Philip Cook

Balancing Protection with Participation: Adolescents in post-conflict truth and reconciliation processes

One of the core challenges of supporting the rights of adolescents in difficult circumstances is balancing their rights to protection and participation. This is particularly true with regard to the spread of internal conflicts, civil and ethnic wars and terrorism, as well as when considering the role of adolescents in these wars. In conflicts of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, combatants have both targeted young people in order to instill terror and used adolescents as tools of violence and social destruction.

In supporting children’s rights in such complex situations, the difficulty lies in developing approaches that tap the deeply rooted human rights principles that underlie all societies, including values and practices of dignity, belonging and justice, while simultaneously drawing on the gifts of young people – especially their experience, insights, honesty and compassion.

Transitional justice mechanisms, from truth and reconciliation commissions (TRCs) to special courts and tribunals, have had to grapple with the challenges of respecting children’s protection, well-being and social reintegration while seeking to involve young people in proceedings, to listen to them and give due weight to their experiences. When these processes work well, they represent the best of “bottom-up” child protection strategies that build on cultural reconciliation processes and young peoples’ collective self-efficacy, combined with the strength of “top-down” judicial measures supporting children’s rights to accountability and justice. The results in countries like Liberia, Peru, Sierra Leone and Timor-Leste and many regions of the world have created a body of experience on ways for adolescents to meaningfully participate in demobilization by testifying at special courts and reintegrating into their communities and society at large. Evidence indicates that this process not only benefits young people but can reinforce many other aspects of social healing.

A range of options exists for engaging young people meaningfully as participants in TRC procedures, including by giving testimony that bears witness to their experiences. In some cases adolescents may be simultaneously victims, survivors and alleged perpetrators of violations. Effective participation and protection of young people in transitional justice processes, when properly supported and guided, can build their capacity to be active citizens and help break the cycle of violence and conflict.

A number of key principles have been developed to guide good practices in protection and participation of adolescents in TRC processes:

  • The best interests of the child should guide transitional justice processes.
  • Children must be treated with dignity and respect.
  • Transitional justice mechanisms - including those used to design and implement policies and child-friendly procedures - should ensure the protection of children against violence and promote their physical and psychological well-being.
  • Protection of the identity of the child and the child’s privacy must be guaranteed at all times.
  • Children have the right to participate in decisions affecting their lives. The participation of children should be voluntary, with the informed consent of the child and parent or guardian. The decision not to participate can also be a form of participation.
  • Policies and procedures to protect the rights of children involved in transitional justice processes should include a specific focus on adolescents and should be consistent with the evolving capacities of the child.
  • A gender-sensitive approach to participation in transitional justice processes should include a focus on the protection of the rights of girls and should address their specific needs and experiences.
  • Participation should be non-discriminatory and should include, as appropriate, diverse ethnic, racial, religious and other groups and take into consideration the particular needs of children with disabilities.
  • Transitional justice processes should facilitate the realization of children’s civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. A human rights-based approach to transitional justice processes should be holistic and sustainable, addressing the root causes of armed conflict and political violence and strengthening the protective environment for children in their families and communities.

A central theme emerging from the global experience with transitional justice is the need to understand and respect adolescent’s “agency” – their capacity for self-efficacy and control over their lives. This entails supporting adolescents not only as victims and but also as proactive agents of change. As the young people who helped shape the Sierra Leone TRC process stated, “We, who survived the war, are determined to go forward. We will look to a new future and we ourselves will help build the road to peace.”

Great challenges exist in balancing the need to support adolescents as victims of unspeakable violence with a parallel focus on issues of accountability for young people who have committed crimes. Similarly, post-conflict transitional justice processes must work to promote opportunities for adolescents to finish schooling while recognizing the importance of vocational training, as many young people are drawn into conflict for reasons of poverty and lack of social, economic and political opportunity.

For all this, transitional justice mechanisms alone will not be enough to heal societies or tackle the problems at the root of internal conflict. These processes, by their very nature, are transitional, and new ways must be found to connect the experience of meaningful participation by adolescents in rebuilding societies with broader approaches to mediating conflict. Future possibilities for linking this experience with other “systems-building approaches” to social protection and with mediated child protection strategies such as restorative juvenile justice and family group conferencing appear promising. Adolescents must be seen not simply as victims or perpetrators but as part of a solution that draws upon the strengths of the past, redresses the injustices of the present and offers accountability for the future.

Philip Cook is a cross-cultural psychologist and the Founder and Executive Director of the International Institute for Child Rights and Development (IICRD) at the University of Victoria, Canada. He has spent his career exploring the roots of cultural values, beliefs and practices in relation to children's survival, development, protection and participation. He shares ideas on adolescent participation in post-conflict truth and reconciliation processes as a means of strengthening child and youth protection.


The global state of adolescents; the challenges they face in health, education, protection and participation; and the risks and vulnerabilities of this pivotal stage are looked at closely in a series of panels in the report, available as a PDF.


Adults and adolescents were invited to give their perspectives on the critical issues facing adolescents in the 21st century.