Children and Armed Conflict CRINmail 213

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20 July 2017 subscribe | subscribe | submit information
  • CRINmail 213:

    In this issue:

     

    Spotlight on Kasai, Democratic Republic of Congo


    The Central Kasai province in the South West of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), has been hit by increasing violence between the Kamwina Nsapu militia and government troops since the traditional chief heading the militia was killed in August 2016.

    The region was considered peaceful before the fighting broke out. In 2016, tensions started growing between the government and the Kamwina Nsapu, accused of encouraging young people to oppose the government, to restore traditional powers, and to chase “foreigners”, including Rwandese-speaking soldiers transferred from the DRC’s East. Kamwina Nsapu organised “baptisms” during which participants drank a potion, supposedly making them invincible. The leader’s death triggered a violent conflict rapidly spreading through the province and beyond. Kamwina Nsapu’s original members were joined by people unhappy with the government, including many young people. In retaliation, the army sent more troops - mostly Rwandese-speaking soldiers from the East of the country, helping to reinforce the rebels’ discourse on supposed “foreigners”.

    More information on the conflict in Radio France Internationale’s three-part series in French.
     

    Children’s rights violations

    Kamuina Nsapu’s followers are very young, and its recruits include children. According to local organisations, most of them were younger than 14 years old at the beginning of the conflict. Extremely violent “mystical attacks” - including killings and decapitations - are carried out to commemorate their leader’s death. Because of the so-called invincibility potion, children - probably under the influence of drugs - often confront soldiers armed with nothing but sticks.

    From the onset, the army has reacted by using excessive force. Videos of interrogations, including child torture and massacres of civilians have emerged. The UN has so far identified 80 possible mass graves. While the government has blamed the rebels for the bodies, the UN suspects the army, with witnesses reporting seeing army trucks dropping bodies at the sites.

    Far from diminishing, the under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations told the Security Council on 11 July that violence has reached “disturbing” levels. Between October 2016 and June 2017, 3,300 people died, according to the local church, with villages being completely destroyed. In June, allegations emerged of atrocities targeting childrencarried out by the “Bana Mura”, a militia backed by the government, including murder and mutilations on infants and toddlers.

    An estimated 1.3 million people have fled the region, and 400.000 children in the Greater Kasai are now at risk of severe acute malnutrition. Meanwhile, refugee services in Angola are overwhelmed and the UN refugee agency has warned of potential sexual abuse and exploitation of vulnerable refugees.
     

    National and international response

    On 23 June 2017, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution calling on the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to appoint a team of experts to collect evidence on violations, in cooperation with the Congolese government. Experts - including experts from the region - will share their conclusions with Congolese authorities, who will have the leadership on investigations and prosecutions. The resolution is a compromise seeking to overcome Kinshasa’s opposition to a fully-fledged independent investigation. Before the UN resolution was adopted, the High Commissioner had expressed concern over the endemic impunity in the country, and doubts regarding the ability of the Congolese judiciary to carry out investigations and prosecutions. Only eight soldiers have so far been tried. Seven of them were sentenced to prison terms by a military court in early July for a civilian massacre caught on video. Although the sentences were severe, the UN has deplored that charges of war crimes were dropped before the trial.

     


    News and reports:

     

    Justice

    Omar Khadr, the Canadian born ex-Guantanamo detainee has received an apology and $10.5m in compensation from the Canadian government for failing to protect his rights. Khadr was captured in Afghanistan in 2002 at the age of 15 and spent more than 13 years in detention. He is the most recognisable child known to have been held in Guantanamo bay and the only child to have been prosecuted by a military tribunal for war crimes to date.

    During his imprisonment, Khadr was subjected to both physical and psychological torture. Upon capture, suffering from two life threatening bullet wounds to the chest, Khadr was strapped to a stretcher for prolonged periods of interrogation, and threatened with rape. Khadr gave an account of being forced into painful stress positions, hooded, confronted by dogs, and used as a “human mop” after he urinated on the floor during one interrogation session. Khadr also claims he was threatened with rendition to Egypt, Syria, and Jordan for torture, and was refused access to legal advice for two years after his capture.

    In 2010 Khadr accepted a plea bargain, confessing to five charges including murder, providing material support for terrorism, and spying. Under the deal, Khadr was transferred to Canadian custody in 2012 and was released on bail in 2015. Khadr has since said that his guilty plea was entered under duress and is challenging his conviction in the US.

    Under international law, children can only be detained as a last resort and for the shortest appropriate time, and their cases must be dealt with promptly. They must be held separately from adults, allowed contact with their families, granted access to a lawyer and be able to challenge the legality of their detention. They have an inalienable right not to be tortured or held arbitrarily. International criminal courts have refrained from prosecuting crimes committed by individuals who were children at the time of alleged crimes.

    Khadr was detained with adults, held for more than two years before having access to a lawyer, and for more than three years before he was charged by a military commission, which the US Supreme Court later judged to have violated US law and the Geneva Conventions on the law of war.

