United States Institute of Peace

17, September 2008

It is a great pleasure for me to be here today and I thank the US Institute for Peace for taking the effort to organize this discussion. I see some new faces and old friends and I hope we will engage in a thoughtful dialogue that will move the agenda forward. I am also happy to be in Washington days after the Senate passed the Child Soldiers Accountability Act.  The Act criminializes the recruitment and use of child soldiers, and gives the United States the authority to deny admission or to deport individuals for such activities.

I notice the first panel is dedicated to understanding the use and abuse of child soldiers in the world today. Many member states, particularly from the developing countries, want us to focus attention on the root causes of this practice, why does it happen and what can we do to prevent it. In my experience in conflict zones where there are child soldiers I have gained some insights into why this practice takes place. In many regions, particularly in the civil wars of Sierra Leone, Uganda and Liberia, children were often just abducted from their families and turned into fighters. The movie Blood Diamond and the recent powerful movie Johnnie Mad Dog capture this terrible pattern of abduction, brutalization and use. Children are not only beaten into submission, they are administered drugs, and generally terrorized into becoming soldiers.

In other contexts, the phenomenon of child soldiers is more complex where children join for motivational reasons linked to their political context, either for ethnic or political loyalty where their community is under threat. These are different challenges for the child protection worker and for the rehabilitation of the child soldier who sees himself as a warrior and hero in the style of the adults and where being a soldier is central to their identity.

Child soldiering occurs for a variety of reasons and there is a great deal of debate on this matter. There are of course the structural factors which create a framework for abuse and exploitation. Poverty is a major reason and children or families are drawn to armed groups so that the children will be given a meal and shelter. This is particularly true of countries with large number of vulnerable children and families. Discrimination is another reason, where children who are from ethnic, tribal and class groups that are discriminated against and humiliated often join what they see as movements of liberation. War creates a situation of mililitarisation and as the conflict persists everyone tends to become part of the militarized process, involved with one armed group or the other. The proliferation of small arms may also contribute to child soldiering.  It takes a child an average of 45 minutes to master an AK47 and they are all now freely available in the theatres of war.

Then there are the motivational factors that drive child soldiering. The motivation of leaders who know that children make great soldiers is probably the single most important factor. With underdeveloped notions of death children are fearless in combat, seeing everything as a game. Leaders deliberately and purposefully exploit the children with a cynical disregard for their welfare.  This cruelty is the reason why most of us are campaigning against the impunity that may attach to their actions. On the part of children, motivational factors that move them to join armed groups may be ethnic, class or tribal loyalty or the desire for vengeance, especially when they have seen family members killed and raped before their eyes. In war, the armed young soldier also becomes a role model, something to aspire to, someone who commands respect because he carries a gun. This model of masculinity is then the one to emulate and generations of young men also begin to accept that masculinity must come with violence.

A recent ILO-IPEC study on Congo, DRC and Rwanda found that 34% joined armed groups for material need, 21% for ideology, 15% out of fascination and 10% because of vengeance.  Around 11% left because they wanted to leave home.   Only 9% joined out of “fear”.

It is also interesting to discuss how we define child soldiers and what groups of children are covered by this description. Recently our Office filed an amicus curaie before the International Criminal Court, asking the Court to adopt a case by case approach and rely on a functional test so that the full gamut of children’s experience of being associated with armed groups is taken into account. This is true particularly of girl children who play multiple roles as combatant, as wives, sex slaves or domestic aides. They are often left out of DDR programmes because they are not seen as child soldiers when their association with the armed group is usually quite extensive.

One cannot underestimate the importance of the International Criminal Court, the Special Tribunal of Sierra Leone and the Security Council Resolution 1612 in fighting against impunity for those who recruit and use child soldiers. Security Council Resolution 1612 is the Security Council’s only proactive engagement with a thematic human rights issue. It sets up a Security Council Working Group and a Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism in countries of concern- a UN system wide effort with the help of its partners.

The importance of these initiatives struck a chord in me during recent trips to the field. In the Central African Republic I met with Commandant Laurent of the APRD. Initially he did not know that he was on the list of annexes, called “the list of shame”, of the latest Secretary-General’s Report and was quite belligerent. But when I explained to him the possible consequences of the resolution, including targeted measures, he changed his mind and agreed to hand over the children according to an agreed process. UNICEF informed me two weeks ago that he has so far identified 250 children and is ready to start releasing them. The same is true about the International Criminal Court. When I met non signatories to the Darfur agreement, the first question on their mind was the International Criminal Court and the implications for them. Deterrence and enforced compliance are very important tools in this struggle against this practice of child soldiers.

There are scholars who argue that this punitive, legislative approach is misplaced and that child soldiering is an age old practice and that we should try and deal with it through persuasion and cultural dialogue. Though constructive engagement is important, this is true about all human rights abuses- they have all been practiced in the past and received a measure of tolerance. The point of international conventions and treaties is to say “enough is enough”- children will not be abused and exploited in this manner.  Accountability then becomes a means for enforcing these standards.

