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The Arms Trade and Child Soldiering

Dustin Johnson

By: Dustin Johnson

Header photo credit: UN Photo/Patricia Esteve

The image most commonly brought to mind by the phrase child soldier is that of a boy holding an AK-47 assault rifle. While not every child soldiers carry a gun, the availability of small arms and light weapons has helped precipitate the security concern child soldiers pose.

The importance of small arms to the use of child soldiers has always been acknowledged by campaigners and the UN, who point out that modern assault rifles are simple, cheap, and relatively light. A child can learn to operate and maintain them in under an hour proficiently. Consequently, a child can quickly mobilise into a capable fighter. However, small arms have traditionally been ignored by the international arms control regime, with its focus on heavy weaponry, aircraft, missiles, and weapons of mass destruction.

A recent report from Terre Des Hommes Germany and three other German NGOs highlights how small arms and light weapons produced by German companies end up in the hands of child soldiers in multiple countries. Pathways include the supply of arms to unstable countries where they are later diverted to paramilitary groups, or looted by armed groups, using child soldiers. German guns, built under license in secondary states, can be exported to third countries where they fall into the hands of child soldiers. Loopholes in arms control legislation and the government placing other factors ahead of child soldiers in the decision to grant export licenses. While the longevity of firearms, with German-made guns from as early as the Second World War still being used in conflicts worldwide.

The issue of small arms and light weapons are certainly not a purely German problem though. Many countries make and export small arms around the world, and some governments directly supply foreign armed groups despite the use of child soldiers. Weapons from countries such as the USChina, Iran, and Sudan end up in the hands of armed groups that use child soldiers around the world, whether as the result of intentionally supplying them, or their diversion by corrupt officials or their looting from government caches. The complex interaction of the legal arms trade, illegal arms trafficking, and insecurity and corruption too often leads to weapons intended for legitimate state security forces ending up in the hands of children.

The report puts forwards three key recommendations, which are relevant to all countries engaged in the manufacture and trade of small arms, light weapons, their components and ammunition:

  • Make national arms export requirements more restrictive, and not let strategic or economic interests override child protection when it comes to their implementation;
  • Restrict military training and aid for armed forces that use child soldiers; and
  • Push for the implementation of better international treaties and safeguards on the arms trade, such as the Arms Trade Treaty.

Preventing the use of child soldiers requires a multifaceted approach, and this report highlights important steps that national governments can take to reduce the access to weapons for armed groups and forces that use child soldiers.

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Protecting Children’s Rights and Preventing Their Use by Terrorists

By: Dustin Johnson

Header photo: Unsplash/Alessio Lin

A recent in-depth piece in the Washington Post examined the ISIS-directed or inspired attacks that have taken place in Germany over the last year, all perpetrated by children. 10 children, mostly teenagers, were involved in 5 different plots or attacks over the past year, and the German intelligence agencies have identified another 120 children suspected of having been radicalized to violence.

Many of the children involved in these plots come from an at-risk background, making them easier for ISIS to recruit. According to the Post:

“Religious extremist propaganda, Salafist propaganda, can only work if it is addressed to an audience that is already marginalized and feeling uncomfortable in society,” said Goetz Nordbruch, co-director of Horizon, a German group offering counseling and workshops on Islamophobia in German schools. “The public discourse is turning against these kids, against Islam… It is making it harder for them to feel both Muslim and German.”

As ISIS loses ground in Iraq and Syria to the various forces fighting it, they have focused more on directing or inspiring attacks in Western countries, through propaganda and communication over social media and messaging apps. Children are intentionally targeted. As the Post article relates:

“The amount of Islamic State videos and propaganda aimed at children has really jumped in recent months,” said Daniel Koehler, director of the German Institute on Radicalization and Deradicalization Studies. “We haven’t seen anything quite like this, not on this scale and of this quality. They know that in the West, you don’t expect a 10-year-old to be a terror suspect.”

This shows that ISIS is intentionally recruiting children for these attacks due to the advantage they bring from being less likely to be detected. In the case of Germany, laws constrain the ability of the intelligence services to track children suspected of being radicalized, while in general we do not usually assume that a child might pose such a threat.

