Tomorrow is Red Hand Day, when many organizations around the world highlight the campaign against the recruitment of child soldiers. The issue of child soldiers has been high on the agenda of the International Criminal Court in The Hague. The first case at the court was against Thomas Lubanga from the D R Congo for enlisting child soldiers. Now Dominic Ongwen, from the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda is to face trial, and he is a former child solider.
A member of our community asked us to explain the law relating to the rights of children. He asked what is a child in international law? And if someone has been forced to kill when they are between seven and thirteen years old – can they be held responsible?
By Justice Hub
When it comes to children’s rights, the basic document is the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) which came into force on 20 November 1989.
It’s one of the most widely supported and ratified treaties in the world, with only the United States, Somalia and South Sudan so far failing to sign up.
The two key elements in the CRC are:
Who is a child?
Under the CRC “a child means every human being below the age of eighteen years”.
Can a child be a soldier?
Under the CRC, states are not meant to recruit any person under the “age of fifteen years into their armed forces”.
This means it is legal for children between the ages of 15 and 17 to volunteer to join an army. But those who are only 15 should never be placed in the front line and not take a direct part in hostilities.
When the legal experts and politicians were drafting the Rome Statute which is the founding document of the ICC, they copied, very nearly wholesale, what had been written in the CRC.
The ICC found Thomas Lubanga guilty for enlisting and conscripting children under the age of 15.
But can child soldiers themselves be held responsible for war crimes?
No one under 18 can be put on trial at the ICC. Other international courts – the Sierra Leone Special court for example – had a minimum age of 15 and special measures to deal with 15-17 year olds as juveniles.
In practice, the Red Cross says it is very unlikely that anyone under 18 would ever be tried before an international court because the court always targets those who bear greatest responsibility for the full range of crimes.