Most children experience war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide as victims or witnesses. However, some children are also recruited and made complicit in those crimes, as has been the case in recent years in Liberia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone. Forcing children to commit atrocities during an armed conflict is itself a war crime: it causes severe psychological harm and violates their rights. Child perpetrators should be considered victims of criminal policies for which adults are primarily responsible. International judicial mechanisms should focus on prosecuting the political and military groups that are responsible for planning and ordering the commission of egregious crimes.
The establishment of the International Criminal Court as a permanent international tribunal that can bring individuals to justice for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity has been a profoundly important step forward in recent years. The 1998 Rome Statute, is the basis of the Court’s establishment, makes it clear that intentional attacks on a civilian population (including children), attacks on schools and the conscription of children under 15 all constitute war crimes. The ad hoc special courts and tribunals set up to consider particular conflicts – like the tribunal in Arusha, United Republic of Tanzania, considering the genocide in Rwanda – also help weaken or erode the culture of impunity. The landmark ruling by the Special Court for Sierra Leone in June 2004 – that the recruitment or use of children under 15 in hostilities is a war crime under customary international law – may result in the first-ever conviction for the conscription of children as armed combatants.
Accountability mechanisms can take many other forms, including truth and reconciliation commissions like that in
Sierra Leone and post-apartheid South Africa, national courts, and traditional dispute resolution procedures such as the gacaca court systems in Rwanda. Accountability contributes to the process of healing and helps children understand they are not to blame for what has happened to them and their society. It calls attention to violations of children’s rights and records atrocities committed against children, both vital to understanding the broader context of what happened to children affected by conflict. Accountability can also help break the cycle of violence, restore confidence in democracy and the rule of law, increase the chances of success during a peace process, and strengthen the legitimacy and authority of a new government.
In order to restore respect for the rule of law in post-conflict societies, children who may have participated in serious crimes should undergo an appropriate form of accountability, conducted in a way that respects their rights and takes into consideration their age and maturity. This may involve the child’s testifying to a truth and reconciliation commission or taking part in traditional healing and reconciliation processes. According to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the key objective is to promote the reintegration of child perpetrators into society.
Any judicial proceedings for children should be in the context of juvenile and restorative justice in order to ensure the child’s physical, psychological and social recovery. They should involve judges, lawyers, police and social workers who have benefited from child-rights training.