The Human Rights Watch collected evidence in between January and June 2020 that closely reviewed the trial cases of 75 alleged child offenders who were recruited by the Islamic State (ISIS). The cases had led to the misconstrued holding of the children, but upon review, the Human Rights Watch ordered the release of the children, using reasons like a lack of evidence and preventing double jeopardy, as well as provisions of Iraq’s amnesty law. The 2016 Iraq Amnesty Law offers amnesty to persons who can show that they joined ISIS or another terrorist group against their will and did not commit a serious offense prior to joining the group.For years, Iraqi and Kurdistan judicial authorities have charged hundreds of children with terrorism for alleged ISIS affiliation. Several of the charges have been based on the dubious accusations and forced confessions of these children, regardless of the extent of their involvement with ISIS, if any. Such behavior from authorities has led to an international norm that children recruited by armed groups should be treated as victims, first and foremost, not as criminals.
In January 2020, a committee formed under the Nineveh Federal Court of Appeal and Bar Association, consisting of a judge, a general prosecutor, and a social worker. This committee adjudicated the cases of suspects who were children at the time of their alleged alliance with ISIS. The approach taken by this committee was one of compassion and complied very well with acknowledging the human rights of these child suspects. In June 2020, Iraqi judicial authorities dissolved the committee, saying it had reviewed all the pending cases, but another committee in Nineveh, Iraq, continued adjudicating such cases. In August 2020, an anonymous source close to the Nineveh Bar Association told the Human Rights Watch that the committee had reviewed 300 case files before being disbanded in June. They convicted 202 people, dropped charges against and released 31, and pardoned and released 44 under Iraq’s 2016 Amnesty Law. Three cases were dropped because the defendant had already served a sentence for the same crime, so to not invoke double jeopardy, the committee permanently ceased proceedings against the three people.
The committee, unlike other Iraqi courts, attempted to review individual cases more fairly and better apply international standards. By doing so, it was able to convict the guilty and release the innocent, which Iraqi courts do not have the best record for. In the Iraqi-Kurdistan regions, children have been tried in Kurdistan and re-tried for the same crime in Baghdad-controlled territory, with courts ignoring whether or not the child had been acquitted or convicted and already served a sentence in Kurdistan.
This has been the case since the advent of ISIS in Iraq: hundreds of children have been charged with crimes of terror, and such convictions have been justified under Iraq’s 1983 Juvenile Welfare Act. The Act states that the minimum age of criminal responsibility is 9 in Iraq and 11 in the Kurdistan region. Children that are under 18 at the time of the alleged crime are sent to a “youth rehabilitation school” which is designed to provide social rehabilitation and reintegration via educational or vocational training. However, a source within the Tal Kayf prison said that “the cells are identical to those for adult detainees, with no access to any reading or studying materials besides the Quran.”
What needs to be done?
The Nineveh committee is the first step towards attaining a more efficient and fair judicial system in Iraq where ISIS affiliation does not automatically translate to imprisonment. Children should only be detained as a last resort and for the shortest appropriate period, in compliance with international law. Countries should provide proper assistance for children illegally recruited by armed groups and/or forces, including assistance for their physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration. The Iraqi government and Kurdistan Regional government should amend their counterterrorism laws to end the detention and prosecution of children solely for participating in ISIS training or membership with recognition of international law that prohibits recruiting children into armed groups. And the High Judicial Council should permit committees to delve into more counterterrorism cases to avoid the trend of double jeopardy, while instructing judges across Iraq to release all children who have not committed crimes and ensure their proper rehabilitation and reintegration.
In the first half of 2020, Iraq has taken an essential step towards protecting the rights of children rather than trampling them. But this progress is at risk of Iraqi officials do not implement such steps elsewhere.
The rise of modern extremist groups has drawn new attention to child soldiers, triggering compassion and outrage. Besides the tactical advantage – where children are more capable of getting close to their targets – children are weaponized and featured in propaganda, even as suicide bombers or executioners, to attract media for the political advantage and attention, while others hang onto the group, maybe seeking refuge, while working as auxiliaries (cooks, messengers, porters, brides, stationed guards, etc.) in desperation. So malleable and vulnerable growing up in worlds hostile to childhood, child soldiers are collateral damage of warfare, used as tools, sacrifices, or targets.
