Justice Rapid Response sat down via Skype with two child rights investigators from its roster to find out about the challenges of their work and trends in their field, with a focus on the interviewing of children. What stood out is the view that dedicated child rights investigations are still largely lacking from international justice. While this gap needs to be closed through high-level decisions and mandates, at the field level specialized expertise – particularly for interviewing – can support this shift.
To maintain the confidentiality of their missions, we will not be using the real names of our interviewees. Both have been deployed by Justice Rapid Response on child rights investigations in the region of the Middle East and North Africa. Michael is currently deployed to an international investigative mechanism and Jane was previously deployed to investigate child rights in the context of a human rights monitoring effort. Throughout his career, Michael has worked in child rights, as well as child protection in humanitarian or peacekeeping contexts, while Jane was previously a police investigator who then specialized in child rights internationally.
Interviewing children is a crucial component of effective investigation of crimes against children. The testimony and evidence generated from such interviews have the potential to change the entire nature of the justice process, while also ensuring that children have a voice in it, say the experts. Jane and Michael’s experiences inform not only about the sensitivities of interviewing children, but also about the misconceptions surrounding this practice, used amid a wide range of other evidence and sources in child right investigations.
Credibility and protection
Both investigators told Justice Rapid Response that children are often considered as an afterthought and are not central to investigations. And even when children are involved in investigations, and it is possible to interview them with protection measures in place, adults often falsely assume that they will not convey events accurately. “Children are capable of giving credible and reliable information,” said Jane. “They also have rights – they have the right to be heard, the right to participate. It’s about balancing those needs and rights with the harm that can be caused.”
Michael agrees that children have traditionally been left out of investigations, thereby overshadowing the capacities and resilience of children to voice their experiences. Evidence has instead been collected through interviews with their parents, or other primary or secondary sources.
Gaps in investigations and training
As part of his role, Michael advises on how to integrate child-sensitive approaches in investigation strategies to ensure crimes against children are investigated and reported. This includes the design of investigative tools and questionnaires to incorporate questions or angles that are thought of from this approach. Links to child rights in a case can easily be missed, he says, citing the example of land confiscation.
“By asking certain questions systematically, there could be sufficient information on links that could bring child rights violations to the forefront of an investigation,” said Michael. “Without this approach, there have been huge gaps in how we look at conflicts.”
One such gap concerns investigating the use of children as soldiers. Both Jane and Michael say that the crime of forcibly enlisting and using children as soldiers has in some cases been overlooked due to the lack of such investigative techniques.
A lack of child rights vision
While there has been leadership and vision about the needs of children in the humanitarian sector, this has not been replicated by the human rights sector, according to Michael.
He believes that this direction must come from the very top of accountability mechanisms – through United Nations resolutions and mandates that would in turn influence investigative strategies, resources and methodologies, as well as the coordination of actors, protection and services delivery to child survivors and victims.
“If you don’t take the opportunity to make such decisions at the highest levels, then you are missing at least half of the opportunities to incorporate the child rights lens, and this in turn influences how you will investigate.”
Preparing and building trust
At the field level, interviewing children involves more advance planning and time than interviewing adults. This is due to the use of child-specific methodologies, complex consent and confidentiality provisions, as well as the time it takes to build a rapport with a child.
“With adults, building trust is an important part of any interview, but with children you need to put in even more time,” said Jane, who uses drawing to put children at ease before interviews.
An interview may only last an hour, but several hours should have been spent in advance of that building trust both with the child and their caregiver, she said, adding that it is crucial to have the appropriate professionals conducting this highly sensitive work.
“It’s difficult to find specialized training for child rights investigators,” said Jane. “There is definitely a gap and the international community needs to put more emphasis on the availability and accessibility of training.”
For child rights investigators, getting access to the children in question is frequently an obstacle. They are either not allowed to go to the location where the children are, or they can only stay briefly – thereby further limiting any efforts at building a rapport.
This is exacerbated in the instance of remote interviewing, which was used before the COVID-19 pandemic, but only when no other method was possible. This method is “far from ideal” says Michael, because, among other things, it severely limits trust-building, subsequently resulting in less detailed testimony, and making it difficult to measure the well-being of the child. Remote interviewing often means speaking through a local intermediary, who in turn speaks through a translator.
Jane strongly discourages the use of remote interviewing for children. In addition to trust-building, she says it makes it difficult to get to know the environment around the child, to find out who might be listening in on conversations, as well as to ensure psycho-social support for the children.
Giving children a voice
By investing time in the children she interviewed, and by being honest with them about what to expect, Jane found that the process inevitably left the interviewees with more hope about the future.
“I believe strongly in children having a voice on events that have a direct impact on their lives,” said Jane. “Giving them a voice also gives them a sense of hope and courage, and I don’t believe it’s a false sense of hope.”
Michael agrees that if child rights investigation is done conscientiously, diligently and consistently, it can bring new prosecution angles and strategies that strengthen the profile of children as sources, in turn leading to more participation.
“The children themselves want to participate in the accountability processes,” said Michael. “You cannot carry out an effective transitional justice process without children. Meaningful participation of boys and girls is a must to advance accountability for serious crimes against children.”
Justice Rapid Response has been spearheading efforts to integrate child rights expertise in human rights and criminal investigations. In 2020, deployments of child rights experts to human rights investigations have been made possible thanks to the support of Belgium, Canada, Finland and Ireland.