On December 17, 2019, Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict and the Permanent Mission of the Federal Republic of Germany to the United Nations co-hosted a side event examining efforts to counter terrorism and violent extremism and their impacts on children’s rights.
The event sought to promote a child rights-based approach to counterterrorism. In particular, the event highlighted existing normative frameworks and tools for the protection of children’s rights, with a view towards strengthening their implementation and protecting children in these contexts.
Introducing the event, Watchlist’s Program Director Adrianne Lapar explained the rationale behind the research initiative. “We are worried to see existing frameworks and norms for the protection of civilians – and more specifically of children – in armed conflict being undermined in contexts involving violent extremist or designated terrorist groups,” she said. “There is a host of frameworks and norms for the protection of children’s rights in situations of armed conflict – including th
e Security Council’s resolutions on CAAC, the Geneva Conventions, the Paris Principles and Guidelines, the Safe Schools Declaration, and the Vancouver Principles, among others – and we are concerned these are not being upheld.”
In his remarks, Deputy Permanent Representative of Germany to the United Nations, Ambassador Jüergen Schulz, reiterated that under international law, children affiliated with armed forces and armed groups – including those designated as “terrorist” – should be treated first and foremost as victims. He also called for practical ways to apply established laws and principles in complex and challenging situations involving violent extremist and terrorist groups.
Mathilde Bienvenu, a consultant with Watchlist, presented the main findings of Watchlist’s forthcoming research on the impact on children’s rights of efforts to counter terrorism and violent extremism. According to Bienvenu, “Too often, the point of departure under the CT [counterterrorism] framework is the criminalization of children associated with armed groups designated as terrorist or involved in terrorist activities. Through this lens children are often considered as threats and viewed as perpetrators. Children have been tortured, subjected to ill-treatment, and unlawfully or arbitrarily detained on national security-related charges for their actual or alleged association with armed groups.”
In addition, many counterterrorism measures have a punitive orientation and fail to distinguish between children and adults, running contrary to international juvenile justice standards.
Jo Becker, chair of Watchlist’s Advisory Board and advocacy director for Human Rights Watch’s Child Rights Division, spoke about the military detention of children affected by war – an increasingly worrying trend in at least 15 countries in situations of armed conflict. Drawing on findings from Human Rights Watch reports on Nigeria and Iraq, as well as a recently released joint policy note with Watchlist, Becker explained that in conflicts where armed groups are labeled as “terrorist,” governments too often abandon the rehabilitation and reintegration principle, and instead put children in prison and sometimes prosecute them as terrorists and criminals.
According to international standards, children should only be detained as a last resort, for the shortest amount of time possible, and with the best interest of the child remaining the primary concern. By adapting and implementing protocols for the handover of apprehended children to child protection actors, Becker explained, governments can reduce the number of children detained in these circumstances and ensure they receive the necessary support for their rehabilitation and reintegration into society.
The event ended with a recognition that more research is needed to understand the various ways in which counterterrorism efforts are undermining or eroding the protections established for children under the CAAC framework. Watchlist’s full report on this topic will be launched in January 2020.