News / Africa

Justice Eludes Children in Armed Conflict

A young boy leads the hard-line Islamist al-Shabab fighters as they conduct military exercise in northern Mogadishu's Suqaholaha neighborhood, Somalia (File Photo)
A young boy leads the hard-line Islamist al-Shabab fighters as they conduct military exercise in northern Mogadishu's Suqaholaha neighborhood, Somalia (File Photo)
Lisa Schlein

Millions of children are victims of armed conflict. Many are killed, maimed, raped and psychologically traumatized for their whole lives. Many children are recruited to fight for governments and rebel groups. They are forced to commit atrocities and are often prosecuted for these crimes. A United Nations Study, called Children and Justice During and in the Aftermath of Armed Conflict, examines how children caught in wars can seek justice for the violations they have suffered and examines the extent to which children should be held accountable for crimes they have committed. A panel of experts met at U.N. offices in Geneva to discuss these issues.


The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina broke out in 1992. The siege of the capital, Sarajevo, lasted nearly four years. Almost 10,000 people were killed, including 1,500 children.

The U.N. Ambassador from Bosnia, Emina Keco-Isakovic, is haunted by these memories.  She relives the anguish experienced by her son during this period.  

“When the cannon firing was starting over the city, it was really every evening," she said. "My 10-year-old son asked me whether he would have died that night. And, every night I answered ‘no, no, you shall not die,’ I said and touched him and held him while he was falling asleep. All children from besieged Sarajevo, still suffer from trauma in the form of waiting to die.”


While the study says children should be permitted to seek reparations for violation of their rights, Keco-Isakovic says the children of Sarajevo have never received justice commensurate with the crimes committed against them.  

“When you kill a European in a car accident, you get 10 years in prison," said Keco-Isakovic. "When you kill thousands of people in Balkans, Asia, Africa - you are in prison five, six years. The explanation-good behavior, the age and you are out.”  

Messeh Kamara was a child during Sierra Leone’s decade-long civil war.    

“What I am here to do is to represent the voices of the millions of children whose voice go unheard, who we cannot see in this small room," said Kamara. "But, they are out there suffering from conflict.”

Children unheard

Kamara lost his parents. He learned to survive and eventually became a child-activist for children’s rights. He is now 24 years old and studying to become an international human rights lawyer.  

He says it was most important for him and other children who lived through this brutal war to see those who created this havoc brought to justice.  

“I was 11," said Kamara. "I was thrown into a conflict I did not cause to happen, but I suffered the most. So for justice and accountability to us is very important. But, it is also mostly important when our rights are given back to us. Remember, what they did was they stole our rights from us and when they stole something from someone, it is most important that you return what they stole.”


Former Liberian President Charles Taylor is seen at the U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone in Leidschendam, Netherlands (File Photo - August 5, 2010).
Former Liberian President Charles Taylor is seen at the U.N.-backed Special Court for Sierra Leone in Leidschendam, Netherlands (File Photo - August 5, 2010).

Kamara regards the trials of suspected war criminals at the Special Court for Sierra Leone and the war crimes trial of former Liberian President, Charles Taylor, at the International Criminal Court at The Hague as very important. He says they are giving the children and young adults in Sierra Leone a sense of hope that justice will be done.

While children undeniably are victims of war, the U.N. study notes some children also are involved in committing crimes.

Radhika Coomaraswamy is Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict and lead author of the study. She says children who are abducted and forced to commit atrocities by their military commanders should not be prosecuted and judged in the same manner as adults. She notes under international law, the recruitment and use of children under the age of 15 in hostilities is a war crime.

“We would prefer a process of, what we call, diversion, which is that children are diverted away from the judicial and prosecutorial system into some alternative mechanism, which can be either a truth and reconciliation commission, truth-telling, restorative justice or some kind of rehabilitation process," she said. "And, what we are saying is if they have to be prosecuted, then it must be the absolutely last resort.”  

The study notes countries increasingly are arresting and detaining children associated with armed groups on the grounds they are a threat to national security or because they have participated in hostility.

It contends children held in administrative detention during armed conflict are particularly vulnerable. It says few are granted access to lawyers or are given reasons why they are being detained.

The study argues states should not use administrative detention for children under 15 and detention conditions should comply with international standards and judicial guarantees. It says the United Nations should be allowed to monitor child detention centers.

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