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This article has been written by Yashika Kapoor, a student pursuing the Certificate Course in Advanced Civil Litigation: Practice, Procedure and Drafting from LawSikho.

Introduction

Zinah, a 12-year-old girl, had to join the armed forces in the Central African Republic when she went in search of her elder brother who was reported missing from the armed group. When she was rescued, she narrated her tale. Her day-to-day activities in the armed groups included collecting water and firewood, cooking for the fighters. Zinah also learned to carry weapons. However, she was devastated to know that her elder brother had died. Her purpose to remain there came to an end but she continued working. Later, with the help of adult disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration programme, initiated in Birao in October 2020, by the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) and the local government, Zinah along with other 249 children was identified as minor and rescued. Unfortunately, like Zinah there are thousands of girls and boys working as child labourers in conflict settings across different nations. 

Zinah was one such child soldier or child labour in conflict. The term child soldier or child labour in conflict implies- any child below the age of 18 years recruited forcefully to join the armed conflicts in any capacity is a child soldier or child labour in conflict. They are recruited either by the state armed forces or non-state armed forces. The state armed forces are beyond the scope of governmental control. 

According to ILO (International Labour Organization), around 20,000-1,00,000 children are found working during armed conflicts in 17 different nations. The participation of these children is not only limited to becoming fighters and directly joining the armed conflicts but the children are also engaged as cooks, secret agents, porters, messengers, etc. Some children are trained by the armed forces while others act as spies, lookouts, spies. It would be quite staggering to know that some child soldiers (girls) are also used for sexual purposes and in some cases, small girls are taken as wives by the male combatants.

The experiences shared by some children of post-conflict settings are quite horrendous. Before admitting the children into the conflict settings, they were given the task of killing their parents. According to the armed groups, such actions would help children to become thick-skinned and break all sorts of connections with the superficial world. This article reflects on the lives of children in conflict settings and post-conflict settings, the adverse effects on such children, strategies and policies governing the issue of child labour in armed conflicts, the role of the ILO and steps taken by other organisations in curbing this menace. 

How do children become a part of armed conflicts?

Have you ever wondered why these children turn into child soldiers or what we call child labour in conflict? 

As per ILO, the children in armed conflicts are either abducted, coerced, or forcefully employed. 

  • There might be cases where such children become part of these warfare acts when they are found to be in dire need of survival or protection. 
  • Some children might join due to economic and social pressure and others might join due to lack of working opportunities and poverty. 
  • Some children misconceive the purpose of joining such groups with the emotion of vengeance and therefore wilfully participate. 
  • However, on the pretext of wilful participation, such children are admitted to armed conflicts with compulsion and in ignorance of the adverse effects on their lives. 

Child labour in armed conflict is a nationwide issue. Children are predominantly vulnerable to being employed in the armed force or armed groups. This reason being, they lack the basic sense of understanding and can be easily swayed away. 

Policies, laws, and regulations for child labour in conflict and post settings 

The issue of children being deployed in wars and conflicts had become so alarming that the ILO in its Convention No. 182, defined it as the “worst form of child labour”; it is indeed a violation of human rights and is considered as a war crime.  

The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, commonly known as OHCHR, prohibits the use of any child labour (below the age of 18 years) in armed conflict, irrespective of whether they are recruited under compulsion or they participate voluntarily. The Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court considers child labour in armed conflict as a war crime. This stringent law provides for the imposition of severe criminal charges on such persons who employ children under the age of 15 years in armed conflicts.   

Not only does the armed conflict negatively impact the socio-economic environment but also upsurges the risks of child labour in setting conflicts. Child labourers who are already engaged and working are more likely to be involved in dangerous and hazardous employment in armed conflicts. The post effects of armed conflicts on child labour are even worse as these have indirect consequences that continue for years. As a result, the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) and the International Labour Organisation’s International Training Centre is looking at ways to address the impact of war and post-conflict settings on child labours. 

