Children in Armed Conflict
Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of armed conflict. They may be separated from their caregivers, their education may be interrupted or prevented from commencing, and in many respects they are less able to withstand physical and mental trauma. Children are more easily recruited into armed forces or armed non-State actors (ANSAs), and in addition to combat roles, may be used as spies, porters, informants, even in some cases for sexual purposes.
Several million children have been killed by conflict in past years. Three times that number have been permanently disabled or injured and over one million orphaned or separated from their families. Available estimates put the number of children associated with armed forces or ANSAs at between 200,000 and 300,000.
ANSAs and the protection of children
Many of the children involved in armed conflict are to be found among the ranks of ANSA forces. Of the 55 parties that are listed as perpetrators of violations against children in the 2013 report of the UN Secretary-General on children and armed conflict, 46 are ANSAs. Indeed, most so-called ‘persistent perpetrators’ – parties that have committed violations for five years or more – are ANSAs.
Although there are cases of widespread abduction, many children join ANSAs voluntarily, to escape hardships such as a lack of basic subsistence needs or abusive relationships. Some join in search of a sense of empowerment or to avenge the loss of family members, while others live with their relatives who are active within ANSAs, or in communities where the separation between fighters and civilians is practically non-existent.
International law provides special protection for children in situations of armed conflict. This includes a prohibition on the recruitment of children and their use in hostilities as well as provision for children’s rights to basic needs and education.
Yet some standards, particularly those prohibiting the use and recruitment of children, are not consistent in terms of age and scope. Some do not create direct obligations on ANSAs, and in some cases the standards applied to ANSAs are more stringent than those applied to States. As a result, it is not always clear for ANSAs what their legal obligations entail.
It is therefore essential to engage with ANSAs if children are to be prevented from being recruited and used in hostilities and better protected in situations of armed conflict.
Geneva Call’s innovative approach
Geneva Call engages ANSAs to reduce the effects of armed conflict on children by promoting respect for children’s rights, in particular the prohibition of the recruitment and use of children in hostilities.
Engagement tools include dialogue, advocacy and training. Geneva Call has also developed an innovative mechanism, the Deed of Commitment for the Protection of Children from the Effects of Armed Conflict, which allows signatory ANSAs, as they cannot become parties to international treaties, to undertake to respect a clear set of norms. Indeed this Deed goes beyond minimum international standards. The Deed of Commitment takes a holistic approach to child protection and also addresses positive obligations of ANSAs to provide children with the aid and care they require (such as access to education or protection from enemy attacks).
Geneva Call also works with community-based organizations to build their capacities to engage with ANSAs and assist in monitoring their commitments.
- 19 ANSAs have signed the Deed of Commitment protecting children in armed conflict, and have taken measures to enforce their obligations.
- Geneva Call is today in dialogue with more than 20 ANSAs on the issue, and is raising their awareness and enhancing their understanding of relevant international standards. Short of signing the Deed of Commitment, several of these have adopted and included new protective rules in their policies or internal regulations.