New research from Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict has found that counterterrorism efforts are harming children living in countries embroiled in armed conflict. Released on January 27, 2020, Watchlist’s latest policy note Countering Terrorism and Violent Extremism: The Erosion of Children’s Rights in Armed Conflict says that governments have introduced counterterrorism measures that lack adequate safeguards for children and have, in some cases, led to violations of their rights.

The 26-page report examines how counterterrorism efforts are impacting the rights of children in conflict-affected countries, such as AfghanistanIraq, Libya, MaliNigeriaSomaliaSyria, and Yemen. Despite legal protections for children in armed conflict, including those who may have committed crimes, counterterrorism policies are hurting children and violating their rights. Children – including many under the age of five – have been forcibly confined in camps for internally displaced persons in appalling and sometimes deadly conditions, stripped of their citizenship, and denied access to legal or consular services.

International law recognizes children associated with armed forces and groups primarily as victims of serious violations who require rehabilitation and social reintegration. Yet Watchlist found that counterterrorism frameworks often criminalize children associated with groups designated as “terrorist,” taking a punitive approach that can be especially detrimental to children. Thousands of children have been detained on national security charges for their actual or alleged association with these groups.

The report also highlights concerns about the situation of foreign children allegedly linked to terrorist fighters. In northeast Syria alone, there are an estimated 28,000 children from more than 60 countries – including almost 20,000 from Iraq – the majority of whom are being held in displacement camps, in detention-like conditions. An additional 1,000 children with links to foreign fighters are believed to be in Iraq. Many of these children are held in dreadful conditions without access to legal or consular services and are at risk of statelessness. They face discrimination and challenges accessing education, housing, health care, and other basic services. Watchlist urges governments to facilitate the repatriation of these children to their countries of origin and to provide them with rehabilitation and reintegration.

Counterterrorism measures, as well as sanctions, have had serious implications for principled humanitarian action and access to aid, with dire consequences for children in need of lifesaving assistance. Several governments have imposed strict “donor conditionality clauses” into their grant contracts aimed at preventing designated terrorist groups from benefiting from their assistance. In practice, however, they often compromise the principled and effective provision of humanitarian aid and risk denying access to the children who need it most.

The report concludes that, by and large, current discourse on terrorism, counterterrorism, and violent extremism can undermine international law and fails to address the specific needs and rights of children. Efforts by the United Nations to develop practical handbooks and guidelines on the protection of children’s rights in counterterrorism contexts have helped draw attention to children’s rights in these contexts. Watchlist urges experts and practitioners to strengthen efforts to effectively disseminate and implement these materials, as well as to share good practices on child rights-based approaches to counterterrorism. Governments should also ensure accountability for violations of international law committed in the context of counterterrorism operations.