In the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region, many sides of ongoing conflicts have been documented or accused of using child soldiers for these reasons. However, the Islamic State – as ISIS or ISIL – is of the most notorious for its exceptional number of children enlisted for military engagement and for the distinct role its “Cubs” play in the international narrative. ISIS has bred “Cubs of the Caliphate” as a unique form of resilience by combining intense physical training with ideological and psychological indoctrination to advance the organization’s current and transgenerational aims- meaning that enlisting children allows the Islamic State to outlast territorial defeat and ensure its survival through these new generations. Since these children are seen as the future of IS, education and propaganda are essential to indoctrination.
The recruitment process of child soldiers involves the selection of a recruit, gaining different accesses, developing emotional trust, and ideological development. In efforts to gain powerful or intimate access to a child and avoid detection or resistance, recruiters may charm or manipulate them into physical and psychological isolation especially away from their parents or community exploiting familial and psychological vulnerability (neglectful or abusive conditions, suppression as members of minorities or other discriminated groups, orphaned children, poverty, etc.) while offering aid, resources, or promises of hope or retribution they have been deprived of. In ISIS-held territories, recruiters can act with impunity, with public access through different media channels or local gatherings. Children may join voluntarily, following their peers, dedicated to revenge, and for income, resources, security, or basic needs these organizations provide to orphans or children living in poverty or war-like conditions. Some children may have encouraged or pressured by their parents and family members who support or trust in the organization’s mission, for the religious promise of martyrdom, or in search of other securities. While other children are sold to militias. For example, in 2009 outside of MENA, the leader of the Tehri-e-Taliban Pakistan was reported to be buying children from 7 to 16 to serve as suicide bombers for prices between 7,000 and 14,000 USD in a nation where the per capita income was 2,600 USD per year. Further, in some of the region, Taliban leaders would demand money from families in return for protection and if they could not pay this amount, the group demanded a child recruit for the movement.
Children growing up in ISIS or similarly occupied territories in a crisis-struck region may be exposed, accustomed, or desensitized to images of violence and torture. They may have grown up in areas subject to various forms of violence, which have resulted in loss or trauma, that become observed facts of life. Many grow through an atmosphere saturated with antagonistic rhetoric where complex and dynamic conflicts are simplified into “Us or Them.” The environment may promote a justice system that deems violence acceptable and necessary in enforcing social rules and norms or resolving conflict. Additionally, the youth bulge in the MENA region has created economic and educational challenges that may promote the extremist narrative. Many developed in a world hostile to childhood with conditions that persecute innocence and youth. Hanging on to these organizations provides a sense of purpose, responsibility, or camaraderie for these children. Family and community who typically teach and convince children to value and respect human life (including their own), social responsibility, and ethics of society are replaced by more radical political organizations. Once enlisted, training is designed to ensure compliance by degrading or breaking down the individuality of soldiers to assemble them into a group (identity) that does not question orders. Forcing children to commit atrocities against their own family or communities not only causes the psychological break essential to attach them to this new entity, but it also stigmatizes the child, cutting off any exit from the militia.
“We were the ‘cleaners’ group. Cleaning means slitting the throats of those who belong to the other side and are hiding,” says a Syrian child who joined ISIL when he was 14, “A guy from my area was decapitated by [ISIL] because of me. People had their hands chopped off because of me.”
The Human Rights Watch reports that the rise of violent extremist groups in the MENA region marks an increase in the detention and prosecution of children as countries have adopted more aggressive counterterrorism measures. In this tense and antagonistic climate, with a whisper of “ISIS,” a child may be arrested if there is any suspicion or fingers pointing to their connection with these organizations or their members (who may have once been locals, friends, neighbors, or family). Children who have been arrested have described abuses and forms of torture interrogators use to elicit a confession.
“My confession says that I joined ISIS for sixteen days, but actually, I didn’t join at all. I said sixteen days to stop the torture.”
The Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict to the General Assembly urged Member States to treat children accused of actual or alleged association with parties to conflict primarily as victims and reiterated that detention should only be used as a measure of last resort and for the shortest possible time.
No doubt, many have committed atrocities that can be prosecuted under international law. However, punitive justice will only mimic the trauma, oppression, or distrust that the restorative process will have to undo. Dealing with a high prevalence of PTSD, depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, and physical ailments, children are pushed further into social isolation as they retain and relive the worst moments of their experience. So isolated through exposure to different levels of violence, they should not be further ostracized. They should be able to realize that they are victims of conflict. Psychological work must break the cycle of persecution and re-instill bits of humanity while nurturing future visions that have been stripped from these individuals. Some zones make children hyper-aware or fearing that their life was perpetually in danger. Sensitive programs and social workers will have to foster a sense of security or protection that the allegiance to a powerful organization or weapons once provided. Child-specific programs will have to consider the range of adversities confronted or of emotional distress experienced, along with local and cultural ways of coping with tragedy.
Because of their unique psychological and moral development, rehabilitation and reintegration must foster the health, respect, and dignity of these children. It must understand the different sense of morality developed; the difficulties of the child who has broken links with their family, community, or self; and the active involvement and recognition of the interests of the victim (child and community) in the resolution. They will realize that those who did not join or support ISIS (or other enemies) were also affected by conflict and need (and will expect) equal access to certain resources- like access to education and healthcare, but especially the running water and meals- that reintegration centers or programs might provide. This unequal access to resources may further marginalize these child soldiers. A greater focus should be made on efforts to trace liability up the chain of command and prosecute those who enlist children, so superiors are less incentivized to use them for the worst violations and war crimes.
Reintegrating former child soldiers into society is a long-term process, which requires commitment at the local and international levels. This demographic, these children, will grow as the future of the region and international body. Therefore, it is an international challenge to realize and coordinate supports and resources available, while encouraging measures to control sub-regional and cross-border activities harmful to children like deployment and protection of child-protection officers and advisers entering into conflict to reach the most vulnerable and restricting aid or support to organizations or government-backed militias who recruit and use child soldiers to engage in combat. Further, the international narrative on child soldiers must demand collective responsibility for the child’s fate along with the community’s awareness and sensitization of the experience the child lived as a member of these militias. If former child soldiers do not have access to rehabilitation programs to help them locate their families, receive education and different training to be fostered or introduced into civilian life, or realize any way to support themselves, they are at risk of re-recruitment. Threatening a new generation of terror, the protection of children in armed conflict should be regarded as an important aspect of any comprehensive strategy to resolve conflict. Asserted by the United Nations Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict: We cannot afford to lose children, the future of nations, once they are released.
The Netflix documentary, The White Helmets, takes place in the midst of a war zone – on the ground, capturing the horrors of Syria during the present war. The Syrian War is extremely complex, but the documentary gives small amount of insight. The film is important because it peers into the horrifying life of Syrians, living in and through war. The airstrikes are horrifying to watch, taking the lives of innocent people in hospitals, schools, churches, and destroying families. Nowhere is safe in Syria. While the glimpses of children screaming for their parents, or begging them not to leave them in death are blood chilling and heartbreaking, it is impossible to take in all that happens and is happening. Enter The White Helmets, volunteer citizens who train and serve as first responders; normal men who held normal jobs, have families and seek peace while rescuing others. They search through homes and other buildings trying to locate survivors, facing the danger of another strike taking their lives while trying to save others. Since their beginning in 2013, the White Helmets have saved over 58,000 lives but lost more than 130 White Helmets. In light of all the strife their country faces, the White Helmets remain optimistic.
“I am willing to sacrifice my soul for the sake of the people. This job is sacred.”
