The Institute for Security Studies is a regional human security policy think tank with an exclusive focus on Africa. As a leading African human security research institution, the institute is guided by a broad approach to security reflective of the changing nature and origin of threats to human development.
It is just over a decade since the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) began its engagement with the issue of children and armed conflict, noting that this had serious consequences for peace and stability. The UNSC reacted partly in response to the fact that the decrease in the number of armed conflicts on the African continent did not result in a decline in the use of children as combatants. The situation remained unchanged in spite of an international architecture that protects children affected by armed conflict, especially those associated with armed forces or groups. Given that out of an estimated 250 000 child soldiers worldwide, the majority are found in Africa, the question should be asked whether the AU is proactive enough in this regard.
Since 1999, the UNSC has strengthened its focus on children and armed conflict and has passed a number of related resolutions. A robust plan to monitor violations of the rights of children affected by armed conflict has been operationalised through the UNSC’s Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism, which was formalised in 2005 through Resolution 1612. Among other things, this resolution called for the creation of a monitoring and reporting mechanism for the implementation of action plans and for a concrete, time-bound commitment by parties to conflicts to halt violations of children’s rights. Although it has its weaknesses, the mechanism provides a strong framework within which civil society can document the violations of children’s rights and structure its advocacy to a wider global audience. But has the AU sufficiently prioritised the plight of child soldiers?
Although global efforts to protect children during armed conflict should be applauded, one cannot pin one’s hopes on the UNSC to effectively deal with matters of a sensitive nature that may touch on sovereignty issues. Given last year’s debacles in the Libyan and Ivorian crises, the credibility of the UNSC may have been dented in dealing with peace and security matters in Africa. Given the circumstances it would be logical for the AU to assume a greater moral responsibility in dealing with the issue of child soldiers in a process that reflects its own abilities and strengths and fills the gaps that currently exist in global mechanisms.
In the past two decades, a number of UN reports have noted with concern that the character and tactics of armed conflict are changing. These developments have created new threats to children – according to reports, an increasing number of actors in conflicts use children as terrorists and suicide bombers. However, the AU has not clearly defined its own policies in this regard.
Ironically, Africa is the only continent with a region-specific child rights instrument, the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, but arguably has the worst record for protecting the rights of children during conflict. While built on the same principles as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the AU Children’s Charter highlights issues of special importance in the African context. Article 22 encourages states parties to respect and ensure respect for the rules of international humanitarian law applicable in armed conflicts that affect the child, as well as to take all necessary measures to ensure that no child shall take a direct part in hostilities. Further, it requires states parties, in accordance with their obligations under international humanitarian law, to protect the civilian population in armed conflicts and ensure the protection and care of children who are affected by armed conflicts. Such rules also apply to children in situations of internal armed conflicts, tension and strife.
Pursuing a child protection architecture at the AU has great advantages. As clearly recognised in Chapter VII of the UN Charter, the AU should complement the efforts of the UNSC in the maintenance of peace and security, and in particular in dealing with the issue of child soldiers. Unfortunately, despite encouragement from the UN, the AU has engaged only in an ad hoc manner with the issue.
Decentralising the operational aspects of protecting children during armed conflicts to the AU makes sense, and should ease the burden on the UN. It would also place greater responsibility on African states to deal with the issue of child soldiers. To redeem itself from its non-committal stance on issues related to the rights of children, the AU has to develop a coherent strategy and offer robust leadership to pressure deviant states and armed groups to comply with international law.
Firstly, because the AU is nearer to where atrocities are committed, it can use its legitimacy and credibility as assets, representing consensus on the continent’s wish to deal with the problem of child soldiers, which has become a typical African phenomenon. While the AU’s credibility could arguably be eroded by political exigencies, it is imperative that it formulates and pursues a coherent strategy to deal with a problem that will continue to grow if not effectively addressed. Of course, when pursuing such a policy any decisions adopted are based on consensus and thus are likely to be compromises based on the lowest common denominator. Ideally, however, the continental body should be able to pursue its policy on children and armed conflict, react to events, and have the flexibility needed to deal with situations of armed conflict involving the recruitment of children as they unfold. Currently the AU relies on the global mechanism, which has been noted as being flawed.
Secondly, with the growing involvement of the AU in peace enforcement and peacekeeping, which often involve dealing with perpetrators of violations against children, child-related policies need to be seen as shaping decisions and providing technical support towards a common goal. In particular, guidelines should be developed that integrate child protection into the continental body’s interventions, including mediation and peace support operations. Along these lines, the August 2012 report of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict calls for ‘a systematic approach to engagement with the children and armed conflict agenda, in light of the Union’s increasingly multifaceted role in prevention, mediation and stabilisation’. In light of this, it would be interesting to examine how the AU is responding to the continued recruitment of children in the Central African Republic, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, Somalia and Sudan.
A reversal in roles is required where the continental body takes the lead in developing best practice and strengthening the Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism process. This would clearly involve bringing pressure to bear on its member states on the question of accountability, since fighting impunity is necessary to ensure that violations do not recur. The AU could, for instance, require states in which violations of children’s rights have been reported by the continental monitoring mechanism to criminalise such violations in domestic law and prosecute them via national jurisdictions. It could also build on its existing protection mechanisms where training packages on children and armed conflict for civilian and uniformed personnel could be developed. A designated AU Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict could be considered.
Thus, instead of putting the global mechanism at the centre of dealing with the problem of African child soldiers, the AU should instead take the lead in dealing with this persistent phenomenon. If it fails to do so it risks losing its credibility as the guarantor of African peace and security.
Written by Sandra Oder, Senior Researcher, Conflict Management and Peacebuilding Division, ISS Pretoria