Children betrayed by our judicial systems
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, 35,0001 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 Islamic 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 imposes a criminal status on them, rather than treating them 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 support from the 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.
1Source: United Nation Global Study of Children Deprived of Liberty