War turns children’s lives upside down. A sudden rise in instability can interrupt education, tear families and communities apart, and force children to witness horrific acts of violence. When conflict escalates, girls and boys are especially vulnerable: they can be forced to take active roles within conflicts as porters, spies, guards, human shields, suicide bombers, active combatants, and sex slaves. Grave abuses against children have occurred in conflicts as diverse as Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, South Sudan, Iraq, Yemen and Myanmar.
Today, on the International Day against the Use of Child Soldiers, the international community recalls the unique ways conflict affects children, and reaffirms its commitments to serve children’s well-being. International codification of responses to child recruitment and/or children’s involvement in serious crimes—such as the Paris Principles, the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the more recent Vancouver Principles—have helped governments, humanitarian organizations and the United Nations underscore the need for specialized approaches; for example, calling for the inclusion of child protection expertise in peacekeeping operations, identifying warning signs and take early action to end recruitment, and promote the reporting of abuses and grave violations against children in armed conflict.
Exposing patterns of crimes involving children can help to hold perpetrators accountable and ensure survivors’ access to justice. Like all serious conflict-related crimes, however, the process of documenting and investigating presents unique challenges. Investigators may have to work in conflict or post-conflict settings, including camps for displaced persons or refugees, where it remains difficult to access victims and survivors. There is often little time to conduct interviews, unpredictable changes in security, and a frequent lack of referral pathways for children and their families to access medical, psychosocial or witness protection services. All of these factors can prevent investigators from taking the necessary measures to ensure a “do no harm” approach towards children is taken.
Investigators must also know how to handle inevitable questions that arise when children are victims, and/or witnesses to conflict-related crimes: What kind of rights do children have in the justice process? To which extent can children be interviewed? Can they be considered a reliable source of information? How should investigations be conducted in order to avoid further trauma or other harm to the child? Many domestic justice systems have successfully addressed these questions; yet on the international level, less progress has been made. As a result, international teams sometimes lack adequate knowledge and resources to conduct safe, comprehensive investigations.
Fortunately, there is increasing recognition that for investigations of international crimes involving children, specialized expertise is needed to improve the professionalism, quality, and safety of such investigations. In response to the need for the international community to easily access the services of trained professionals in this area, JRR has specifically developed child-related expertise on its global stand-by roster. As part of the JRR roster recruitment process, in December 2017, JRR and the Institute for International Criminal Investigations (IICI) held an advanced course on investigating crimes and violations involving children. The goal of the course was to examine the current state of investigations involving children in an international context, and address key questions relating to best practices and duty of care to be exercised in these investigations.
The course gathered experienced professionals both at domestic and at international level who have worked with children during their career: they included criminal investigators, human rights monitors, child protection officers, and child rights experts. Experts who successfully completed the course have now been certified to the JRR Expert Roster, and are eligible to deploy to support accountability efforts at the national and international level.
One participant in the JRR course was a Liberian child protection expert* who has worked in protection programming and peacekeeping operations for nearly two decades. In South Sudan, for example, he served as the focal point for the implementation of the UN-Sudan People Liberation Army (SPLA) Action Plan for releasing of all children associated with the armed forces and group from 2009 to 2015. He helped the SPLA Child Protection Unit and National Disarmament Demobilization and Reintegration Commission (DDR) carry out screening, interview, documentation and demobilization of children associated with the armed groups. After times of war, he explained, cultural knowledge of the society in question is a critical component of an expert’s successful engagement with children. In some African contexts, he saw how child protection experts such as himself must skillfully confront persistent myths about how to address reintegration of child combatants.
“Some indigenous people believed that children who are or were associated with armed groups must perform certain rituals for cleansing during the reintegration process,” he said.
Another participant in the JRR recruitment course was a child rights expert from Switzerland**, who has seen up close the transformative potential of offering justice to children. She explained that especially for older children, when investigations and interviews are done correctly, the possibility for justice can help those children recover from trauma they experienced. Yet in many contexts, opportunities are lost, because actors on the ground fear any engagement with children would only lead to further harm.
“There is fear of traumatization,” she said. “Also fear of being criticized for not taking the most appropriate measures, or fear of being accused of having contributed to harming the child.”
On this International Day against the Use of Child Soldiers, JRR calls upon all governments, civil society groups or others dealing with serious crimes involving children to always ensure individuals and investigatory bodies utilize dedicated expertise for this work. Such capacity is most efficiently attained through the utilization of specialized experts. Individuals on the JRR Expert Roster—including investigators, sexual violence experts, and witness and/or child protection experts—continue to be available for rapid deployment when and where they’re needed the most. Through the provision of this type of expertise, JRR works towards its vision: for conflict-related crimes involving children to be properly investigated and documented by qualified professionals who can always prioritize the well-being of children.
*Name withheld for security reasons
**Name withheld for security reasons
PHOTO: Zam Zam camp for Internally Displaced People (IDP), North Darfur, 2014 (Albert Gonzalez Farran, UNAMID)