What Happens After Freedom?

The Uncertain Future of Child Soldiers in Colombia.

Recently, in mid-May 2016, the Colombian rebel group Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, FARC, announced that they would release children younger than 15, that had been fighting for them as child soldiers, as part of a deal that the group is about to sign with the government.

The exact number of minors to be freed has not been mentioned yet, however (FARC said that there are an estimated 21 children under the age of 15 among its ranks). The peace negotiations are currently still taking place in Cuba (with the help of Norway, Chile and Venezuela), and have been on since 2012.  Now the FARC has specifically declared that it would “implement departure of those under 15 years of age as soon as terms are agreed upon”. For those that are between 15 and 18 the parties agreed to develop a “roadmap for the exit of remaining minors”.

As to the crucial question of the treatment of the children post release, the peace talk document states that they will be considered victims of war and pardoned, when permitted by Colombian law. In practice, says Reuters, this means that there are more than 100 minors ages 16 and 17 who will be pardoned for “rebellion” but will not escape post-conflict trials for more serious crimes such as rape or murder. Under the terms of the deal, the UN children’s agency UNICEF, the Red Cross and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) will oversee the procedure to ensure both sides stick to their promises.

This is a significant step in the long and protracted conflict between the country’s largest rebel group and the government of Colombia – and for the children involved in all of it.

FARC has been at war with the Colombian government since 1948, leaving more than 220,000  dead in the process, when Colombia was going through a civil war called La Violencia, which lasted until 1958. The Liberal and Conservative parties were fighting (with associated guerrilla groups), and it was then that FARC was displeased and disappointed with the Liberal Party leadership and turned to communism instead. When it came to financing the fighting, “the FARC had long used violence, kidnappings, and extortion as sources of leverage and income”.

In 2012,  the group renounced kidnapping as the peace talks were about to begin and in 2015 a unilateral cease-fire was declared. This has now finally led to the issue of children being used as soldiers over the years, and releasing those still held by the guerrilla group.

As often happens in a situation of conflict and disorder, children are among the most vulnerable. They experience chaos in their daily lives, are displaced and see their families break apart due to war. This makes them easy targets for rebel forces, which take advantage of the confusion and extreme conditions that these children go through. Furthermore, children are reported as more easily manipulated, controlled and socialized out of society.

Essentially, according to principles adopted at the 2007 UNICEF-led Paris conference, a child soldier is anyone under age 18 “who is or who has been recruited or used by an armed force or armed group in any capacity”, which can include non-combat roles such as cooks and porters.

In 2012, a comprehensive report, called “Like Lambs Among Wolves”, on the involvement of minors and adolescents in the Colombian conflict was published by Natalia Springer, a Colombian columnist, researcher and political scientist. It revealed that a shocking 50% of adult FARC fighters are/were inducted as minors. Also, when asked, an incredible 81% of the children even stated that they had “volunteered”, and were not forced. Only a number of children (18%) were thus kidnapped, yet the majority was basically forced by social or economic pressures, or believed that the group would provide food, income and security.

The appalling findings continued, as she found that 69% of those captured were between 8 and 14 years of age and 98% reported that they were abused or witnessed atrocities. Since 1975, according to a prosecutor, FARC is accused of having recruited 11,566 child soldiers. Children are used as messengers, informants, cooks and porters, and trained to use weapons, grenades and mortars and to plant homemade landmines.

The study suggested that children “may be better able to withstand the rigors of long walks, physical exertion, and poor nutrition. They tend to have better visual range, better reflexes and get sick less often.”

The use of child soldiers is criminal, and goes against at least one of the six grave violations against children, namely the recruitment or use of children as soldiers. They are also often affected by other severe violations, such as abduction of children and sexual violence against children. Additionally, “recruiting children under the age of 15 to ‘participate actively in hostile activities’ is a war crime according to the International Criminal Court (ICC), while the United Nations sets 18 as the minimum recruitment age for participation in an armed conflict”.

Releasing the children is one thing – finding a way to integrate them into their families and society is another. Demobilisation – the act of changing from a war basis to a peace basis including disbanding or discharging troops – of children is of course the prime objective, but once this has been achieved it is equally, if not more, important to ensure that they are taken care of afterwards. Due to their life in the guerrilla forces they lack education and proper life skills, knowing only what they acquired in the time fighting for FARC.

There is concern that these youths could be recruited by criminal gangs once they are free, or even return to their “rebel family”, as they find it hard to adjust to normal life. This is why UNICEF is involved in the reintegration of former child soldiers along with the Colombian government and other authorities. The UN children’s organisation is there together with the government to make sure that these young people will not be in a situation again where the only way out seems to be joining a rebel army. Current methods of reintegration involve former child soldiers being placed into reintegration homes or schools in order to provide them a buffer, or rehabilitation period.

A constructive outcome of the peace negotiations for the children is thus highly anticipated, and would finally protect those who are the most vulnerable.

Human RightsOpinion
Sarah Bialek

Sarah graduated from Maastricht University’s Graduate School of Governance/UNU Merit with a M.Sc. in Public Policy and Human Development, specialising in Trade and Development Law. After working at the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) External Relations department in Geneva she now lives in London and works in the Higher Education sector. She is passionate about International Relations and Development, as well as Trade Law and (forced) Migration.
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