In addition, we must not forget the victims in this process. In CAR I met three generations of women in one family who had been raped by Mr. Bemba’s forces when they overran Bangui. The youngest was just 10 years old when she was attacked. When I met them they were in a jubilant mood, ready to go to the Hague to testify before the ICC, to vindicate themselves and to fight for justice. One need only to meet these victims to know that international justice is the right way to go and that it sends a very strong signal that certain practices will not be tolerated.

Legislation at the national level is also a crucial component for accountability. The recent initiatives of the Child Soldiers’ Prevention and Accountability Acts now going through Congress is a welcome effort and gives impetus to worldwide attempts to eradicate the practice of child soldiers.  Some countries, such as the DRC, have also adopted national legislation to deal with the issue.

Beyond the tools of punishment, there are other methods of constructive engagement which will allow us to reach the children before any judicial process. The Security Council endorsed the use of action plans for the release of children in its resolution 1339 (2004). UN agencies are entrusted with the task of entering into action plans with parties recruiting and using child soldiers. These timebound plans spell out concrete modalities for the release of children, including procedures for verification. In Cote D’Ivoire the threat of resolution 1612 resulted in all five parties to the conflict entering into action plans with the UN and releasing children. All parties in Cote D’Ivoire are now delisted from the annexes of the Secretary General’s report as a result of this. Of course these are the success stories, there are many parts of the world where the recruitment and use of child soldiers continue with impunity and we have only touched the top of the iceberg- but at least today we have some tools with which to be more effective, if we just make the effort.

To truly succeed with action plans, however, we must be given the freedom to talk to parties recruiting the children and this requires that states give us access to these parties. Many governments are short sighted and forfeit the future of the children, arguing that any meeting between the parties and the UN would give legitimacy to the non state actor.  As a result, they prevent the UN from moving forward.

Rescuing children is a laudable goal but that is only the beginning- the real struggle is the successful reintegration of these children back into the communities. Our field offices report that this is not as successful as we would like. Experience of the past decade point to certain principles that are essential in the reintegration of children. These are codified in the form of the Paris Principles, adopted in 2007. Any attempt at reintegration must involve inclusive community based programming, recognizing that programmes must be directed toward all children in the community. This is more effective because it prevents stigmatization of former child soldiers and helps community workers develop the community with the child. Unless this is done, unless we work with the community and the parents, children find it very difficult to reintegrate successfully. Most research studies show that the clue to a child’s successful reintegration is family and community acceptance.

Of course in this process it is important not to romanticize the community. In certain contexts communities may be oppressive toward former child soldiers especially the girls and they may not want to go back. Any programming must also have a segment for children who fall between the cracks, urban children and children who do not want to go back to their families, either because they were originally victims of abuse or because they would find life too stifling because of community attitude toward child soldiers. Children’s choices and desires should be an important part of devising reintegration programmes and this must include the needs of individual children.

In the process of reintegration, the special needs of girl children must be acknowledged. They should not be marginalized and special care must be taken to ensure that we are sensitive to issues of gender based violence and the problem of girl mothers. It is crucial to work with the community to ensure that there is no discrimination against girls so that many of these girl soldiers, some who may have acquired leadership skills, often displaying a measure of confidence, are not doubly victimized. Some scholars have argued that in certain contexts, girl soldiers have an ambiguous experience, a certain agency coupled with an assortment of new skills that may actually challenge widely held notions of what it means to be feminine and integrated into society.

In fact it is a consensus among most practitioners that any programme to reintegrate children must build on their strengths and accept their agency and resilience. I have met many child soldiers who have shown extraordinary strength and courage, including Ishmael Beah, the author of the powerful work on his life as a child soldier and not to mention Emmanuel Jal the hip hop singer. Nevertheless, we must recognize that some of them will need help. The research done by the Harvard School of Public Health points to the long term psycho social effects of soldiering on children, especially if they have been asked to commit heinous crimes or if they are, themselves, victims of sexual violence.

For all of this we need resources. Though governments and donors are willing to fund emergency relief they are not willing to stay the course to ensure that children are effectively reintegrated. Child soldiers fall between the cracks of emergency funding and development funding, each expecting the other to take the lead. Most funding is for a six to twelve month period while practitioners ask for a three year commitment. We need to educate donors and governments based on our past experience and point out to them that the unsuccessful reintegration of child soldiers will have negative consequences. Many of children may return to a life of violence and crime or be recycled in wars either in their countries or abroad.

I will end with the story of Moi. He was a young boy I met in Northern Uganda. He and his friend were playing at home one evening when the LRA attacked their village. They were abducted and on the long way back to the LRA camp, his friend slipped, fell and broke his ankle. He watched as the Commander callously shot his friend in the head for being weak. Moi became part of the LRA, and after being induced by drugs and beatings took part in raids against his own family and neighbours, killing, looting and watching rapes. After many years of this life, he finally escaped and was with a UNICEF sponsored project when I met him. Initially, eventhough a child, he walked in with a masculine swagger of an adult male, barely hiding his aggression. After a period of conversation, he relaxed, almost trusting, and became childlike. His father had been traced and had visited him but then had never returned, perhaps frightened by the appearance of his son. At the end of the conversation, Moi looked at me tearfully and said “Madam what am I to do, I only know how to fight”.