January 2020 – In this policy note, Watchlist examines how counterterrorism efforts are impacting the rights of children in conflict-affected countries, such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen. In response to the threat of armed groups using extreme violence, governments have introduced counterterrorism measures that lack adequate safeguards for children and have, in some cases, led to violations of their rights.

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. 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.

The 26-page policy note also highlights concerns about the situation of foreign children allegedly linked to terrorist fighters. Many of these children – including many under the age of five – have been forcibly confined in camps for internally displaced persons in appalling and sometimes deadly conditions, denied 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.

The policy note 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 must ensure that children’s rights are protected in the course of efforts to counter terrorism, including by ensuring accountability for violations of international law committed in such contexts.

Read Watchlist’s policy note Countering Terrorism and Violent Extremism: The Erosion of Children’s Rights in Armed Conflict.


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