The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant’s (ISIL) brutal three-year occupation of large areas of Iraqi territory has left the country grappling with widespread devastation, destruction, and displacement. ISIL waged a campaign of unspeakable violence against the Iraqi people with acts that may amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. In particular, ISIL preyed on children, viewing them as lethal, loyal fighters crucial to the group’s long-term success. ISIL’s recruitment tactics relied on force, such as through mass abductions of vulnerable populations, as well as ideological and manipulative methods that idealized the group and promised children power and economic support.
Many children experienced unspeakable trauma during their association. ISIL sent children to training centers where they were indoctrinated, sometimes drugged, and desensitized to extreme violence. ISIL used most children in active combat and severely punished those who rebelled. ISIL also used children, many of them girls, to carry out suicide attacks. A minority of the children were used in supporting roles, such as cooking, cleaning, or operating checkpoints.
The conflict prompted a largescale humanitarian and protection crisis, with millions of civilians displaced and facing limited access to basic services. Three years after formally declaring victory over ISIL, authorities are slowly shifting gears from providing emergency assistance to long-term recovery and development support.
Critical to this transition is the need to develop a rights-based strategy to address and reintegrate thousands of children associated with ISIL and other parties to the conflict. Not only is this a moral imperative and obligation under international law, but also an essential component of peace and stability in the region. The timing of this is particularly crucial considering the pending return of more than 30,000 Iraqis, primarily women and children, from Al-Hol displacement camp in northeast Syria, some of whom may be children formerly associated with ISIL.
There is currently no national strategy or legal framework guiding the Government’s response to children associated with armed forces and armed groups (CAAFAG). To the extent that reintegration support is provided, it is primarily led by humanitarian and protection actors, often on a limited and short-term basis.
In some cases, Iraqi and Kurdish authorities have detained CAAFAG for their suspected association with ISIL, including instances where there is no evidence of a child committing a violent crime. Surveys conducted by a humanitarian organization suggest that, as of January 2021, approximately 2,294 children were detained in official Baghdad-controlled prisons for their involvement in ISIL.2 Their sentences range, on average, from five to 15 years. The influx of children has overwhelmed the juvenile justice system, leaving detainees in overcrowded facilities lacking in space, food, clean water and sanitation, and adequate mental health and psychosocial support. Most CAAFAG in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq (KRI) have completed their sentences and eft the juvenile detention facilities but have received limited access to post-release reintegration services. Families, including children, with a perceived affiliation to ISIL often struggle to return to their areas of origin either because they fail to receive security clearance from the relevant authorities, or because they face marginalization, rejection, and revenge attacks from the local community.
Children of foreign nationality who were recruited and used by ISIL have faced a similar fate to their Iraqi counterparts, with many held in high-level security detention facilities in Iraq. In recent years, however, some countries have brought home their nationals.
In other circumstances, the Government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) have chosen not to detain CAAFAG and instead permitted them to return to their communities. Unlike some children whose association with ISIL is perceived as more voluntary, authorities have largely viewed children from Iraqi minority groups, like the Yezidi, who were targeted, abducted, and forced to fight for ISIL, as victims. However, although these children have been allowed to return home and to their families, they have received limited support and have faced many challenges reintegrating into their communities. The Yezidi Survivors Bill, adopted on March 1, 2021 by the Iraqi Council of Representatives, recognizes some of these shortcomings and aims to provide survivors from a few minority groups with reparations and reintegration assistance.
All children recruited and used by armed groups have equal rights and are entitled to recovery and reintegration support. International standards, including both hard and soft law, provide a robust framework for the treatment of CAAFAG in all contexts of conflict.
In 1994, Iraq ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), and in 2008, it acceded to the CRC’s Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict (OPAC). Under the CRC, the Government is required to “take all feasible measures to ensure protection and care of children who are affected by an armed conflict.” In the event that a child is alleged to have committed a crime, the CRC allows for detention as a measure of last resort, for the shortest period of time, and for treatment in line with juvenile justice standards. Under OPAC, the Government is required to provide appropriate assistance for the physical and psychological recovery and the social reintegration of children who have been recruited or used in hostilities.