United Nations Committee on the rights of the child
Geneva, 13 November 1995. Topic of the day: "Administration of Juvenile Justice" – Document submitted by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) is one of the components of a larger humanitarian movement, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. The other two components are the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and their International Federation.
The ICRC's main task lies in providing assistance and protection to war victims in accordance with international humanitarian law, particularly the four Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their two Additional Protocols of 1977.
War victims are all people - men, women and children - who do not participate in the hostilities or no longer do so. They comprise civilians, sick and wounded members of the armed forces and prisoners of war, all of whom are entitled to special protection against the effects of hostilities.
In situations of armed conflict, international or non-international, humanitarian law affords broad protection for children, not only as civilians who take no part in the hostilities, but also because children as such enjoy special treatment under many provisions of the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols.
This protection is valid both for children who participate in the hostilities as combatants and for those who take no active part in the fighting and suffer from the consequences of war.
In an international armed conflict, if children take part in the hostilities despite the prohibition against this in the Geneva Conventions, they are nevertheless entitled to prisoner-of-war status in the event of captur e. This protected status is intended to prevent them from being punished for the sole reason of having participated in the hostilities. During their internment, they should also be afforded privileged treatment because of their age. If children who are not regarded as combatants are captured, they must be assigned the status of civilian internees and as such must be granted conditions of internment appropriate to their age, the right to receive food supplements according to their physiological needs and the right to be educated and to take physical exercise. They should be the first to be repatriated when hostilities end.
In a non-international armed conflict, children who are captured must be treated in accordance with the minimum rules applicable to any person who does not participate or no longer participates in the hostilities. In these circumstances, humanitarian law also provides for their continued education and temporary evacuation and for the reunification of dispersed families.
There is a close similarity between the rules of international humanitarian law protecting people, especially children, who are deprived of their liberty and the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. It should also be noted that Article 38 of this Convention refers to the rules of international humanitarian law applicable in armed conflicts and to the protection they provide for children.
In its work for children, the ICRC's approach to the problem of their protection is to lay primary stress on the preservation of their interests. This is also the basic principle of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and of the rules of international humanitarian law protecting children.
In the course of its protection activities, the ICRC visits children who are prisoners of war or civilian internees. The second category comprises c hildren who are being held for acts regarded as unlawful by the detaining authorities and infants accompanying their mothers or born in prison.
The purpose of ICRC visits is to ensure that all detainees, including children, are afforded adequate material and psychological conditions. In view of the vital need to maintain children's mental and emotional balance, the ICRC's primary aim is to ensure that they are safe from abuse by adult detainees or guards.
In practice, the ICRC urges the parties concerned to take children's limited capacity for discernment into account and does its best to ensure that they are treated in a manner appropriate to their age. It also strives to arrange for their release when certain guarantees can be given, for instance, that they will not return to the fighting.
This was the case in Uganda, during the conflict between the government and the Holy Spirit opposition movement. A large number of children between the ages of 6 and 15 had been recruited by the leader of the movement, Alice Lakwena, and some of them had been captured and held by government forces. From June 1987 onwards, the ICRC visited several hundred children in four Ugandan prisons.
As a first step, the ICRC made sure that they were being given adequate food and were housed separately from adults. However, they received lessons in their own language from adult detainees, and the ICRC provided them with games and school supplies. At a later stage, the ICRC called for the release of all the children on humanitarian grounds. In April 1988, the Ugandan government granted this request and released all those under 13 years of age (the rest were all released later).
Another example is that of contemporary Rwanda, where there are two categorie s of children in prison - those accompanying their mothers and minors held on suspicion of genocide. The ICRC has adopted a pragmatic approach to the situation of these children. For those accompanying their mothers, the ICRC considers the child's interests before applying for its release, since separation from its mother is often prejudicial to a child's development. Moreover, in Rwandan society such separation can create a social problem for the mother, the loss of her maternal status, which could in turn affect the child itself.
Other humanitarian organizations, such as Save the Children Fund, Feed the Children and Partage, also deal with this category of children, organizing daytime lessons and other educational activities for them outside the prisons.
With regard to the several thousand minors suspected of genocide, the ICRC visits them in the same way as it does other detainees suspected of that crime. In addition, the ICRC takes the necessary steps to ensure that they are kept separate from adults and are afforded special treatment appropriate for their age.
It must be noted, however, that because of the serious problem of overcrowding, minors in certain prisons are still housed in the same quarters as adults.
The ICRC is currently pursuing its large-scale assistance and protection activities in the Rwandan prison system.
Other organizations concerned with the problem of overcrowding are UNICEF and Save the Children Fund. Several hundred young detainees living in a rehabilitation centre in Gitagata are at present receiving assistance from these organizations and from Médecins sans frontières. The ICRC's role in this centre, as in the rest of the country, is to restore contact between the minors and their families.
In this connection, we should like to stress the importance of effective concertation between the various organizations involved in a specific action.
Despite the broad range of legal rules that protect children in armed conflicts and the activities conducted in their behalf by various institutions, the reality often remains bitter. In fact, the gap between legal provisions drawn up in meticulous detail and the daily life of children caught up the toils of war is constantly widening.
In view of the plight of the victims of current conflicts, the main objective of the 26th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, which is to meet in Geneva in December, will be to find ways of strengthening the protection of the civilian population against the effects of war. The variety of situations and the amount of suffering inflicted compel us to concentrate on the most burning questions, and it has already been decided to pay special attention to the protection of children in armed conflicts, since they must be the first to be helped.
The protection of these children depends on proper respect for the rules laid down for their benefit, which must be complied with if their lot is to be improved. The ICRC therefore makes considerable efforts to promote respect for these rules.
In the area of detention, the ICRC has been organizing seminars in Africa and Latin America since 1985 to enable senior officials of prison and judiciary systems to meet and hold discussions at the regional level. The aim is to help them become more aware of their respective duties in the search fo r appropriate and tangible solutions to the many difficult problems that arise in prisons.
The ICRC also endeavours to disseminate the principles and rules of international humanitarian law. Spreading knowledge of this law in peacetime is essential since it will not be respected unless it is known by those who have to abide by it and see that it is applied. This knowledge is indispensable and has the preventive effect of avoiding violations.
Knowledge of the rules and principles of international humanitarian law cannot in itself suffice to ensure the protection of children in armed conflicts, but must be accompanied in each country by national legislative, regulatory and practical measures for the implementation of that law. As part of the considerable efforts it has undertaken to this end, the ICRC has set up Advisory Services on international humanitarian law, which give national authorities technical assistance with the implementation of the rules of humanitarian law in their respective countries.
Finally, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement as a whole is pursuing its unremitting efforts to provide greater protection for the world's children, by means of training, educational and health programmes designed to promote a spirit of tolerance and solidarity based on the first principle of our Movement, that of humanity.