Unfortunately, growing awareness of this latest challenge from ISIS does not always lead to balanced responses based in a thorough understanding of the use of children by ISIS. Germany’s response has included positive steps such as deradicalization programs for children, while changes to laws governing how intelligence and law enforcement authorities can track children will need to be carefully balanced to both protect children’s rights and the safety of the public.

Other countries have not provided as nuanced a response however. One need not look further than the United States, where the now-rescinded and highly controversial travel ban led to the temporary detention of a 5-year-old American boy of Iranian ancestry by border patrol agents. White House press secretary Sean Spicer defended this action by saying “To assume that just because of someone’s age and gender that they don’t pose a threat would be misguided and wrong.”

While ISIS is clearly seeking to exploit gaps in counter-terrorism when it comes to children, such an action as described above is not what is needed in response. Given the chaotic implementation of the travel ban and the age of the detained boy, it is certain that there was no actual evidence indicating a threat, and he was detained simply for who he was. Such an approach to countering the use of children by terrorists is both counterproductive and immoral.

An effective strategy that protects human rights, children, and the public must be primarily preventative, while equipping law enforcement with the right abilities to prevent attacks, and providing programs to deradicalize children who do become involved in groups like ISIS, or any other terrorist group of any ideology.

Prevention should encompass, inter alia, interfering with the ability of adult terrorists to recruit and inspire children by countering propaganda and targeting law enforcement action at them; addressing factors that increase vulnerability to recruitment and inspiration such as prejudice against Muslims; and equipping law enforcement with the tools and knowledge to more effectively counter the use of children by terrorists while preventing the use of counterproductive strategies.

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2 November 2011. El Fasher: Sheij Aldine is a member of the  center of the Sudanese Association for Disabled People in El Fasher. He works at the workshop, making crutches, wheelchairs and special shoes for disabled persons. He is also disabled and he is given a motorbike by the organization to facilitate his mobility. 
The organization takes care of all disabled people in Darfur.
Photo by Albert Gonzalez Farran - UNAMID

Exploring the Intersection of Child Soldiering and Disability

By: Dustin Johnson

Despite the considerable research into the use of child soldiers over the past two decades, there are still many areas that remain under-explored in the literature. One of these is the intersection of disability and the experience of child soldiering. Last year, Dallaire Initiative research officer Dustin Johnson and executive director Dr. Shelly Whitman wrote an article for a special issue of the journal Third World Thematics on child soldiers and disability, which was recently published.

In this article we explore the current state of knowledge on child soldiers and disability, opportunities that the post-conflict environment can provide for improved inclusion, and what avenues exist for us to be more inclusive in our own work. It is important when considering disability to view it from the social perspective: inevitably, some people have physical, mental, or sensory impairments which interfere with their everyday functioning. Disability results when stigma, ignorance, and lack of inclusivity marginalizes impaired people and prevents them from fully participating in society. Disability can be addressed by changing the attitudes, policies, and environments which disable.

There has been little research previously specifically on child soldiers and disability; most relevant studies have either focused on specific mental or physical injuries which may lead to disability, or on disability among children or ex-combatants in general. There is a high likelihood that at least some child soldiers will emerge from conflict with a disability, leaving them even more marginalized. Therefore, it is critical that services provided to demobilizing child soldiers be inclusive, and support the specific needs to disabled children. Civilian children also face many of the same traumas which can lead to impairment, and should not be neglected.

There are often substantial changes to national laws and institutions during the post-conflict reconstruction period, providing a valuable window to shift norms and promote inclusivity. Reconstruction of physical infrastructure also provides an opportunity to build it into international accessibility standards. When it comes to child soldiers, the demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration (DDR) process is the most important area for inclusivity. Current international standards for DDR make some advances in this area, but a more explicit consideration of disability is needed to ensure that accessibility is not ignored as it too often is. Marginalization due to disability could potentially leave children vulnerable to re-recruitment in the future, so inclusive DDR is important for conflict prevention as well as being just.

