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Guiding principles for the domestic implementation of a comprehensive system of protection for children associated with armed forces or armed groups

15-09-2011 Legal Fact Sheet

Recruiting children into armed forces or armed groups and forcing them to get involved in the fighting is a recurrent practice in contemporary armed conflict. This issue is one to which the ICRC devotes particular attention, not only in the context of its operational activities but also in its work to promote humanitarian law and to ensure its implementation and respect.

Annex XVI of The domestic implementation of international humanitarian law

Recruiting children into armed forces or armed groups and forcing them to get involved in the fighting is a recurrent practice in contemporary armed conflict. The consequences in humanitarian terms are often tragic and irreversible, for the children concerned and for their families and communities. Children who take part in fighting and witness atrocities, or themselves commit atrocities, may unwittingly destroy their childhood and be marked for life. 

The issue of children's association with armed forces or armed groups is one to which the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), a humanitarian organization and the custodian of international humanitarian law, devotes particular attention. It does this not only in the context of its operational activities to benefit victims but also in its work to promote and spread knowledge of humanitarian law and to ensure its implementation and respect by States involved in armed conflicts.

The protection of children affected by armed conflicts, international and non-international, has been a source of concern for many decades. A significant number of legal instruments, binding and non-binding, have been gradually adopted with a view to minimizing the risks to such children. These instruments pay particular attention to the question of the minimum age of involvement of children in hostilities and to the types of activity that should be prevented.

The gradual process of codifying the regime of protection for children has undoubtedly contributed to improving the general protection for them against the effects of conflicts. It has however also led to practical difficulties because, depending on the legal framework applicable in a given context, the types and extent of the obligations of the parties involved in the conflict may vary considerably.

Together with a number of international and non-governmental organizations, the ICRC has actively contributed to the development of international rules protecting children against the effects of armed conflicts. The ICRC is also investing a great deal of effort in promoting the ratification of relevant treaties, as well as their extensive implementation.

The ICRC is committed to helping States – through its Advisory Service on International Humanitarian Law – to establish domestic frameworks for implementing and enforcing, and thus ensuring respect for, the law. It should be noted that the need for such normative frameworks exists in all countries.

On the basis of its legal work and its activities in conflict situations, the ICRC has reached the conclusion that, although some important questions have not yet been fully addressed in legal instruments, most of the suffering endured by children during armed conflicts can be prevented or alleviated if there is greater respect for and more scrupulous implementation of existing rules. Unfortunately, experience clearly demonstrates that, in the absence of practical measures of implementation developed at the domestic level, accepted rights and obligations are often a dead letter.

It was with this in mind that the ICRC decided to work on the development of a set of Guiding Principles for the Domestic Implementation of a Comprehensive System of Protection for Children Associated with Armed Forces or Armed Groups, presented for the first time in this publication.

The Guiding Principles are the result of a consultation process that included detailed examination of the various rules and principles relevant to the protection of children affected by armed conflicts. They also benefited from the work carried out during a meeting of experts organized by the ICRC in December 2009 (Children Associated with Armed Forces or Armed Groups: Implementation of International Norms on the Recruitment and Participation of Children in Armed Conflicts, Geneva, 7-9 December 2009).

The general objectives of these discussions with government officials, representatives of the various UN agencies, and experts from non-governmental organizations engaged in securing protection for children during armed conflicts were:

  • to analyse the international legal framework applicable to the involvement of children in armed conflicts and the commitments made in this regard on the international and regional levels, as well as the implications for the laws and the domestic practice of States; and
  • to encourage the development of, and compliance with, legislative and other national measures for implementing the
    international rules relating to the recruitment and use of children in hostilities by armed forces and/or armed groups,
    with a particular focus on the Optional Protocol of 25 May 2000 to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the
    involvement of children in armed conflict.

A series of presentations introduced a number of different topics, which were eventually discussed in small working groups. Participants based their discussions on a detailed questionnaire whose purpose was to raise pertinent legal and policy issues.

The Guiding Principles, which were drafted by the ICRC, draw heavily on the views expressed at the meeting of experts in 2009. 

Although a number of experts made extremely useful contributions during the drafting phase, the ICRC takes full responsibility for the final version of the Guiding Principles.

The specific aim of the Guiding Principles is to suggest practical and detailed measures for effective domestic implementation of the international rules protecting children affected by armed conflict. 

The Guiding Principles emphasize the obligations of the States party to international treaties, but that in no way alters the fact that these obligations also apply to armed groups involved in armed conflicts.

Finally, it must be noted that the Guiding Principles are not aimed at developing new law. They are intended a) to clarify existing obligations (taking into consideration the fact that the degree of ratification of the applicable treaties is uneven); b) to facilitate – through legislative, administrative and practical measures – respect for existing obligations; and c) to serve the purpose of promoting, disseminating and, in particular, implementing the relevant provisions.

The Guiding Principles, and the laws, regulations and other measures already adopted by States may be found in the ‘National Implementation Database’ on the ICRC website (http://www.icrc.org/eng/resources/ihl-databases/index.jsp).