S. leverage and flexibility.

child soldiers prevention and protection event2

Enforcement of International Standards Against The Use Of Child Soldiers

Turning to the issue of enforcement of international standards on child soldiers, the panel acknowledged that age falsification was problematic. Few reliable birth records are available in areas notorious for using child soldiers, so, as discussed by Mr. Brouwer, it is necessary to consult with community elders or to rely on a medical approach and even one’s own observation and judgment.

Another complicating factor is that often it is non-state actors who employ child soldiers. Such actors are not signatories to any of the international conventions, so even though nation states may address the child soldier issue in the context of peace agreements, the non-state actors often remain outside the process. Moreover, there are very real problems of engaging non-state actors. Mr. Brouwer said these actors frequently operate in inaccessible, dangerous areas, and, as Ms. Becker added, contact with non-state actors may be discouraged by national authorities. Additionally, even at the end of armed conflicts, social pressures can favor the status quo where both state and non-state actors are wary of the peace process and resistant to prompt disengagement. Members of the stricken communities may continue to be so committed to an ideological cause, jihad, for example, that they endorse or are indifferent to ending child soldiers’ participation in it.

child soldiers prevention and protection event3

Disarmament, Demobilization And Reintegration (DDR) Efforts

Even where there is a commitment to ending child soldiers, disarmament, demobilization and reintegration is a complicated process. Echoing Ms. Becker’s observation that effective DDR must begin with the root causes of children’s involvement in hostilities, Mr. Brouwer explained that some children may have been abducted into military service and others may have voluntarily joined for political or economic reasons. Additionally, the child’s gender raises special issues, with girls who are former soldiers requiring particular protection and counseling. Mr. Brouwer described his experiences with prevention efforts that involve community leaders: raising their awareness of the problem, advising them on ways to minimize the risks to their children, listening to their proposed solutions and informing them of their rights and how they might connect with available resources.

Reintegration of former child soldiers back into the community is as complex and time-consuming a process as prevention. As Mr. Brouwer noted, there is no established model for reintegration. He cited an example of a residential rehabilitation center in Pakistan, established to reintegrate child soldiers of the Taliban, where the residents have been there for a year or more. The program emphasized education, including religious education, vocational training to provide economic alternatives and recreation. Even with such a concerted effort, the successes of this model are unclear, as is the effectiveness of its application to other environments and cultures.

In response to a question from the audience, the panel also discussed the concomitant problem of a child soldier “aging out” of rehabilitation programs. Mr. Mahanty said that as children age out of the protected 18-year old age group, they cease to be captured in available statistics. Nevertheless, the total number of reported child soldiers is still quite large. This means that the statistics do not tell the whole story, with little attention being paid to this broader problem.

The panel also considered occasions where a child soldier is viewed as both “victim” and “perpetrator,” citing Dominic Ongwen, who was a member of the leadership of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) operating in northern Uganda and neighboring countries. Ongwen was a child soldier. By most accounts he was kidnapped by the LRA on his walk to school when he was 10 years old. Yet during his time with the LRA he rose through the ranks to become a brigadier commander, the highest rank below LRA leader Joseph Kony himself, and he is accused of being one of the organizers behind a massacre of civilians in the displaced persons camp in northern Uganda in 2004. Based on his history, is a defense of his having been a child soldier plausible?