The researching and writing of this paper was our first intentional examination of the intersection of disability and our work. A number of opportunities exist for us to be more inclusive in our work, including partnering with disability focused organizations in countries we work in, and using our high-level advocacy contacts to advance inclusivity in relation to child soldiers.

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ISIS and Child Soldiers: Breaking Cycles of Conflict

By: Dustin Johnson

In January, the Times of London published an insightful feature by Anthony Loyd about the use of children by ISIS. In the article, Loyd meets a 21-year-old man who had fought for ISIS whom Kurdish security forces had captured and tortured. The man had been recruited at the age of 13 by ISIS’s predecessor, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and had spent the previous 8 years fighting and killing for the group. In this young man he sees someone whose formative years of childhood have been stolen, but has also missed the normal experiences that lead to adulthood:

There was something else there that lent him the fractured aura of youth: a peculiar absence of adulthood. As if somehow all that should have naturally evolved within his mind during his teenage years – rationale and reason, preconcepts and the roots of self-belief – were missing. Just the frightful postgraduation of terror remained, so that seated before me he was at once the echo of a lost boy and the whisper of an unformed man.

Loyd goes on to discuss the thorough system of indoctrination and normalization to violence ISIS uses on children to provide an unending supply of dedicated fighters, explicitly planning for a generational war. The longer ISIS continues to fight and be able to recruit children, the more Iraq, Syria, and the international community will have to deal with this challenge. For those under the age of 18 who are removed from the group, proper rehabilitation and deradicalization are needed, and there are positive signs for the success of such problems as Loyd discusses, and the Dallaire Initiative has advocated for in our partnership with the Quilliam Foundation.

For those who were recruited as children but are now adults, such as the young man Loyd interviews, trickier questions are raised, similar to those now facing the International Criminal Court in the case of Dominic Ongwen. For someone who is recruited as a young child, indoctrinated, and forced to commit violence by adults, what degree of responsibility before the law should they face? While the case of Ongwen is particularly extreme, as he rose from an 11-year-old abductee to be one of the top commanders in the Lord’s Resistance Army, this challenge will have to be faced for hundreds if not thousands of children who fought for ISIS.

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Preventing the Use of Child Soldiers in Somalia

Dustin Johnson

By: Dustin Johnson

This month, the United Nations released their latest numbers on the use and recruitment of children by armed forces and groups in Somalia. These new numbers are sobering: between April 2010 and July 2016, 6,163 children were verified by the UN as having been recruited. These numbers are meticulously collected and confirmed, meaning that the actual number of children recruited is likely much higher.

The terrorist group Al Shabaab, which is fighting against the Somali government and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeeping force, was responsible for 70% of the recruitment. Children as young as nine were used by Al Shabaab, instructed in using guns and sent to fight. Others were also used as porters, spies, and cooks. The UN believes that more than half of the members of Al Shabaab are under the age of 18. When a group of Al Shabaab members were captured in Puntland in March 2016, 60% of them were children.

However, Al Shabaab is not the only group that recruits children. The UN also verified 920 cases of children used by the Somali National Army (SNA) during the same time period. Previous UN reports have also found that militias allied to the Somali government have recruited children.

These latest numbers only serve to reinforce the fact that the use and recruitment of children is an integral part of the conflict in Somalia, especially for Al Shabaab. While Al Shabaab does command some popular support, the preponderance of youth in its ranks demonstrates their reliance on soldiers who can more easily be coerced, forced, and indoctrinated than adults. Consequently, the Somali government and AMISOM need to be prepared to address the use of children in the Somali conflict.

Since January 2015, the Dallaire Initiative has had a Child Protection Advisor embedded in AMISOM in Somalia, the first such position in an African Union mission. Over the course of the year, we will be conducting multiple trainings of personnel from AMISOM, and SNA, and the Somali National Police on countering the use of child soldiers, with the support of the British Peace Support Training Team in Kenya. This groundbreaking work will help to better protect children in Somalia and enhance the capabilities of Somali and African forces to bring a sustainable end to the conflict.

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