In May 2022, during its 14th ordinary session, in Addis Ababa, the African Union (AU) Specialised Technical Committee on Defence, Safety and Security (STC DSS) adopted two key policies on children in armed conflict. The first was the ‘Policy on child protection in Africa Union peace support operations’ and the second was the ‘Policy on mainstreaming child protection into the African Peace and Security Architecture’. This was a follow-up to the Peace and Security Council (PSC) recommendation during its 1070th meeting, held virtually on 29 March 2022.
Earlier, at its February 2020 Addis Ababa summit, the AU Assembly of Heads of State requested the AU Commission to develop a policy framework on child protection in peace support operations. In May 2021, during the 994th session of the PSC, the AU Commission was asked to institutionalise child protection within the Africa Peace and Security Architecture (APSA). Also requested was a policy to mainstream child protection in all phases of intervention.
Recognition is growing of vulnerabilities and needs of children in armed conflict, which has led the PSC to intensify its efforts in the area. It has identified the need for policies and approaches that deal with the problem. The adoption of such policies and instruments are milestones that indicate the commitment of the AU Assembly and the PSC to the protection of children. However, certain gaps and challenges still need to be addressed.
A United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) report cites west and central Africa as having the most child violations in continental conflicts. Since 2016, more than 21 000 children have been recruited and used by armed forces and non-state armed groups in the regions. More than 2 200 children have experienced sexual violence. In central Sahel, including Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger, verified violation numbers increased by 40% in the first quarter of 2022 over the last quarter of 2021.
In 2020, according to the UN secretary-general’s report on children and armed conflict, there were 1 268 victims of sexual violence and 3 202 abductions. The highest numbers were in Somalia, the Central African Republic, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Lake Chad Basin Region.
In 2021, in Nigeria, 306 child violations were reported – a 56% increase from those verified in 2020. In Burkina Faso, 68 children were recruited into non-state armed groups, 18 boys were detained in a high-security prison, 99 were killed and 128 were maimed. In Chad and Niger, 142 and 207, respectively, were abducted.
In Sudan, nine children were killed after the military coup in October 2021, 13 were injured during demonstrations and 12 were subjected to sexual violence. Children as young as 12 were detained by security forces. In Somalia, between November 2021 and January 2022, 289 children were recruited to armed groups, 182 were killed or maimed, 220 were abducted and 68 suffered sexual violence.
These figures are just a small fraction of the violations and number of children affected documented by UNICEF, the UN secretary-general’s report and Watchlist. Given the lack of data and reliable information, the actual numbers are undoubtedly much higher.
Africa continues to witness a worrisome rise in military coups, cross-border and internal conflicts, protracted and new conflicts, and violent extremism. The increasing exploitation of children in these conflicts, many of whom have no alternative, remains of great concern and a profound obstacle to achieving continental peace and stability.
Although legal and policy frameworks exist for protecting children in armed conflict, most approaches have been overshadowed by concern for adults, particularly women. This is not to say that the protection of women is not important, but rather that similar policy frameworks and instruments are needed for children. They need to be provided with safe spaces, be given a voice and not be stigmatised.
Article 22 of the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child provides for the protection of children in armed conflict. However, it is very general and does not look into specific needs. While the STC DSS’s adoption of the two policies has created a framework for action for children, the existing gaps need to be addressed to achieve more comprehensive, sustained and effective action.
This is particularly important when dealing with children who have been radicalised and recruited into armed groups as child soldiers. Efforts should be made to involve children in deradicalisation, disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration initiatives. The vulnerabilities and risks facing these children need to be properly mapped.
United National Security Council resolution 1612 identifies six key violations against children in armed conflicts. These are killing and maiming, recruitment of and use of children by armed forces and groups, attacks on schools and hospitals, rape and sexual violence, abduction and denial of humanitarian help.
Current trends and data indicate an increase in the number of children affected. In 2021, the number of violations remained similar to those of 2020, with killing and maiming being the highest, followed by recruitment into armed groups.
The absence of reliable and accurate data hampers response strategies. Dependable data is needed for accurate mapping and deeper analysis of dynamics to grasp the vulnerabilities of children in armed conflict and devise policies and programmes for their protection. The growing number of armed non-state actors and emerging trends in warfare, particularly the use of new explosive devices and weaponry, are continuing challenges.
Urgent action is imperative
The vulnerability and needs of children surpass the protection challenges of other people in armed conflicts. Therefore, children’s risks should be mapped to effectively mitigate the problem. Child protection mechanisms on the continent are weak and, where they exist, are typically ill-adapted to address the challenges.
Many African countries are signatories to conventions on child protection. These legal frameworks guide states on policies and ensure countries’ adherence to their obligations under international law. As long as the protection of children in armed conflict remains overshadowed by responses, particularly to women, protection voids will not be closed. Responses must be rethought and reshaped to suit the specific needs of children at risk.
First, there should be a holistic approach for children affected by armed conflict. Women are included in the entire conflict cycle, including early warning, mediation, peace processes and reintegration initiatives. Similarly, the AU, regional economic communities and member states should incorporate the rights and needs of children into the whole cycle.
Second, similar to the special envoy for women in peace and security, there should be a special envoy for children in armed conflict. This would give special focus and deserved attention to their plight. Third, child protection should be mainstreamed in all spheres, discussions and responses to peace and security on the continent, and be integrated into national peace and security agendas.
Image: © UNMISS/Isaac Billy