A global problem
In at least 15 countries affected by armed conflict, governments imprison children suspected of involvement in non-state armed groups or other national security offenses. Recent surveys have revealed that children are often detained on the basis of little or no evidence, subjected to torture in order to force confessions, and detained in horrific conditions for months or even years.
International law recognizes children involved in armed conflict primarily as victims of serious violations requiring rehabilitation and social reintegration. Over the past 20 years, at least 130,000 child soldiers have been released or demobilized from armed forces or armed groups and have benefited from reintegration assistance. Yet increasingly governments are treating children affected by armed conflict – even those who may not have a history as combatants – as criminals and security threats.
According to the United Nations Secretary-General, at least 4,471 children were detained in armed conflict in 2017, a five-fold increase from 2012. The number of children detained in 2018 fell to 2,637 , but remains alarming. Particularly in conflicts involving designated terrorist or violent extremist groups, governments have become more likely to detain children than to provide them with rehabilitation and reintegration.
If a child is involved in a war crime or violent criminal offense, international law allows detention as a last resort and prosecution in accordance with juvenile justice standards. However, in practice such cases are the exception rather than the rule.
Children in armed conflict are doubly victimized – first by armed groups who attack their homes and schools, and recruit or kidnap them, and then by government authorities who imprison them.
In northeast Nigeria, for example, since 2013 authorities have detained more than 3,600 children, including 1,600 girls, suspected of being involved in Boko Haram. Some of the children were only five years old. Many of these children were arrested after escaping Boko Haram attacks, and girls were arrested after forced kidnapping and forced marriage to Boko Haram fighters. The vast majority of these children have never been charged with a crime.
Children interviewed by Human Rights Watch in June 2019 described beatings in detention, sweltering heat, and an unbearable smell from hundreds of detainees sharing a single open toilet. Many spoke of frequent hunger or thirst and said inmate deaths were frequent. In Iraq, authorities of the Iraqi and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) detained thousands of children for alleged affiliation with the Islamic State (IS), used torture to compel confessions and sentenced hundreds of children for terrorism in hasty and unfair trials.
Children can be prosecuted for any association with IS, including work as a cook or driver, or attending a religious training course. Child detainees interviewed in late 2018 described acts of torture during interrogation with plastic pipes, electric cables and rods. Some have said they have confessed to ISIS involvement simply to stop the torture, although they have little or nothing to do with ISIS. Since 2015 in Somalia, military and intelligence forces have detained hundreds of children suspected of belonging to the armed group al-Shabaab. Authorities subjected children to coercive treatment and interrogation, denied them access to family members and a lawyer, and in some cases beat and tortured them to obtain confessions. Dozens of children have been tried in military courts for alleged membership of al-Shabaab. In one case, a 15-year-old boy was kidnapped by al-Shabaab and forced to fight, then captured and sentenced to 10 years in prison for belonging to al-Shabaab. In the occupied West Bank, Israeli security forces routinely use unnecessary force to arrest or detain Palestinian children as young as nine, often in the middle of the night, and threaten and physically abuse them in detention. Out of 101 testimonies collected by Military Court Watch in 2018, 69% of children who had been detained reported various forms of physical abuse by Israeli forces during arrests, transfers or questioning, including beatings with batons and guns, kicked in the genitals and shot dead with rubber bullets. Israeli authorities have frequently interviewed Palestinian children in the West Bank without their parents or lawyers present, and tried them in military courts which have a conviction rate of nearly 100%.
In a 2013 report, UNICEF stated that “the mistreatment of [Palestinian] children who come into contact with the military detention system appear to be widespread, systematic and institutionalized throughout the process. According to the UN, at least 15 countries detain children in armed conflict, including Afghanistan, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Libya, Mali, Myanmar , Niger, Nigeria, the Philippines, Somalia, Sudan and Syria. The consequences of military detention for children can be profound, creating long-term stigma, physical and mental health problems, family separation and displacement, and severely limiting children’s ability to reintegrate into society and to reintegrate into society. support themselves.
Some children risk revenge attacks if they return home after release from detention. The UN secretary-general has warned that child detention can exacerbate community grievances and has repeatedly urged states to prioritize alternatives to detention.