International Justice

CJ354 Endicott College

Tag Archives: Child Soldiers

Many South Sudan boys ‘kidnapped to be child soldiers’


In December of 2013 violence erupted in South Sudan. Currently South Sudan is in a state of civil war. The civil war has displaced about 1.5 million people from the fighting and 2.5 million are starving. The conflict is between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir against rebels who side with Riek Machar. South Sudan has hundreds of cases of boys being kidnapped and forced to become child soldiers. Human Rights Watch has accused both sides of using child soldiers. The boys are abducted in Wau Shilluk by unidentified armed soldiers. The soldiers surrounded the town and went house to house taking boys 12 or over.

The use of child soldiers is recognized as an international crime. Last month it was announced that there has been an increase in the reported 89 children abductions, as reported by Unicef. Children, who were preparing for exams, were seized from a South Sudan school. It is possible the actual number may be in the hundreds.

According to the UN, 12,000 children were used as child soldiers across South Sudan last year. The government has stated that they have no control over the abductions, which are done by the Shilluk Militia, under the control of Johnson Oloni. Children as young as 12 have been spotted as child soldiers. The underlining issue that needs to be addressed is that children are being abducted from schools. South Sudan is facing international pressures and the actions of both sides are being closely monitored.

The Curious Case of Dominic Ongwen: Child Soldier turned LRA Leader

As we discussed in class, Dominic Ongwen was abducted at age 10, and forced to become a child soldier in Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda. As the global Kony 2012 campaign asserted, Kony’s LRA thrived off of the kidnapping and manipulation of many young children—forcing hundreds of impressionable youths to commit heinous crimes on behalf of Kony, who is portrayed as “a godly person” (Invisible Children). As many of these blog posts contend, Ongwen’s adult actions (which he will be tried for by the ICC) consist of seven counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. However, to echo the sentiments of many of my classmates, “Ongwen is the first person to be tried for the very same crimes for which he was a victim,” introducing an inherent complexity to his case (ckeefe2016’s post). Will it be possible for the ICC to rectify that fact moving forward, and to determine a truly appropriate sentence for him? Will they be able to determine if Ongwen was really responsible for his actions, or if his extensive childhood trauma as a child soldier has forced him to this terrible fate?

Today, data has been collected from “87 war-torn counties,” leading to an estimate that “300,000-500,000 children are involved with fighting forces as child soldiers” (Harvard School of Public Health). These children are forced to commit unspeakable atrocities from age 7, and are even sometimes “injected with drugs to curb their inhibitions against committing violence” (Harvard School of Public Health). According to the Irish Forum for Global Health, “even when being compared to other children that lived through civil wars and have witnessed the brutality of war, former child soldiers suffer from markedly higher levels of psychological disorders” (IFGH). All three of the articles cited above assert that it is critical for child soldiers in the post-conflict environment to receive treatment, in order to overcome the enduring scars from their traumatic experiences. Perhaps the most problematic discrepancy in these international justice cases is the divide between former child soldiers that receive amnesty and mental health care, while others are prosecuted for their crimes. Ongwen is undoubtedly responsible for countless heinous atrocities he committed as Kony’s right-hand man, and should rightfully be punished to the fullest extent of the law for his wrongdoings. However, it becomes troublesome to think that he may have received amnesty if he had not been manipulated from such an early age. Further, this case poses many interesting problems due to the difficulty of assessing the state of mind of Ongwen when he committed these unspeakable atrocities and due to the lack of relevant jurisprudence for the ICC.

Child Soldiers and the Universality of International Criminal Law

In Kaitlyn’s recent post about rape in Libya, she wrote that “One BBC reporter said ‘recognizing rape is an unprecedented move in the conservative North African state.’” I think this is an interesting example of the universality of international criminal law. Just as amnesties for high-level violators are considered illegal under international law, widespread rape as a “weapon against rebel forces” is unacceptable everywhere as well.

The use of child soldiers is an interesting case of this–warlords in Africa weren’t always aware that using child soldiers was a serious violation of international law before the ICC indicted Lubanga, as we discussed in class. In the U.S., we often debate what the correct age limits are for drinking, driving, and joining the military, but it is usually acknowledged that the “right” age depends on the individual. International law, however, necessarily sets a strict age limit, 15 years, to define a child soldier, and I think most of us would agree that fourteen-year-olds are not yet adults.

In Britain right now, an article in the Guardian about the nation’s military college has prompted discussion about the age of enlistment in the U.K, where teenagers can begin to enlist at 15 years, 7 months, according to the director of the NGO Child Soldiers International. Even this higher limit is considered by some to be too low, particularly because of its consequences for education.

I wonder about the consequences of most Western nations setting enlistment ages well above the international limit, and then holding groups in conflict to a lower standard. While respecting cultural differences about age and acknowledging the challenges of conflict seems appropriate, does this suggest that the ICC is not going far enough?

Other questions to consider: what should the age limit for child soldiers be? How should it be determined? What is the difference, in terms of the effects on age limits, between conscription and enlistment? Finally, do conflict situations make younger soldiers more acceptable, presumably because of ‘military necessity’ or desperation?

Crimes Against Children in Syria

A recent UN report has presented evidence of recruitment of child soldiers, and sexual violence and killing of children in the current crisis in Syria. The report details atrocities committed between March 1, 2011 to November 15, 2013, claiming that over 10,000 children have been killed in less than three years.

