Children, "Violent Extremism", and the Justice System

In December 2016, Child Soldiers International attended an Expert Group Meeting hosted by the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Vienna, on the treatment of children recruited and exploited by terrorist and violent extremist groups by the justice system. The meeting brought together UN member states, inter-governmental agencies working in counter-terrorism, child protection and human rights, NGOs and other practitioners. Discussions focused on current trends in child recruitment, justice responses and best practice in disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration programming.

The meeting addressed a key question regarding states’ obligations in this regard: how should the justice system treat children exploited by terrorist or violent extremist groups, particularly when those children may have committed crimes under national or international law?

States are obliged to criminalise acts of terrorism and ensure that perpetrators are held accountable. At the same time, they have a duty to uphold existing principles of juvenile justice and protect the rights of children within their jurisdictions, whether as victims, witnesses or perpetrators of human rights abuses.

Issues of Terminology: What’s in a Name?

One challenge concerns the way the debate is framed politically. While the terms “terrorism” and “violent extremism” have no internationally agreed definitions, both terms appear in official UN documents, as do phrases such as “terrorism and violent extremism as and when conducive to terrorism,” suggesting the existence of distinct but related phenomena.[1]

The UN Secretary-General has stated that defining these terms is “the prerogative of member states, and must be consistent with their obligations under international law, in particular international human rights law.”[2] Governments are quick to claim broad discretion, but they have often conveniently ignored their human rights obligations. As has been well documented, violations of international law have frequently been committed in the name of countering terrorism, often facilitated by over-broad or vaguely defined laws.[3] Among the victims of these transgressions have been opposition movements and human rights defenders.

Issues of Utility: Is “Violent Extremism” new?

Delegates noted a recent proliferation of online images depicting acts of shocking violence committed by members of armed groups, and in particular, by children. However, acts of violence that could be called "extreme" by any reasonable measure were also common in earlier conflicts, such as abuses committed by the Revolutionary United Front in Sierra Leone during the 1990s, and by the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, as well as by state armed forces.

Furthermore, the terms “terrorism” and “violent extremism” do not always translate well into local concepts, and may have little relevance to local understandings of conflict dynamics. In some contexts, they may therefore be of limited use in developing meaningful policy responses. In addressing the recruitment and use of children by armed groups more broadly, these terms offer no guidance in determining the applicability of relevant International Humanitarian Law and International Human Rights Law.

Contemporary Patterns of Recruitment and Exploitation of Child Soldiers

Many delegates argued that in some contemporary armed conflicts, the scale and methods of child recruitment represent a new trend. They observed that groups such as “Islamic State” and Boko Haram are increasingly recruiting children as a deliberate tactic. This not only boosts military strength, but is also a long-term strategy to control populations by raising future generations of loyal adherents, and thus consolidate control over territory. Several delegates also emphasised the growing use of social media to target children for recruitment, and increasingly sophisticated psychological methods used to groom, indoctrinate and train them.  

On the other hand, it was acknowledged that recruitment by “extremist” groups is also driven by socioeconomic factors that drive recruitment in many contexts, such as the prevalence of armed conflict, poverty, lack of access to education and social exclusion as a result of governance failures.

Delegates acknowledged the need to do more to prevent child recruitment, discussing efforts already underway in several states. Speakers noted that such initiatives needed to be handled with great care, as targeting groups or individuals identified as being at particular risk can lead to social stigmatisation, potentially reinforcing feelings of discrimination that can contribute to recruitment in the first place.

The Global Security Agenda and the Impact of Justice Responses on Children

Several speakers stressed the importance of this issue for international, regional and national security agendas now and in the near future. In particular, states are grappling with how to treat suspected “foreign fighters,” including those who may have committed serious violations of international law while taking part in hostilities abroad, including children.

In this regard, it was emphasised that in national justice systems, children formerly associated with armed groups should be treated in line with existing human rights standards applicable to children, regardless of any criminal offences they may have allegedly committed. Key among these include an obligation to consider the best interests of children in all public actions, using detention only as a last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time, and alternatives to processing in the formal criminal justice system.

Several delegates emphasised that regardless of their conduct, all children associated with armed groups are first and foremost victims of child recruitment and use, and as such, should never be prosecuted solely for being a member of an armed group. Furthermore, they should be provided with appropriate recovery and reintegration assistance. 

In Child Soldiers International’s view, labels such as “terrorism” and “violent extremism” provide little guidance on how to address child recruitment by armed groups. In order to develop appropriate prevention, accountability and reintegration measures, states should ask themselves how they can best implement existing legal obligations and standards of good practice. Ultimately, to protect societies from insecurity, upholding child rights must be a first line of defence.  

Photo credit ©UNODC. Address by Dmitry Titov, Assistant Secretary-General for the Rule of Law and Security Institutions.

[1] See for instance General Assembly resolution 70/291, on the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy Review, 19 July 2016: http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/RES/70/291

[2] See the UN Secretary General’s Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism, UN Doc. A/70/674, 24 December 2015: http://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/70/674

[3] See for example Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism to the UN General Assembly, A/70/371, 18 September 2015, para 14, available at: https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N15/284/90/PDF/N1528490.pdf?OpenElement).