    “It is a very significant development,” said Rachel Taylor, Director of Programmes at Child Soldiers International. “At the moment we see more involvement of children in Islamic armed groups worldwide and it’s a growing area. This is about being able to say categorically that whatever your involvement with a group that society finds particularly vile, you should lose neither your human rights nor your childhood.”

    Khadr’s case serves as a reminder that child soldiers are first and foremost victims of grave abuses of human rights. National authorities must prioritise their rehabilitation and reintegration, while holding those who recruited them to account.

    Read CRIN’s piece on Omar Khadr and the child soldiers of the war on terror and our editorial on children and international justice.

     

    Attacks on civilians

    The military operation by pro-government forces to retake the city of Mosul, Iraq, and its surrounding areas from the control of the so-called Islamic State (IS) officially began on 19 February 2017 and has caused a civilian catastrophe. Pro-government forces include various branches of the Iraqi armed forces and security forces and personnel representing the US-led international coalition.

    According to a new report by Amnesty International, civilians have been ruthlessly exploited by IS, which has systematically moved them into zones of conflict, used them as human shields and prevented them from escaping to safety. The report documented that during the battle for west Mosul, IS has flagrantly violated fundamental rules of international humanitarian law, including by deliberately putting civilians in harm’s way to shield their fighters and impede the advance of Iraqi and coalition forces. The armed group then prevented civilians from evacuating, in some cases trapping them inside their homes by welding their doors shut or by rigging the entrances with booby traps. IS also summarily killed hundreds, if not thousands, of men, women and children as they attempted to flee, later hanging their bodies in public areas.

    Pro-government forces led relentless and unlawful attacks and failed to take feasible precautions to protect civilians during the battle for west Mosul.

    Also on Iraq, UNICEF found that past three years of intensifying conflicthave left the country's children trapped in a grinding cycle of violence and poverty. Since 2014, 1,075 children have been killed, 152 in the first six months of 2017. In addition, over the same three-year period, 138 schools and 58 hospitals were attacked. For nearly four decades, Iraq has faced violence, war, sanctions and instability. But in the last three years alone, conflict has displaced three million people – half of them children.

     

    As South Sudan enters its sixth year of independence, UNICEF is calling the situation in the country “a catastrophe for children”. The country has been in conflict since December 2013, with at least 2,500 children killed or injured, and more than two million children displaced or seeking refuge in neighbouring countries. Hundreds have also been raped and sexually assaulted.

    UNICEF noted that with 2.2 million children out of school, the country has the highest proportion of school children not in classrooms, with 70 percent of children not receiving any education. In addition, one-third of all schools are believed to have been attacked by armed groups.

    An estimated 1.1 million children in the country are acutely malnourished, according to UNICEF. In addition, children lack clean water, which has led to the ongoing outbreak of cholera – the longest and most widespread in the country's history – with the majority of 10,000 reported cases involving children.

    A committee of UN experts has completed its annual evaluation of the situation of people in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, hearing testimonies about Israel’s human rights record, including the deteriorating situation in Gaza and increasing obstacles being faced by human rights defenders and journalists. The Committee also heard troubling testimony regarding the arrest and detention of children, including cases of reported ill-treatment and a lack of adequate protection.

     

    Other issues raised included the effects of the separation wall on Palestinians’ rights, and the demolition of homes and other structures in the West Bank including East Jerusalem, as well as in the Syrian Golan. The use of punitive demolitions in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, was described as a form of collective punishment.

    Many organisations highlighted to the Committee the continued lack of accountability for allegations of excessive use of force and violations of international law by the Israeli forces, including during the 2014 hostilities in Gaza.

    The Committee was established by the UN General Assembly in December 1968 to examine the human rights situation in the occupied Syrian Golan, the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. It is composed of three UN Member States: Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Senegal. The Government of Israel does not recognize the Committee, which was therefore unable to speak to the relevant Israeli authorities or access the occupied territories.
     

    With the recent escalation of hostilities damaging vital water infrastructure in eastern Ukraine, at least 750,000 children are at imminent risk of being cut off from safe drinking water, UNICEF has warned.

    “Nearly three million people in eastern Ukraine rely on water infrastructure that is now in the line of fire,” said Afshan Khan, UNICEF's Regional Director for Europe and Central Asia, noting that more families are expected to be cut off from safe drinking water, putting children at severe risk of disease and other dangers. In Donetsk, power lines providing electricity to the city's water filtration station were damaged last month, threatening more than a million people's access to safe water. Children cut off from clean drinking water can quickly contract water-borne diseases such as diarrhea. Girls and boys having to fetch water from alternative sources, or who are forced to leave their homes due to disruptions to safe water supplies, face danger from ongoing fighting and other forms of abuse.

     

    Use of weapons

    The UN Security Council issued its first-ever resolution on mine action, noting the serious and lasting threat posed by landmines, explosive remnants of war and improvised explosive devices, while also recognising the positive contribution of mine action to sustaining peace and stability.

    The resolution “calls on all parties to armed conflicts to end immediately and definitively any indiscriminate use of explosive devices in violation of international humanitarian law.”

