For many years now, the United Nations has been monitoring and reporting on a particularly serious form of violence against children namely, the phenomenon of children recruited and exploited by terrorist and violent extremist groups. Once "recruited" by these groups, children are assigned a variety of different roles, from direct engagement in terrorist acts, (undertaking suicide missions or carrying out executions); to more subordinate roles, as porters, cooks or informants. It is important to highlight that regardless of their role, these children are subjected to extreme levels of violence, including forms of torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Indeed, many children are exploited as child soldiers in open hostilities. Girls have also not been immune from the impact of child recruitment and frequently face the risk of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) at the hands of these groups.
Article 4 of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict also prohibits the recruitment and use of children in hostilities, while article 3 of the International Labour Organization's (ILO) Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182) identifies forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict, as one of the worst forms of child labour. It is also important to note that though this current wave of terrorism is seen as particularly shocking, with its use of social media propaganda to groom children, the utilization of children for military purposes is by no means new.
It is closely connected to the longstanding practice of recruitment of children by armed groups, which is prohibited under international humanitarian law by Protocol I and Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, under international criminal law, especially Article 8(2)(b)(xxvi) and (e) (vii) of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and is listed as one of the six grave violations against children by the UN Security Council in Resolution 1261 (1999).
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The approach of UNODC to this phenomenon has been to recognize that due to the considerable power imbalance between these groups and child recruits and the ongoing physical, mental and psychological development of children, and the experience of violence and abuse at the hands of these groups, these children should be considered primarily as victims of an extremely serious form of violence. This is a position that is supported by international human rights law, international criminal law, international humanitarian law and the international counter-terrorism framework (see the International Legal Framework: A Benchmark for Action for more information).
It is a duty of families, communities and States to work together to find ways of protecting these children from this violence and to provide them with rehabilitative support when they have been exploited by these groups to be able to reintegrate into society and lead lives free from violence, stigma and discrimination from being associated with terrorist and violent extremist groups. In fact, UNODC has developed ten key principles in relation to the treatment of children recruited and exploited by terrorist and violent extremist groups outlined in the Roadmap on the Treatment of Children Associated with Terrorist and Violent Extremist Groups:
As with violence against children more widely, combatting this problem is not a task only for the criminal justice system but, demands support and cooperation from the field of child development and broader multidisciplinary collaboration and action. Furthermore, it is important to emphasize that despite the stigma attached to terrorism and terrorism-related offences, there is a need for the security and child protection sectors to work together and against a perceived dichotomy that both sectors are working for opposite goals, they are actually on the same page. Maintaining child rights and safety naturally means protecting children from violence and maintaining public safety and security.
In this regard, UNODC is uniquely positioned, due to its mandates in the areas of justice for children, violence against children and counterterrorism, to provide technical assistance to Member States facing child recruitment and exploitation by terrorist and violent extremist groups, to prevent the phenomenon, adopt and develop reintegration and rehabilitation for these children and strengthen the justice system's ability to effectively respond to this problem (learn how by clicking on Publications).