The ICRC says "no" to the recruitment of child soldiers
Speech delivered in Paris on 6 February 2007 by Alain Aeschlimann, head of protection activities at the ICRC, on the occasion of the conference "Free Children From War" organized by UNICEF and the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Read also the press release on the occasion of the Red Hand Day (12.02.2007).
Your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,
Please allow me first to thank the French government and UNICEF most sincerely for inviting the ICRC to attend this very important international conference.
Why and how child soldiers are recruited are complex issues calling for varying responses in keeping with a multiplicity of completely different contexts. There is therefore no single, or simple, answer.
This responsibility encompasses accession to the relevant international treaties, the adoption of laws and directives, the establishment of reliable institutions, education and training, punishment in the event of breaches of the law and the compensation of any victims.
All States not party to the conflict share responsibility for securing respect for international humanitarian law in accordance with the Geneva Conventions and they likewise have a crucial role to play in establishing this favourable environment. The same is true of the media, international NGOs, the United Nations system, as well as international courts and other international institutions and mechanisms.
At the national and local level, various components of civil society, including NGOs, act as observers and help to shape this auspicious environment.
There is no simple answer and the responses of all these different protagonists cannot be reduced to a single common denominator. A variety of complementary actions are required.
The ICRC's humanitarian action is intrinsic to such an environment. Since its inception, the ICRC has striven to assist victims of conflicts, especially children because of their vulnerability. The ICRC welcomes the much more marked interest the international community is showing in them.
The ICRC is endeavouring to work out approaches complementing those of other protagonists and actors. Its added value stems from its very long experience of armed conflicts, its deep knowledge of international humanitarian law, its character as a strictly neutral and independent institution and intermediary, its close contacts with victims, its dialogue with authorities and other arms bearers at all levels, its ability to deploy its staff rapidly, its long-term commitment and its willingness to provide a multidisciplinary response to needs.
More specifically, the ICRC helps to prevent the enlistment of child soldiers in two ways: through its standard-setting activities and through its operations in the field.
The development of international law and standards is a priority. The ICRC, qua custodian and advocate of international humanitarian law, played a leading role in the drafting of texts and in the diplomatic conferences which culminated in the adoption of the Geneva Conventions in 1949 and their two Additional Protocols in 1977. Humanitarian law protects children at two levels. First, provided they do not participate directly in the conflict, as members of the civilian population they are entitled to general protection against the effects of hostilities. Then they have the right to special protection on account of their particular vulnerability. The Additional Protocols make 15 the minimum age at which they can be recruited as soldiers, or participate in hostilities. It was not possible to obtain more than this in 1977.
The ICRC likewise contributed as an expert to all the proceedings of the conferences which have led to significant developments of international law on the protection of children in armed conflicts, from the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict, to the Ottawa Treaty and the Statute of the International Criminal Court. Careful perusal of the Optional Protocol reveals that it does not make 18 the uniform minimum age for recruitment and participation in hostilities. For example, fifteen year-olds may still join government armed forces voluntarily . Further development of the law is required in this respect in the future. The ICRC, the various Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies and their International Federation are in favour of a universal age limit of 18.
All the same, developments in the form of the Paris Commitments and Paris Principles make it possible to take a big step forward. The ICRC also made a significant contribution to their drafting along with UNICEF and other specialized organizations.
In order for international law to apply, it must be incorporated into national law. The ICRC's advisory services on international humanitarian law are highly experienced in assisting States with the national implementation of international standards protecting persons.
At the operational level, the ICRC is present in all the theatres of conflict. It engages in a wide spectrum of activities contributing to the protection of children. Its action is centred on the actual situation in the field and seeks to achieve real, practical solutions based on dialogue with the people concerned.
Most of its activities have a preventive function in one way or another. Allow me to highlight some operations which are particularly helping to prevent the recruitment and use of children as soldiers:
1. The ICRC regularly makes approaches to armed groups and to government authorities and forces on the bases of its contacts with the children's families, information obtained in other ways and its own monitoring exercises. The ICRC considers that it is crucial to establish and maintain a regular dialogue with all the actors concerned. Thanks to its neutrality and impartiality, the ICRC often has access to armed groups with whom few or no other actors have contact. The ICRC constantly reminds armed forces and groups of their obligations and of the ban on the recruitment of child soldiers. We have thus been able to se cure the demobilization of many children, above all in Asia and Africa.
In its contacts with armed forces and groups, the ICRC not only stresses that it is illegal to recruit child soldiers but emphasizes that children associated with them retain certain rights and are entitled to protection during their association. This includes the right not to be ill-treated or sexually abused, but to receive the requisite food and care.
2. The law must be known in order to be respected. For this reason, the ICRC organizes training courses for the armed forces, police and arms bearers to promote knowledge of humanitarian law and other fundamental standards. Lastly, it is also important to impart an awareness and knowledge of their rights to all sectors of the public, beginning with children themselves. This is done mainly by offering the educational authorities modules called " Exploring humanitarian law " .
3. The last point I would like to mention here is the right of children to live with their families. It is much easier to enlist children who are all on their own, without the protection normally afforded by the family environment, in a war-torn setting.
Our action to assist unaccompanied minors, the tracing of their next of kin, the exchanging of family messages and family reunion are all crucial if we wish to prevent the recruitment of child soldiers. En 2006, the ICRC reunited 2000 children and their families, almost half of them being demobilized child soldiers. At the end of December, some 8,000 cases were still pending, including about 600 demobilized children. The ICRC tries to monitor the situation of demobilized children after they have been reunited with their families.
In recent years, the ICRC has increasingly itself carried out activities or, together with the International Federation, has supported activities of Red Cross and Red Crescent National Societies, which are aimed at providing assistance for demobilized children living in temporary centres or in their own community and at furthering their reintegration, since it is convinced that smooth reintegration is the best way to prevent their recruitment again. But, to go back to what we were discussing yesterday afternoon, we are concerned by the fact that in countries like Sierra Leone or Liberia, where hostilities have ended fairly recently, or the peace process is still fragile and where the outstanding cases are generally problem cases, as time goes by NGOs active in the field of mediation and psychological support have had to wind up their programmes, or are on the point of doing so, because of a lack of funds. The long-term commitment which is essential when dealing with demobilized children is thus jeopardized.
The recruitment of child soldiers must be stamped out in the name of humanity and justice. The ICRC is glad to note the presence of so many government representatives at this conference and hopes that it will result in firm, specific undertakings to make " child soldier " an obsolete term.