Executive Summary and Key Policy Recommendations
The protection of children affected by armed conflicts, international and non-international, has been a matter of perennial concern. A significant number of legal instruments, binding and non-binding, have been gradually adopted with the intent to improve the architecture of protection for children in situations of armed conflict. Some crucial steps taken by countries to protect children from grave violations include the signing and implementation of action plans which invoke a range of measures including the screening of troops for underage recruits, development of age assessment guidelines and standard operating procedures and procedures to release and reintegrate and support children formerly associated with armed groups and forces.
Despite strong laws, implementation remains weak, and violations of children's rights are rife. In 2017, humanitarian access to children was denied in every country on the agenda of the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General of the UN. In Yemen, Myanmar and the Syrian Arab Republic reports emerged of children trapped in besieged areas, deprived of access to food, water, and critical medical assistance. The growing discourse on ‘radicalisation’ and ‘extremist violence’ is eroding standards of minimum protection around the appropriate treatment of children, and large numbers of children are routinely arrested and detained for their alleged association with parties to the conflict.
A multi-faceted approach is needed, involving more stakeholders so that measures to protect children can be multiplied. There is a need for regional and sub-regional organizations to apply politically or legally binding instruments to strengthen the prevention of violations against children in situations of armed conflict and facilitate programmatic responses when violations do occur. NATO sits in a unique position to advance the agenda of protection of civilians in general and children in particular, specifically in its operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, due to its high-level engagement with those in government who can end and prevent violations. There is no doubt that capacity, resources, and coordination between different actors needs to increase, and child protection expertise maintained and strengthened within NATO, including by being provided with necessary resources to fulfil their mandate.
Afghanistan and Iraq offer two country situations where NATO could play a unique role in delivering training and building the capacity of state forces to end and prevent child rights violations. NATO can provide valuable assistance in strengthening the capacity of and professionalizing armed forces in Iraq by supporting the provision of procedures, development of policies and good practice to ensure that post-conflict Iraq delivers a peace dividend for its children. NATO can play a crucial role in unpacking the narratives around violent extremism and radicalisation in disseminating child protection training OPEN Publications Strengthening Responses on Child Protection: The CAAC Framework 4 to operational partners. There is a need to understand the fact that children's association with armed groups, including those which practice extreme violence, is dictated by a range of intersectional and context-specific, structural and social factors.
A comprehensive child protection strategy requires addressing and engaging with all parties to the conflict. Despite the political challenges, there is a need for NATO to explore options to engage with the governments in Afghanistan and Iraq to permit access to armed groups by the UN, regional organisations and independent humanitarian actors to enter into dialogue on child protection and to seek the release of children associated with them. Another core principle of NATO's policy on children and armed conflict has to take into consideration how arms flows have the potential to hinder the peacekeeping and peace-building processes, contribute to violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, and obstruct humanitarian action.
For child protection to be meaningful, a comprehensive, transformative approach is required which facilitates genuine community involvement which adheres to international standards while being responsive to local needs. If NATO is genuinely interested in the well-being and protection of children in the theatres in which it operates, it will invest in improving knowledge on interventions and advocate to strengthen support to children, families, and communities.
Key Recommendations (detailed recommendations below)
- Integrate child protection at the core of planning and conducting of operations and missions, training, education, and exercises, lessons learned, as well as defence and security-related capacity building activities.
- Ensure protection of children receives the attention, expertise, and resources it deserves by increasing child protection capacity in HQ and all field operations.
- Work closely with the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict to develop and systematize learning and good practice on children and armed conflict, particularly on harm mitigation, as well as on compliance to International Humanitarian Law and international human rights law.
- Advocate and engage with governments in Afghanistan and Iraq against the detention of children on national security-related charges, as well as the use of detained children for information- gathering purposes. Call on these governments to guarantee due process for all children arrested for association with armed groups advocating that children should be treated primarily as victims and that in all actions concerning children the best interest of the child shall be a primary consideration.