    The 15-member body unanimously adopted the resolution, noting the danger that they pose to civilians, including children, as well as refugees returning home, peacekeepers, aid workers, law enforcement, and other personnel. Given the positive contribution of mine action to sustaining peace and stability, the new resolution stressed “the importance of considering mine action during the earliest stages of planning and programming in peacekeeping operations and special political missions,” as well as in humanitarian responses.

    In addition, the Secretary-General has been requested to provide information on threats posed by landmines, explosive remnants of war and improvised explosive devices, and efforts to mitigate these threats, when reporting on peace operations and humanitarian responses.
     

    Child recruitment

    Since the current conflict in the Central African Republic (CAR) started in 2012, some 13,000 children have joined the ranks of the various groups involved, according to a UN estimate. In some cases, militia groups abducted children as young as six.

    Some 10,000 children are thought to have been officially demobilised under a 2015 deal brokered by UNICEF. But, Sandra Olsson, Programme Manager at Child Soldiers International believes there’s now a major risk of re-recruitment and points to “alarming reports of families paying ransoms for children to be released by militias, a practice that increases the profitability of abductions.” Only half of those demobilised get reintegration support. Children who leave the ranks of armed groups tend to face discrimination at home or, especially in the case of girls, are stigmatised because of the sexual abuse they suffered.

    Clashes between the mainly Muslim Séléka rebel coalition and anti-Balaka militia, which are mostly Christian, have plunged the country of about 4.5 million people into civil conflict since 2012. In addition to those displaced within CAR, more than 484,000 people from the country have been forced to seek refuge in neighbouring nations.

    Earlier in July, the UN Security Council expressed concern at the ongoing clashes between armed groups in CAR and deplored that civilians from some communities, UN peacekeepers and aid workers continue to be targeted. In its statement, the Council stressed the importance of combating impunity, and called for “the Special Criminal Court to be operational and for the judiciary, the penitentiary system and the criminal justice system to be restored throughout the country.” In 2015, Catherine Samba-Panza, interim President of the Central African Republic, promulgated a law creating a Special Criminal Court to investigate and prosecute grave human rights violations committed in the country since 2003.

     

    Sexual violence

    At least 23 UN peacekeepers have been accused of sexual exploitation or abuse of civilians across UN missions around the world since January 2017, according to new UN figures. Since the beginning of 2017, there have been 33 recorded cases, five of which involved children. The figures show that the number of reported cases is on the rise, up to 103 in 2016, from 69 the previous year. Last month, the UN announced the withdrawal of 600 Congolese troops serving as UN peacekeepers in the Central African Republic following allegations of sexual abuse. However the latest figures indicate that less than 10 days after this announcement, a new case of sexual exploitation was registered against a member of the Congolese peacekeeping force. Earlier this year, an AP investigation found that 2,000 allegations of sexual exploitation or abuse had been registered between 2005 and 2017.
     

    Education

    Half of Syrian refugees in Lebanon are under the age of 18. When they first began arriving in 2011, they had little access to education beyond informal and emergency schools set up by NGOs. As these were not formally recognised, children could not obtain proper qualifications and go on to further education.

    In 2014, the Lebanese government introduced a “second shift” of classes at public schools for refugee children. They can now attend without having to provide proof of legal residency or pay school enrolment fees. The new system offers hope to thousands of refugee families, and the chance for children to get a formally recognised education.

    There are now around 195,000 non-Lebanese children – nearly all Syrian – enrolled in Lebanese public schools, narrowly outnumbering the Lebanese children. The vast majority attend second-shift classes, held in the afternoons for refugees only.

    But the second shift system means that Lebanese and refugee childrenrarely share a classroom. Partly, this is because of limited physical spaces and language differences – the Lebanese children are taught most subjects in English or French, while Syrian children are taught in Arabic. However, according to Chiara Butti, Lebanon Country Director for the peace-building organisation International Alert, discrimination also plays a role. “Some Lebanese parents will take their children out of school if Syrian kids attend because they think this will lower the quality of the teaching or they just don’t want their kids to have Syrian friends,” she said. A spokesperson from the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) described the second-shift system as an important short-term fix, but noted that in the longer term there was a need to shift to more sustainable solutions, such as expanding the capacity of schools and offering catch-up classes in French and English for Syrian students.

     

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    Closing

    The panel leading the Joint Investigative Mechanism on Chemical Weapon Use in Syria, comprising the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) and the UN, is currently investigating the 4 April 2017 attack on the town of Khan Shaykhun. Images of that incident showed children struggling to breathe as a result of the possible use of sarin gas. Also being examined are the incidents in Umm Hawsh on 16 September 2016, where sulphur mustard may have been used.

    Noting that its members are working in a highly politicised environment, the panel investigating the use of chemical weapons in Syria appealed to the international community to allow it to complete its work in an independent, impartial and professional manner.

    “We do receive, unfortunately, direct and indirect messages, all the time, from many sides, telling us how to do our work; my message again, to the Council today was, please let us do our work,” said Edmond Mulet, the head of the panel.

    Read CRIN’s spotlight on chemical weapons.

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    © Child Rights International Network 2017 ~ http://crin.org

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