A World With No Child Soldiers: Assessing The Impact Of The Vancouver Principles, 2017

As children become pawns in the wars of men who call themselves human while seeking a violent expression of their intolerance at the hands of these children, the realization that the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) is merely the beginning rather than the final word on child rights has begun to dawn upon us. With the recent Vancouver Principles launched as part of the UN Peacekeeping Defence Ministerial Conference on November 15, 2017, which projects the commitment of member states to take an assertive stance on the prevention of recruitment of child soldiers, it becomes imperative to understand the existing framework of law providing for warning and action, and to place the principles within this framework and assess their novelty and possible efficacy.

To begin with, Article 38 of the UNCRC obligates state parties to ensure respect for the rules of International Humanitarian Law applicable to them during armed conflict, and to take necessary measures as they are capable to ensure the protection and care of children affected by the armed conflict. State parties should seek to employ all feasible measures to disallow direct participation of children below the age of fifteen years in hostilities. Further, state parties shall refrain from recruiting children who have not attained the age of fifteen years into their armed forces, with priority on the basis of age to the oldest between the ages of 15-18.

However, not being a standalone provision, Article 38 of the UNCRC has to be read in consonance with the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, the rules of customary International Humanitarian Law from Rule 135-137 and the Statute of the International Criminal Court. In a nutshell, these sources confer special respect and protection upon children as a category of individuals, disallowing their recruitment into the armed forces or armed groups with no participation in hostilities, while placing an obligation to ensure their familial ties, access to necessities and safety. Further, certain actions by the armed forces or groups which have consequences for children, for instance, the forcible transfer of children from one group to another, or the active use of children in hostilities, or sexual violence against children, have been accorded the status of international crimes by the Rome Statute, with the inclusion of provisions mandating the requirement of Judges with legal expertise to tackle such grave issues.

As children continued to be exploited and violated in numerous ways during armed conflict, the ‘Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict’ was adopted and opened for signature, ratification and accession by the General Assembly Resolution A/RES/54/263 of May 2000. The Optional Protocol is a measure to further strengthen the rights accorded to children under the UNCRC, and it recognizes the need to implement the principle of best interests of the child which encompasses emphasizing their survival, development, and education. While the Protocol suffers from certain deficiencies such through the caveat created for voluntary recruitment where ‘complete understanding of military responsibilities’ has been attained as well as in the nature of its acceptance by the State Parties, the focus on international cooperation to prevent children in armed conflict as well as their reintegration into society and the recognition of initiatives such as the unanimous adoption of the ILO Convention No. 182 on the elimination of forced or compulsory recruitment as a form of child labour by State Parties make this Optional Protocol a desirable commitment to be followed.

This brings us to the Vancouver Principles on Peacekeeping and the Prevention of the Recruitment and Use of Child Soldiers which builds upon the foundation laid down in the context of peacekeeping by the Paris Commitments and Principles of 2007. The Vancouver Principles are a set of political commitments by the Member States to actively prevent the recruitment of children as soldiers during peacekeeping operations and to prevent grave violations against children (as identified by the UN Security Council: killing and maiming of children; recruitment or use of children as soldiers; sexual violence against children; abduction of children; attacks against schools or hospitals; denial of humanitarian access for children).

Child Rights law is like a mosaic under construction, and this brings us to the question of how much more complete the Vancouver Principles make this mosaic. This will need to be addressed from the following perspectives; firstly, the measures contained within the principles as an extension of the existing practices, and the obligations and accepted principles in the domain of armed conflict, secondly, a specific improvement upon the Paris Principles in the domain of the intersection of peacekeeping operations and child rights, and thirdly, the general principles of respect and protection for child rights that it espouses and seeks the Member States to recognize and incorporate into their laws.

Addressing the first two stances, the Vancouver Principles, at their very outset, represent the objective of collective engagement in the process of peacekeeping to protect civilians, with a focus on children, and to restore peace. This means that the Principles recognize that contributions of states to the peacekeeping operations as members of the UN with the inculcation of such principles shall spill over to the practices by their forces beyond such operations as well, creating greater uniformity in the acceptance of prevention of recruitment of children.

By endorsing the Vancouver Principles, the Member States are committing to undertake planning, training, and reporting of abuses and grave violations with an identification of early warning signs in the domain of child recruitment, with the inclusion of child protection in peacekeeping mandates, peace agreements and DDR efforts. There is a special focus on encouraging the Member States to implement the Vancouver Principles effectively – through roles in authorizing peacekeeping mandates as members of the UNSC, approval of the peacekeeping budget in alignment with the Principles, providing training to countries that contribute troops to the peacekeeping operations and through sharing of best practices with suggestions of adaptation to other local contexts.

The Principles, then, as it is reflected, take a more pro-active stance in the active prevention of child recruitment, specifically with regard to early warning and establishment of child protection focal points for the development of a common international standard. The endorsement of the Principles is an acknowledgement of the challenges unique to child soldiers, and they help ensure that adequate training is provided to peacekeepers to prevent recruitment and use of children in such context which has the effect of keeping children off the battlefield, enhancing the operational effectiveness of peacekeepers with an increased possibility of fulfillment of their mandates with a focus on reducing the incidence of mental trauma. Above all, the Principles cover the critical gap in existent policies by stressing on the planning, conduct, and training of Member States’ own police and military forces in preventing the recruitment of children and responding to the child soldiers encountered during peacekeeping missions.

Addressing the third pillar towards establishing the efficacy of the Principles, it is clear from the intent and language of the Vancouver Principles that they uphold the UNSC’s structure to monitor, respond and report to the abuses suffered by children in the times of war. Further, it is a reiteration of the recognition of the status of children as a subject and not an object of rights, with the principle of best interests of the child being recognized as a primary consideration. Above all, the initiative to actively prevent the recruitment of children is the recognition of their right of meaningful development which is stunted due to the psychological trauma of warfare, physical and sexual violence and blind obedience to commands in the structure of an armed force or group. The ‘early warning, planning and reporting of abuse’ focus of the Vancouver Principles is a pointed attempt at upholding this right in the best interest – psychological and social – of the child.

However, the Vancouver Principles will fall flat if certain co-extensive measures are not adopted –the commitment of a quantitatively greater number of States and the qualitative (with a focus on effective implementation) incorporation within domestic laws and training of personnel of the Principles as well as the strengthening of the regime of international criminal laws and lack of domestic political fear to hold accountable the leaders and perpetrators of violations against children. The Principles are only as effective as the weakest link in the initiative for collective engagement in the restoration of peace with the emphasis on the protection of the sanctity of childhood and require a concerted effort in implementation in order to be effective.

*Sanskriti Sanghi, Gujarat National Law University, Gandhinagar, India