Role of ILO in curbing the menace of child labour in conflict and post-conflict settings

The role of ILO is quite significant in saving such children that are used in armed conflicts or indulged in hostilities:

  • As per ILO’s report, in the past ten years, steps like the implementation of reintegration and rescue programmes have been taken to stop the intake of child labourers in such warfare activities.  
  • It is claimed by ILO that United Nations and armed parties have entered into a negotiation whereby they end any further employment of child soldiers/child labour.  
  • Efforts are being undertaken by ILO as they organise release and reintegration programmes globally intending to support such agonized child labourers, making them integrate with the society so that they could be accepted as any other child and also helping them to get back to their normal civilian lives. Steps are also being taken to indulge these children in meaningful roles like such children are given opportunities wherein they can work flexibly. Efforts are taken to complete the schooling of former child labour in armed conflicts.
  • The mentioning of child labours in conflict settings as the worst forms of child labour convention was enough for ILO to take crucial steps against it and so they came up with a strategy of precluding the employment of child labourers in such warfare activities. The strategy also focused on the children who were previously engaged in armed conflicts. ILO helped in ensuring the reintegration of such innocent children into society by providing them with various work opportunities permitted under law.
  • International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour commonly known as IPEC has played a vital role in reintegrating such child labourers with their families. IPEC executed certain strategies and framed policies to assist child labour in conflict and post-conflict settings. 
  • The policies of IPEC helped the children belonging to various countries like the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Central Africa, and Colombia. 
  • The policies namely, “Strategic framework for addressing the economic gap in prevention of child recruitment and reintegration of children associated with armed forces and groups” and the “How-to guide on economic reintegration of working-age children formerly associated with armed forces and groups” aided many innocent lives. 
  • Presently, IPEC aims to strengthen the economic element of reintegration programmes that are being implemented by IPEC’s partner organisations. 
  • It is noteworthy to mention that with the assistance of the ILO, IPEC was able to develop a programme that intended to train the associated agencies that worked in similar domain areas to protect the child labour in conflict setting and post-conflict setting. IPEC also provided training to other agencies and stakeholders at the national and international levels.  

Role of other organisations in preventing the child soldiers 

Actions adopted by the UN Peacekeeping

As observed in the past two decades, stringent actions have been taken by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) with the help of United Nations Peacekeeping. The lives of thousands of children are saved with the combined efforts of UN Peacekeeping and United Nations Children’s Funds (UNICEF) in countries like South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Central Africa. 

Some of the actions adopted by the UN Peacekeeping include deployment of child protection activists, monitoring and reporting to the Security Council about child labour in armed forces, negotiating with the armed groups, bringing legal reforms, sensitizing people about this issue. The UN Peacekeeping sensitised people by using their radio stations and organising campaigns and events to prevent violations against child labour in conflict settings. 

The action plans set out by UN Peacekeeping in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have helped many child labourers to get themselves free from setting conflicts. ‘Plus jamais de Kadogo’ was one such campaign launched by the Government of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The campaign aimed at preventing the employment of child labour in armed conflicts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo territory.

UNICEF’s support

UNICEF supports and partners with governments, various community groups, and other organizations that are dedicated to bringing change in the lives of children affected by armed conflicts. UNICEF extends support to such children by providing them with a safe place after their release from the armed groups and provides community services such as case management, family tracing, reunification and psychosocial support. UNICEF claims to respond to the needs of more than 13,000 child survivors. 

Throwing light upon other efforts

  • Apart from UN Peacekeeping and UNICEF, efforts are also taken by the Office of the Secretary General’s Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflicts. This was created by the UN General Assembly in December 1996 with the motto of saving children affected by armed conflicts, collecting information concerning children affected by war and making efforts to protect such children. The Office of the Secretary General’s Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflicts has launched the campaign “Act to Protect” with the objective of not protecting children affected by war across the globe and creating awareness regarding the grave issue. 
  • The Office of the Secretary General’s Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflicts is spread across the globe and works for countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Myanmar, Philippines, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, South Sudan, Israel, the state of Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq and other countries as well.   

