ICRC statement on recruitment and use of children in hostilities

29-09-2009 Statement

Ministerial Side Meeting on Paris Principles and Paris Commitments, United Nations General Assembly, New York, 29 Septembre 2009

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Mr. Chairman, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, dear colleagues,     

The ICRC is pleased to be given the opportunity to take the floor on behalf of the Paris Principles Steering Group in this, to us, very important side meeting on the topic of child recruitment and use in hostilities, an issue that remains of high priority to all of us.

When we speak about this issue, many aspects come to mind. First, international humanitarian law (IHL ), which provides a clear legal framework regarding the recruitment and use of children in hostilities. Second, challenge , namely the challenge of ensuring that the internationally agreed legal rules are respected in practice. Indeed, the widespread recruitment and use of children in hostilities poses challenges to all:  


 First and foremost, it poses challenges to children who are or who might become associated with an armed force or armed group. Whether recruitment is voluntary or coerced, there are challenges.

Children who join voluntarily often do so because it is the best available option for them. It can be a way to escape inequalities, to be able to eat or to earn money, to support their families, to fight for a cause or to feel part of a group, or to be with peers. Once inside, they may still believe that they made a good choice. And, for some children, it may seem to be the right choice.

For many, however, once inside, they realise first-hand the challenges and the real dangers of being part of an armed force or an armed group. They are being shot at or captured by the enemy – or are constantly at risk of being so; they might be badly treated, even sexually exploited; some have to walk long distances carrying heavy loads and they are often unable to remain in contact with their loved ones.

 New challenges arise the moment the child wants to leave: How to leave? How to get back home? Sometimes, these children are far from home. Who should they turn to? How will the return be? Often, they are not allowed to leave and may be threatened with or suffer ill-treatment or even execution if they are captured when attempting to run away.

 The return home presents another set of challenges . The welcome at home is not always warm and, even if it is, things have changed–at least in the child's mind. In many cases, acceptance and re-integration in family and community prove to be extremely difficult.

The demobilisation of the child might deprive the family of desperately needed additional income. In those cases, the return is not necessarily see n as positive, neither by the child, nor by the family.

Using children in hostilities not only poses challenges to the children concerned. It also presents challenges to their families – for those children who have a family – and to the community as a whole.   It poses challenges to national authorities , who will need to make sure prevention and reintegration programmes are adequate, realistic and sustainable in the long run. It also poses huge challenges to the international community , which often plans, implements and funds those programmes with host governments.

In this regard, we will concentrate on some of the challenges we face and on some of the lessons we have learned in the field. Based on the field experience worldwide of members of the Paris Principles Steering Group, we highly prioritize prevention of recruitment of children, and I will now focus on this important aspect.

 Preventing recruitment and reintegrating children go hand-in-hand. We have realized that some of the children reunified with their families actually return back to the armed force or group they had left some months earlier. Some join another group in need of their acquired skills. While some cases of re-recruitment are forced, others are voluntary. We know that those who return out of free will generally do so when there are no alternatives and no viable reintegration programmes in place.

Bearing in mind the complex factors behind the unacceptable practice of child recruitment, there is no single formula that can be applied as THE successfu l recipe for preventing it. I will however highlight some of the factors that ought to be considered:


- Risk factors : We need to understand who is at risk of being recruited, why they are being recruited and how? Understanding the recruitment environment is key in fighting against it.

- Dialogue: We need to talk and listen to children and their families, and use their views and experiences in all the programs that aim to help them.

- To end recruitment, we also talk with those who are recruiting and using children. We need to make sure it is a two-way dialogue - merely scolding or pointing fingers does not produce the best results.

- A holistic approach:  When working on prevention and reintegration strategies, we must be aware   of the   many factors that influence the recruitment and use of children in hostilities, as well as the factors that may ease their reintegration. Acting on only one or a few of them is likely to give only partial and unsatisfactory results.

- Finding alternatives:  We need to work closely with the local community in identifying better options for children. Voluntary recruitment often occurs because there are few other viable alternatives. Such alternatives include access to quality education, and communities where the children's rights and dignity are respected. It includes access to jobs and income-generating activities, often extremely difficult to provide in a war-torn society. It includes access to information, so children at risk know their rights, responsibilities and opportunities.

- Safe environment: Recruitment mainly occurs in areas close to the hostilities, including in refugee camps or camps for displaced persons. The ICRC puts a lot of emphasis on working with the armed actors involved in the hostilities to make sure they know well and respect international humanitarian law. It is however equally important to work with the communities themselves in order to help them strengthen their capacities to protect their children. This has proven to be useful in many places.

- Long term involvement: Recruitment rarely - if ever - stops on the 31st of December, although annual budgets often do. Year-to-year budgeting in reintegration programs is therefore likely to create problems in the long-run and create vicious circles of re-recruitment.

- Boys  and   girls:  Girls are also recruited and used by armed actors. Prevention programmes must therefore also seek to understand why girls, at times, choose to join armed groups, and their particular vulnerabilities once recruited.

- Broad scope:  If reintegration programmes are narrowly focused on only those children who are associated with armed actors, this is rarely helpful to other children in the communi ty, many of whom are also vulnerable. They are potential recruits if programmes systematically ignore their existence.

- Effective legal measures:  We must insist on the importance of having the minimum age of recruitment into armed forces and armed groups legally regulated . Recruitment of children will continue where it is not.

- Judicial accountability . To end recruitment, those who recruit children must be held accountable for their acts, particularly by national courts, and where necessary by international justice mechanisms.

All these recommendations are important and they complement each other. The ICRC and the Paris Principles Steering Group underline how important it is to pass laws against the recruitment and use of children by armed forces or armed groups. We therefore call on all those States that have not yet done so to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on Involvement of Children in Armed Conflicts and to translate its contents into national legislation. We also call on more States to adhere to the Paris Commitments, which complement existing law on the matter.

We take this opportunity to inform this distinguished audience that the ICRC will host a conference in Geneva from 07 to 09 December in which we will present model legislation for translating the Optional Protocol to the Convention of The Rights of the Child into national legislation. The conference will be open to a number of States and international organisations active in the matter. We will present the outcomes from that meeting in next year's side meeting on the Paris Principles here in New York.

Mr Chairman, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Over the past few years, much attention has focused on the issue of child recruitment, creating pressure on child recruiters to end this practice. We know these efforts have had positive effects, but we also know that children continue to be recruited and we must continue our efforts to stop it. We are therefore pleased to see so many State representatives in this forum. We count on you to keep on working with us until the day we can say there is no need for more Paris Principles meetings because this unacceptable practice has ended!

Thank you!