Witnesses have reported that abuses against children detained by government authorities included “beatings with metal cables, whips and wooden and metal batons; electric shocks, including to the genitals; the ripping out of fingernails and toenails; sexual violence, including rape or threats of rape; mock executions; cigarette burns; sleep deprivation; solitary confinement; and exposure to the torture of relatives”. While boys aged 12 to 17 years have been trained, armed and used as combatants for rebel forces.

While the UN has in past accused both the government and rebel alliance of crimes committed against children, this is the first report that has been presented directly to the UNSC on the issue. Given the outstanding evidence provided in the report, is it possible that the UNSC, which has thus far been incapable of providing a response to the conflict due to the polarizing interests of the p5, will be able to pass a directive that would respond directly to the atrocities committed against children? One of the main excuses Russia and China have used to rule against resolutions developed by the UNSC have placed too much responsibility on the Syrian government for atrocities committed, rather than acknowledging crimes perpetrated by rebel groups. The report, however, suggests that both sides of the conflict are to blame for these atrocities: the government in perpetrating sexual violence and torture of children, and rebel groups for coercing children into joining their militias. Understanding that both sides are being held accountable, will this entice Russia and China to vote in favor of a resolution that specifically addresses atrocities committed against children?

Furthermore, how might this report affect the United States’ stance on providing assistance to the Syrian Opposition? A State Department spokesman of the United States condemned the use of child soldiers, stating “We thoroughly vet recipients of our assistance in Syria. The leadership of the moderate armed opposition has repeatedly affirmed its commitment to upholding international human rights standards.” However, the report cites the Western-backed Free Syrian Army is guilty of recruitment of child soldiers.

While it is unlikely that the ICC will become involved in this situation due to the polarization of the UNSC, how can this report contribute to taking punitive measures against “big fish” perpetrators of crimes against children on both sides of this conflict?

Parent Accountability for Crimes of Child Soldiers

The previous post “Children and Crimes” brings up an interesting point on responsibility of choices. In the first video clip that we watched in class yesterday, a mother said something to the effect of, “they blame us for our children’s crimes.” It raises a question that is only briefly discussed in the issue of child soldiers: are parents ever guilty for crimes committed by their children?

In the case of Uganda, most child soldiers were abducted and/or drugged, thus released – to a certain degree – of responsibility since they didn’t “make that decision.” However, there have been cases in which parents have sold their children to rebels or freely given them away (sometimes, for fear of what the rebels would do if they didn’t). In both scenarios, the parents of those children made the choices for them. In this case, shouldn’t parents also be held accountable? In which cases are they responsible and which cases are they not?

While it would not be fair to fully pass on the baton of guilt and responsibility on over to their parents if the child was, in fact, conscious of his decisions, it does raise the important concept of culpability.

The Senate of the Philippines endorsed a Special Protection of Children in Situations of Armed Conflict Bill in order to counteract the use of children in armed conflict in the Philippines by the communist rebel New People’s Army (NPA) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, as well as by government forces and militias.

Part of the Bill makes it “unlawful for parents, ascendants, guardians, step parents or collateral relatives within the third degree of consanguinity or affinity, or any person having control or moral ascendancy to the child, to allow, willfully encourage, compel, coerce or influence their child or children to be part of an armed group or a governmental armed force.” Therefore, the bill allows for the parents of child soldiers to be prosecuted. Recently, Human Rights Watch suggested that the bill be amended to omit the above clause. Communities and families do have a role to play in preventing children from associating with armed forces or armed groups and in certain cases – if they actively fail in that role – they should be held accountable.

Children and Crimes

The concept of child-soldiers has obviously come up many times during class, in the news, and in our articles.  I find it interesting their innocence in the perpetration of crimes is consistently assumed.  While the majority of child-soldiers in most African nations were plausibly forced to commit crimes by threats, there are also many instances in which child-soldiers actively choose to join rebel groups and participate in the violence.  Many join because it can be a form of occupation when they otherwise have no income/protection options.  Of course there are levels of force to be considered, but when considering accountability of child-soldiers in conflict zones the all or nothing (namely nothing) approach becomes interesting when juxtaposed against juvenile prosecutions in the States.

Ignoring arguments of cultural imperialism that could be pulled from that statement, children in the States are not only tried for their crimes (in the juvenile system) but are frequently tried as adults.  Jason Brown was tried as an adult at age 11 and considered for the death penalty for a singular crime.  There are already so many complications in transitional justice it is understandable that amnesty for child-soldiers would, at least at this point, be a given.  I wonder, however, if at some point transitional justice mechanisms will need to consider the context of child perpetration of violent crimes and find more nuanced and multi-level approaches in terms of accountability.

Colombia Ruling on Reparations for Child Soldiers

On December 16th, 2011 Colombian courts made the world’s first ruling mandating reparations be paid for the illegal conscription of child soldiers. The ruling was made in relation to a lawsuit against Fredy Rendón Herrera, alias “El Alemán,” former leader of the armed Élmer Cárdenas paramilitary group. The Rendón trial established that 309 minors were illegally recruited by the paramilitary group and will receive reparations including monetary compensation and medical and psychological care.

Demobilized in 2006, these now adults face lives of rejection and discrimination from their communities.  Due to the extremely demanding nature of paramilitary work, some of these youth suffered terrible injuries and have  trouble getting the physical care they need, not to mention homes and jobs. Carlos Lozano Acosta of ICTJ’s Colombia office stated that the reparations “should seek to remedy the loss of childhood and, to the extent they can, the opportunities lost with it.” When asked, many young people said that they would feel compensated by access to an education and job opportunities.

Additional compensation is to be made to girls recruited by paramilitary groups “who were in a situation of potential assault or harassment from other combatants”, as well as those recruited at extremely young ages.