Moreover, a Global Coalition for Reintegration of Child Soldiers was launched in September 2018 which aimed to bring improvements and invited new ideas for child labour in armed forces reintegration programmes. The research process not only helped in identifying the gaps in child reintegration funding and programming but also understood the requirement of organising such programs. The following research papers are the results of the Global Coalition for Reintegration of Child Soldiers:

  • Paper I: Gaps and Needs for the Successful Reintegration of Children Associated with Armed Groups or Armed Forces.
  • Paper-II: Reframing Child Reintegration: From the Humanitarian Action to Development, Peacebuilding, Prevention and Beyond.
  • Paper III: Financing Support for Child Reintegration: Issues & Options Study.
  • A campaign namely Children Not Soldiers is working intensely on preventing the employment/engagement of child labourers in armed conflicts with the help of national security forces. The campaign was launched in 2014 and since then it attempts to bring affirmative changes in the lives of child labourers. The campaign primarily focuses on counties including Myanmar, Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan and Chad and other signatories of United Nation Action Plans.
  • There have been numerous encouraging steps, as reported by the UN Secretary General’s report of 2017 on ‘children and armed conflict’. It was observed that the armed groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Philippines were delisted. Thereafter, a peace accord in Colombia was signed, which included a particular accord on child release and reintegration. 
  • Steps are being taken globally, to prevent child labourers from becoming combatants in the future. As laid down in ILO’s Convention No. 182, child labour in conflict settings is the worst form of child labour, therefore it is very much important to establish and enforce the minimum age (18-year-old) for employment in conflict settings. 
  • The majority of child soldiers/child labourers have missed their school lives and require schooling to be completed. Hence, efforts must be taken to teach them so that they become capable and establish a more secure life.
  • Organisations like Child Soldiers International and War Child are putting their strenuous efforts into addressing the issue through raising awareness and advocating for people. Steps are also being taken towards rescuing and rehabilitating child soldiers. 
  • War Child (an organisation that works focuses on the disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR) of children associated with armed groups through collaboration with community leaders and grassroots organisations) have helped many affected children in not only rescuing them but also by providing them vocational training, or teaching them tailoring, carpentry. These organisations also help child labourers trapped amidst conflicts and post conflicts by providing them education and health care facilities. 

Conclusion 

As I began my article with the story of Zinah, it has to be acknowledged that she was lucky enough to get rescued and start her new life. Now she is helping her peers to overcome difficult situations. All thanks to the organisation who helped her to return to civilian life and also started her schooling.

Although, it’s not as plain-sailing for the children in a post-conflict setting to return to civilian life. The children in their tender age become vulnerable and exposed to such dangerous activities as soon as they join the conflict settings. At an age where they should cherish their childhood, they are made to carry bombs, bullets, and ammunition. At an age where they should be loved and protected by their families, relatives, and neighbours, they are exposed to labour in armed conflicts. The inhumane treatment of these children is a blatant violation of human rights. The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict provides for the protection of such affected children and encourages the state parties to follow the Articles set out in the protocol strenuously. 

Nevertheless, organisations are doing their best to improve the lives of children in conflict settings and post-conflict settings. These organisations train children in tailoring, carpentry, or vocational training. The organisations and campaigns also provide the children with psychosocial support, vocational training, education and health care. The organisation working towards the betterment of affected children by wars supports them to become future leaders. They engage children in such activities so that children after reaching 18 years of age become capable enough to support themselves financially. But the organisations alone cannot release thousands of children. Hence, it’s high time that International Communities must come together and put their strenuous efforts to curb the menace of child labour in conflict settings. 

It is also imperative to consider the adverse effects on children who were formerly associated with the conflict settings as they have a long-lasting scar on their minds. The process doesn’t stop when they are rescued, rather it continues till they return to their civilian lives. Thus, such children are put into reintegration programmes wherein they are extended support for their restoration into the community in a peaceful manner. 

References 


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