Protecting children in armed conflict

10-12-2007 Interview

International humanitarian law clearly states that children's rights must be respected during armed conflict. However, this does not always prevent children being affected by violence in various ways. In this interview, the ICRC's child protection adviser, Kristin Barstad, describes the ICRC's approach to the issue.

  ©ICRC/C. Von Toggenburg /cf-e-00078    
  Central African Republic    
  ©ICRC/L. Merlo/af-e-0033    
  Afghanistan. Kabul Rehabilitation Centre    
Yemen. Hodeida Central Prison    
  ©ICRC/ D. Bregnard/af-d-00030-0    
Afghanistan. Child soldiers    
  ©ICRC/ W. Lembryk/cd-e-00366    
  Congo (DRC). Centre for demobilized child soldiers    
  ©ICRC/B. Heger / lr-e-00113    
  Liberia. The ICRC endeavours to reunite children with their families.    
  ©ICRC/A. Meier / il-e-00226    
  Israel OT/AT, Gaza. Palestinian families being brought by bus to visit their detained relatives in Israel.    
  ©ICRC/V. Nagiyev / az-e-00167    
  Azerbaidjan. Child reading a preventive mine action brochure in a safe play area.    
  ©ICRC/B. Heger / am-e-00200    
  Armenia. Drawing contest on the theme of war.    
  Kristin Barstad, ICRC's child protection adviser.    
     How does the ICRC act for children affected by armed conflict?  

As for any other civilian, the ICRC promotes respect for the rights and dignity of children providing them with assistance to alleviate the effects of armed conflict. Although the ICRC acts impartially to assist all the victims of conflict, children do have specific needs which the ICRC strives to address. These include:

  •  Children separated from their families because of conflict:  

The ICRC has a mandate to trace families across borders. When we come across a child separated from his or her family because of a conflict, the ICRC will, at the request of the child or the guardian, register the child and try to find the family in order to re-establish contact. If tracing is successful, the first step is to facilitate communication between them - through telephone calls or through Red Cross messages, for example. If the security situation allows and the child and the family agree, the ICRC will then organize a family reunification. Our action ends once we have followed up after the reunification and we are assured that the child is doing well.

Between 2003 and 2006, the ICRC reunified 6,237 unaccompanied and separated children.

A total of 775 were reunified with their parents in 2006.

  •  Children associated with armed forces or armed groups:  

Recruitment of children is a matter of serious concern to the ICRC. For us, the first priority is to prevent recruitment from occurring in the first place. This is done in two ways: through promoting stan dards within clear legal frameworks and through our operations in the field.

In addition to being actively involved in the development of the law applicable during armed conflict, the ICRC organizes training courses for the armed forces, police and weapon bearers to promote knowledge of humanitarian law and other fundamental standards.

In the field, the ICRC regularly approaches armed groups and government authorities and forces, reminding them of their obligations and of the ban on the recruitment of child soldiers. We have thus been able to secure the demobilization of many children, above all in Asia and Africa. For these demobilized children, the ICRC does its utmost to trace their family and facilitate family reunification if the security situation allows and if it is in the child's best interest.

Between 2003 and 2006, the ICRC reunified 1,740 demobilized children with their families. A total of 306 of them were reunified last year.

  •  Children deprived of their freedom:  

ICRC visits people deprived of their freedom, including juveniles, in the following situations: international armed conflict, non-international armed conflict and internal disturbances. Of 41,918 detained persons visited last year, 1,682 were children.

Detention facilities are unsuitable places for children. The ICRC therefore makes every possible effort to ensure the detaining authorities consider the particular needs and rights of children deprived of their freedom.

For example, if the child is below the age of criminal responsibility in a given country, the ICRC would request the release of the child. Equally, the ICRC would intervene if a child is sentenced to death or if a child has been in illegal preventiv e detention for a long time. We would also ask for the release on humanitarian grounds – for example for medical reasons.

Furthermore, children should not be detained with adults - unless, in some exceptional circumstances, this is in their best interests. They should also have adequate access to food, water, health facilities, education, and so on. The ICRC would always make recommendations to the authorities in case conditions of detention are not adequate for children. We may provide some of the necessary assistance if the authorities are unable to do so. The ICRC also facilitates family visits for detained minors. In 2006, the ICRC facilitated 71 family visits to detained children.    


 Do children affected by armed conflict benefit from special legal protection?  

Yes. The four 1949 Geneva Conventions and their 1977 Additional Protocols offer specific protection to children during armed conflict. In fact, we say that children benefit from two-tiered protection under international humanitarian law: the    general protection they enjoy as civilians or persons not or no longer participating in hostilities and the specific protection they enjoy as children. More than 25 articles in the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols refer specifically to children. These include rules on the death penalty, access to food and medical care, education in conflict zones, detention, separation from their family and participation of children in hostilities. The rights guaranteed by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, almost universally ratified, are applicable during armed conflict.

In addition to the concerns related to separation from family, recruitment and detention mentioned above, the ICRC always promotes the respect of children's rights in general, such as for example access to education.

 Many children become separated from their families during armed conflict. Are they available for adoption?  

No, or at least, rarely. Unaccompanied and separated children must not be adopted hastily at the height of an emergency. Experience has proven that most unaccompanied children have parents or other family members willing and able to care for them, who can be found if tracing is effective.

Therefore, adoption should not be considered if there is reasonable hope of successful tracing and reunification is in the child's best interest.

Any adoption must be determined as being in the child's best interest and carried out in keeping with applicable national, international and customary law. Priority is always given to adoption by relatives wherever they live. If this is not an option, adoption within the community from which the child comes is preferred, or at least within his or her own culture.

The 1993 Hague Convention on Protection of Children and Co-operation in respect of Inter-Country Adoption and its 1994 Recommendation concerning the Application to Refugee Children and other Internationally Displaced Children provides the framework for regulating inter-country adoptions.

 Does the ICRC provide specific assistance to children affected by armed conflict?  


The ICRC aims to provide assistance to all victims of war to protect their life and health and to alleviate suffering. The assistance provided is in accordance with assessed needs. Children's basic needs are essentially similar to those of adults, such as food, water, shelter, health care, etc. Because of their age, we can anticipate that they would have additional, specific needs that the ICRC will strive to meet. This ranges from providing baby parcels, specific health care for mothers and children, educational materials and other items.


 Can the right to education be put "on hold" during armed conflict or other emergencies?  

No, the right to access to education does not cease because of a conflict. Education has a crucial part to play in fulfilling the needs and rights of children in conflict and post-conflict situations – both in terms of prevention and rehabilitation. In terms of a child's psycho-social health, education offers a regular routine, opportunities for self-expression and the chance to engage with peers. The very status of " student " is valuable in that it may provide protection for the child from forced recruitment. Although at the same time, they remain at risk as children have been recruited while at school. Schools may provide essential life-skills particularly vital in conflict situations. And last but not least, what children learn at school is one of the few things that cannot be taken away from them no matter where they go!

 How does the ICRC coordinate with other humanitarian organisations to ensure that children receive appropriate assistance during emergencies?  

Complementarity and cooperation   among all organizations concerned, including the authorities, are critical for the care and protection of all those affected by armed conflict. For unaccompanied and separated children, specific lead roles must be established in key areas. For example, the ICRC would be in charge of tracing while another organization (or the authorities) would be in charge of temporary childcare. The task of each agency depends on their mandate, expertise and capacity to deal with the given situation. Any organization wishing to work on behalf of separated children must liaise with the other partners involved. The ICRC clearly adheres to this principle.