Swiss efforts to protect children in armed conflicts

President of the Swiss Confederation Didier Burkhalter presented the Swiss action plan to protect children associated with armed forces or armed groups in armed conflicts at the Annual Conference of the FDFA's Human Security Division on 14 October 2014. International experts discussed the latest findings and strategies on the theme of child soldiers.

Switzerland wishes to step up its efforts for child soldiers. President of the Swiss Confederation Didier Burkhalter presented the Swiss action plan to protect children associated with armed forces or armed groups in armed conflicts at the Annual Conference of the FDFA's Human Security Division (HSD).

Action plan to protect children associated with armed forces or armed groups in armed conflicts (PDF) (PDF, Number of pages 28, 1.5 MB, English)

Fatou Bensouda, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC), Juvénal Munubo Mubi, a member of parliament in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and Ratna Jhaveri, a child protection expert at the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), discussed measures to protect children from being recruited as combatants and the reintegration of former child soldiers into society.

Rome Statute

Ms Bensouda explained that the punishment of crimes against children has received legal support in the provisions of the Rome Statute. "All core crimes of the Rome Statute provide for punishment for crimes against children." The core crimes include:

  • genocide (Art. 6)
  • crimes against humanity (Art. 7)
  • war crimes (Art. 8)
  • crimes of aggression (Art. 8 bis)

Ms Bensouda cited Art. 8 of the Rome Statute as an example, which defines as war crimes the conscription or enlistment of children under fifteen years old into the national armed forces or obliging them to participate actively in hostilities. 

The Rome Statute is the legal basis of the ICC and was adopted in 1998 at the UN Diplomatic Conference of Plenipotentiaries in Rome.

Federal law: Rome Statute

First judgment of the ICC against the use of child soldiers

Founded in 2002, the ICC imposed its first judgment in 2012 on the Congolese rebel leader Thomas Lubanga Dyilo. He was condemned for the enlistment and recruitment of children under fifteen years old and their use as soldiers in armed conflicts. For Fatou Bensouda the conviction was a landmark decision.

Ms Bensouda stressed that the ICC has expanded its focus from child soldiers in general to children in armed conflicts. This is reflected in the way in which action was brought against Bosco Ntaganda, alleged to be the former deputy chief of the general staff of the Forces patriotiques pour la libération du Congo.

On 9 June 2014, pre-trial chamber II of the ICC unanimously confirmed all charges against Bosco Ntaganda. According to Ms Bensouda, these included not only the conscription of children under fifteen years old and their use in armed conflicts but also charges on account of sexual slavery and sexual violence against children who belonged to Ntaganda's army.

Complementaries and prevention

Ms Bensouda considers the global fight against impunity for crimes against children to be fundamental: "For this purpose it is essential to identify the many actors involved at the local, regional and international levels in order to coordinate efforts and maximise effectiveness."

Complementaries and prevention are key elements in a new strategy paper on which her team is working. The commitment to child soldiers and children affected by armed conflicts is one of Ms Bensouda's strategic goals for the 2012–2015 period.

The authorities of the 122 signatory states to the Rome Statute have the main responsibility for the investigation and criminal prosecution of perpetrators who have committed mass crimes including crimes against children, she said. If a state is incapable of doing this or unwilling to do so, the Rome Statute authorises the International Criminal Court to intervene.  

DRC: Prevention, transit centres and reintegration

Juvénal Munubo Mubi, a member of parliament in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), presented the programmes in the DRC for child soldiers. These are primarily based on the areas of prevention, demobilisation and reintegration.

In the area of prevention, the focus is on awareness. Armies and commanding officers of rebel groups are made aware of children's rights. "In two or three cases, commanding officers of rebel groups have released children," explained Mr Munubo.

Furthermore, transit and orientation centres have been created. "These help us to try to provide family-like structures for children," he said. The children stay in the centres for two to three months. During this period, staff at the centre search for the children's family members.

The DRC launched a national programme for the demobilisation and reintegration of armed forces in 2004. This is financed by the World Bank and other partners.

World Bank: National Program for Demobilisation and Reintegration

Focusing on female child soldiers

Mr Munubo also brought attention to the fate of girls in armed groups. They may be abused as sex slaves and have to cook for the commanding officers, he explained.

While boys sometimes manage to escape and take shelter at a transit centre, this is far less often the case for girls. "They are prisoners of the armed groups," he said. Around 10% of child soldiers are girls and only 2% manage to escape.

Child soldiers in the DRC: In the public consciousness since 1996

The Congolese member of parliament explained that the phenomenon of child soldiers in the DRC became visible to the public in 1996, when Laurent Kabila, head of the Alliance des Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Congo fought against Mobutu Sese Seko's regime. "Child soldiers appeared in the public sphere," said Mr Munubo. Child soldiers were also recruited in the Second Congo War in 1998.

"Children not soldiers"

Ratna Jhaveri, a child protection expert from UNICEF, talked about UNICEF's cooperation with other UN partners, governments, non-governmental organisations and civil society for children in armed conflicts. The work is based on the UN's monitoring and reporting mechanism on grave violations against children in armed conflict, which was established in 2005 with Security Council Resolution 1612.

UN Security Council resolution 1612

From the resulting findings, the Secretary-General of the United Nations drafts an annual report on children in armed conflicts and names the groups that recruit children under the age of eighteen into their armed forces. To be removed from this list, the specified parties must agree to follow a joint action plan with the UN. 

UN Secretary-General's annual report on children in armed conflicts

Ms Jhaveri stressed the importance of such reports in searching for those responsible for recruiting child soldiers and collecting evidence. At the same time she emphasised that access to current flash points such as South Sudan, Afghanistan, Syria or Nigeria posed major challenges.

In addition, the UNICEF expert presented the "Children not soldiers" campaign. This was launched in March 2014 with the aim of stopping the recruitment of child soldiers under the age of eighteen by 2016. 

«Children not soldiers» (en)

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