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Children betrayed by our judicial systems

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The past decade has seen a gradual increase in terrorism-related crimes; a phenomenon that is accompanied by a growing trend of involvement of children and youth in terrorism-related offences. This unprecedented situation brings to light the disastrous consequences of the involvement of minors in armed groups and the importance of an adequate justice system for children. Today, 35,000 children are deprived of their liberty in the context of armed conflict. This figure is largely underestimated because neither the tens of thousands of minors under the control of the Islamist state, nor the 29,000 children still detained in camps in Iraq and northeast Syria are considered.

Although the Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified by 193 countries, mentions detention as a measure of last resort for young people, ill-treatment, and unlawful or arbitrary detention is frequent. The judicial system plays a crucial role in the development of children and youth: by promoting their safe reintegration, the likelihood of recurrence of violence and crime decreases.

Minors involved in non-state armed groups require appropriate support so that they can take responsibility for their actions without suffering from stigmatisation. Many children and youths involved in terrorism-related crimes do not so act of their own free will; whether they have been forcibly recruited and exploited by an armed group or forced to follow their radicalised parents, many are foremost victims. Detention benefits their status as criminals, to the detriment of their status as victims. Stigmatisation that is often caused by the incarceration of these young people can be avoided with non-custodial measures that encourage de-radicalisation. With education and accompanied reintegration, these children and youth can realign themselves with the non-violent and non-criminal reality.

The report (Access to Justice for Children and Youth in counter-terrorism contexts) produced by Terre des hommes with the support of Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) highlights and analyses practices that promote the development and implementation of specialised justice systems based on children's rights. A few recommendations are derived from this study:

  • the minimum age of criminal responsibility should preferably be set at 15 or 16 years old, but in no case below 14 years old, including in counter-terrorism frameworks;
  • expressly include the standard of the dual status of victim and perpetrator, with primary attention to the victim aspect;
  • recruitment of children and youth by any non-state criminal or armed groups should be prohibited and prosecuted, under the existing national legislation;
  • extreme violence and trauma experienced by children and youth involved in non-State armed groups should be addressed and included in the reintegration process;
  • diversion and alternatives to detention should be fostered, evaluated and applied by justice professionals for children and young people involved in terrorism-related offences;
  • consideration of the application of innovative approaches and methodologies to encourage an offender to move away from delinquency and build a new life.

Furthermore, the federal anti-terrorism policing measures bill does not respond to the above recommendations nor to the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been ratified by Switzerland. According to this law, without any offence being committed and only based on evidence, the police could take action on children. This law provides the obligation to report and participate in interviews, prohibition of contact, assignment or restriction to travel outside the territory, electronic surveillance and location of cell phones from the age of 12. From the age of 15, there is the possibility of imposing house arrest for up to 9 months. By enshrining these measures in law, Switzerland would be violating the 1989 Convention as well as the specific right provided for children and youth in conflict with the law, that promotes protection and education.

As a child relief organisation, Terre des hommes has the duty to denounce all judicial practices that go against the best interests of the child. An effective counter-terrorism strategy cannot disregard human rights, let alone the rights of the child. It must consider the special needs of children and youth, their education and integration.