Note: The opinions presented are not necessarily those of the Government of Canada.
An Unacceptable Practice 4 min 51 sec (Windows Media)
Looking Beyond National Borders 4 min 13 sec (Windows Media)
More than Good Intentions 5 min 13 sec (Windows Media)
Transcript: An Unacceptable Practice
I am Jaap Doek, and I am the chairperson of the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which is the committee that is in charge of monitoring the implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 192 states around the world. The monitoring is based on reports that they submit to the Committee, and then the Committee makes recommendations to the states parties. That’s the most simple way I can put the work of the Committee. That is a full-time, unpaid activity. I am a retired law professor of the Free University of Amsterdam and I am still a Deputy Justice in the Court of Appeal of Amsterdam. When I have time, and when I spend it in the Netherlands, I sometimes do court work.
From what I see, I conclude that the international community thought that the involvement of children in armed conflict is a serious violation of children’s rights—serious enough to develop an optional protocol that raised the standards of the Convention’s Article 38. That was a provision that was criticized by quite a number of states. They were very unhappy with that particular article because it did not bring any news—it confirmed the Geneva conventions and that was it. No recruitment under 15 and no use of children under 15. Well, that was a very low standard. So the international community, supported by the General Assembly, adopted that particular optional protocol. They approved it unanimously, and so it was open for ratification. And we have close to 110 ratifications of the optional protocol. Out of the 192 states to the Convention, there is a majority already in favour of doing more for children involved in armed conflict. And at least they are willing to accept the higher standards of recruitment: no compulsory recruitment under 18, no involvement under 18. That’s a much and significantly higher standard than Article 38 of the Convention. So 110, almost, are committed to do that.
What the Committee is telling them is that you can, and you should, go one step further. Don’t limit your actions to your own country; look around the globe. I think it is important because at the conceptual level and in terms of ideas, there is nobody around this world who is going to defend or try to justify the use of children in armed conflict, or their involvement. If you look at another very sensitive issue, like female genital mutilation, which is an equally serious violation of girls’ rights, there are quite a number of countries where it is highly accepted by the population, by the women. It is a very tough fight for governments to convince people who believe that it’s okay to do so to tell them it’s not okay to do so and that you have to stop it. For the recruitment of children in armed conflict, I do not need to tell people it’s wrong, everybody agrees. So we have to undertake major and very targeted efforts to get rid of this practice because it’s not acceptable by any standard and not acceptable by anybody. So we have that kind of, at least, moral support and public support to do it.
So states parties, do not be afraid to go one step further than perhaps the optional protocol requires you to go, and go after those who do recruit children under 18 or involve those children in hostilities. Create a wall of protection around children against recruitment and use in hostilities. You can do it, so do it. You are willing to protect children from commercial sexual exploitation, from sale and prostitution. So do the same for children who are at risk of being recruited and used in hostilities. That’s what we are after.Looking Beyond National Borders
The child soldier issue is currently an emerging issue within the work of the Committee, and that's the result of the optional protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflicts. We are receiving an increasing number of reports from states that have ratified the optional protocol on the implementation of the optional protocol, Canada being one of them. And we just issued our recommendations to the Canadian government in May. The child soldiers issue is, in the optional protocol, an issue focusing on minimum ages for recruitment and minimum ages for involvement. There is relatively little on DDR (disarmament, demobilization, reintegration), as it is known. Most of that, I think, is based on reports that we receive from NGOs who are highlighting some of the problems that may exist, but we do receive reports from countries like Iceland with no armed forces. So, what are we going to tell Iceland? Well, what we are going to tell Iceland, and what we did tell Canada, is that the Committee would like to see international movement on more effective prohibition of the recruitment of children under 18, when it is compulsory recruitment; and of voluntary recruitment under 15.
The interesting experience of the Committee is that if you look at the reports, most states, including Canada, have perfect regulations and laws. The law says we are not recruiting children under 18, and we are not using children under 18 in hostilities. That's fine, but the question is: what do you do if you get information that a Canadian citizen in Rwanda is recruiting children?
Are you taking any action there? Because it's not a crime in your country, you didn't criminalize recruitment. You just said, in the law of the armed forces, the minimum age for recruitment is 18. But nothing in the criminal code, in the penal code, says that if you do recruit a child under 18, that is a crime and we are going to prosecute you, and if you commit it outside of the country, we will even consider assuming extraterritorial jurisdiction, as they call it. But it means, if you commit it outside of the country and you are a Canadian citizen—or you are a Canadian victim, because it could happen that a Canadian under 18, travelling in Colombia, is recruited forcefully by some of those armed rebel groups—if you know who did it, let’s say the commander of that group, you try to prosecute him.
Ultimately at the end of the day, what the Committee is looking for is the same thing as we have for commercial sexual exploitation. The message is that there is no safe haven in this world for people who recruit children under 18, who involve children under 18 in armed hostilities. And we as an international community are going to chase you around the globe if you do it.More than Good Intentions
History tells us, over the last 20-25 years, that a lot of the internal conflicts between minorities, or between a minority and a government, sometimes with cross-border impacts, often involve children either as combatants, as people who are used to do certain things for the military, or as victims. If you look at the international arena, regular armed forces with compulsory recruitment of children under 18 is very, very limited.
The big issue, if you listen to people at this conference, is internal conflicts and some cross-border conflicts in Africa, in some countries in Asia and in Latin America. The major issue is not, with some exceptions, children recruited in regular armed forces, it’s children used and recruited, voluntarily or otherwise, in all those small armed groups. The government might be in a not-so-easy dilemma, making a choice between trying to enforce international standards like the non-use of children in armed conflict, or their non-recruitment, at the expense of possible collateral damage, meaning dead civilians, by trying to get access to those areas that are under the control of those armed groups.
So it is really not an easy way to go, for any government in this particular kind of situation. The minimum you have to ask from government is, “Show me not only your good intentions, but also the measures that you have taken to do something about it.” We cannot limit ourselves to saying, “Well, the government has a lot of good intentions, but it’s not doing anything.” You have to show that you are trying to do something. Show me, because just telling me that you are very concerned about children involved in armed conflict is something that’s not new to me; I’ve heard it from other governments as well. But in your particular situation, unfortunately, you have to do something, so tell me what you have been considering, and why you didn’t do it. Because you may have a very valid argument for not doing something that I think might be a feasible thing to do, but I don’t know the insides, and you know, so tell me.
I think accountability is also important. If you ratify any kind of international human rights treaty, you are committing yourself to certain action, but you are also committing yourself to accountability. You explain why you were not doing things that others were expecting from you under that particular treaty. As I said, that might be understandable, and it may be an acceptable non-action for the mid term or the short term, but ultimately at the end of the day you want to have full implementation of that particular treaty, in this case children’s rights.
You accept that, in a process of priorities, and if you have $100 to spend, that with due respect for the victims of an armed conflict, you want to spend at least 90% of that money for education. Others, in a country where there is a lot of armed conflict, may complain that you are only spending $10 for children in armed conflict. But look at Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone is a devastated country. There are thousands of schools that are non-existent or completely falling apart. The money they need just to rebuild the facilities is huge. And if they have those schools, they may not have the teachers to teach, because they are gone. You can tell a state, “Well, you have $100 to spend and because you have so many victims of armed conflict, you have to spend $50 of the $100 on those victims of armed conflict.” But then the government says, “No, no, we are not going to do that. We have $10 for those kids, and the other $90 goes to education.”
That’s fine. Ultimately I have to accept it, because it’s part of the autonomy of a state party to decide where their priorities are—as long as they are committed, and do whatever they can, to also help the victims of that armed conflict.