Children and Justice

Until recently, violations against children during armed conflict have gone largely unpunished and perpetrators of such crimes have not been held accountable. Yet, over the past 20 years, the international community has set up a number of new accountability mechanisms with the aim of ending impunity for violations against children. These mechanisms essentially take two forms:

  • Judicial courts or tribunals including the Special Court for Sierra Leone, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the International Criminal Court;
  • More informal non-judicial truth and reconciliation commissions such as in Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Participation of children in justice processes

With the establishment of these justice systems, perpetrators are now increasingly being held accountable for their acts. In this context, children are also increasingly participating in these justice processes as victims and witnesses. A number of innovative ideas have been developed to protect the rights and best interests of children while ensuring that justice is done, including protective measures, alternative forms of participation and child-specific reparations.

Protection of children in judicial proceedings

The difficulty for victims to come forward in judicial proceedings and face their memories and their assailants is often underestimated. If they speak, there could be reprisals on them or their families. If they testify, they will have to be able to undergo a vigorous cross-examination that often results in re-living horrific events. Balancing participation and the protection of children during court proceedings is of great importance. Closed sessions, voice and image distortion, screens between the witness and the accused, as well as pre- and post-statement counselling are all useful methods to protect child witnesses from possible consequences when they testify.

Reparations for children

For children, justice includes far more than punishing a perpetrator. Equally important are the restoration of their rights and an element of reparation to address their loss of childhood, family, education, and livelihood. Courts should include reparations in their judgment and sentencing hearings, providing victims with assistance in the form of physical rehabilitation, education, and psycho-social support.

For more information, read the Working Paper Children and Justice during and in the Aftermath of Armed Conflict.