Why are the White Helmets necessary? They are necessary because there is no protection for Syrians civilians. No one is fighting for and defending them; the White Helmets are doing what they can to preserve life. Without them, the death tolls would be monumentally more. Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states everyone has a right to life and security of person. This brings me to a two-pronged question. First, where is the justification for protesting Planned Parenthood in honor of “pro-life”, while remaining silent as war, as a result of political policy, decimates an entire country? The pro-life or right to life stance is described as being against abortion, or euthanasia, as those who are pro-life considers a fetus to be a human at fertilization. For those on the pro-life side of the abortion argument, a fetus possesses the same rights and protections as a human outside of the womb. This leads me to my second question: does pro-life apply only to the unborn? In other words, do the same rights apply outside of the womb as inside? Syrians are human beings. Under the pro-life position, they deserve the same protections as the unborn. However, the war in Syria provides evidence that this belief does not apply to all human beings. War and violence do not discriminate against gender, race, or age; they are two sides of the same coin. The infringement on the right to life applied to the unborn is the same infringement that should be applied to the lives of Syrians in a war zone or crossing the borders. It is seemingly the true definition of pro-life.
The impact of violence in the molding and shaping of a generation is, I believe, overlooked. On the one hand, children in Syria are able to tell the difference between a warplane and a normal aircraft, just by listening to them. They are growing up and associating much of the world with destruction, alienation, and isolation. For many, war is the only life they have known. The terrors of the Holocaust reveal, through research, that traumatic experiences are generational, meaning it transcends those experiencing the horrors and is passed down through DNA into future generations. It is theorized that generational trauma is responsible for the rapid growth in radicalism. The children who grew up seeing that the world is against them have been conditioned to be radical to feel like they have to fight to preserve themselves and survive. Therefore, it is of little surprise that if they grow up believing that some in the world despise their existence, they may feel the need to join together and fight back, in order to protect themselves. On the other, some children in America can hardly tell the difference in a helicopter and an airplane. Syrian children are found buried beneath the debris of buildings and are lucky if they are found; American children are found playing on a playground with their friends and are lucky if they find a four-leaf clover.
Governments create a façade of complete falsehood. They say they are doing something notable or acting in their country’s best interest but are killing citizens – other human beings – every day. These governments include our own in the US, along with several other first-world governments. Just two weeks ago, the US was responsible for performing an airstrike on Mosul. The attack resulted in killing over 100 civilians in the attempt to attack ISIS. In a statement issued from the US-led coalition, they said, “Our goal has always been for zero civilian casualties, but the coalition will not abandon our commitment to our Iraqi partners because of ISIS’s inhuman tactics terrorizing civilians, using human shields, and fighting from protected sites such as schools, hospitals, religious sites and civilian neighborhoods.” At what point does one become the object of their vengeance or hate? We say that we are fighting terrorists, stamping every Muslim or Middle-Eastern with a scarlet letter of terrorism, shouting that they are the terrorists; yet, Syrians are not flying over our cities and dropping bombs on us.
“They say they are fighting ISIS, but they are targeting people.”
The horrors faced by the people of Syria transcend this documentary. Syrian civilians are not ISIS. ISIS is a child born of fear and hatred, oppression and violence; a factor in the loss of 200,000 lives. It is not a religion. The Islamic faith, taken in context, promotes peace and forgiveness, not murder and destruction. The fractured infrastructure of the cities, the tear-stained faces, and wailing of children over the parents and parents over their children reveal the unimaginable suffering. Earlier this month, a chemical attack on the province of Idlib has killed at least 70 civilians, mostly children. Following the Holocaust, nations declared “Never Again“, then there was Cambodia, Chile, Rwanda, Kosovo, among others. And now Syria.
The United Nations has declared that children possess their own set of rights. Originally drafted as a declaration under the League of Nations in 1924 and amended in 1959, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was codified in 1989. The CRC maintains the rights of children are universal, indivisible, and inalienable – the same as adults. Vanessa Pupavac states that the CRC gives children protective welfare rights as well as enabling rights. Both of these rights are infringed upon in Syria. Their welfare is threatened each day, and have no opportunities for escape or growth. The Convention recognizes children as autonomous rights holders; however, the meaning of their rights is problematic. They are seen as incompetent and unable to exercise their rights, forcing them to pay for the sins of extremists such as ISIS. The global model “seeks to empower the children but fails to recognize the rights of autonomous self-determination,” according to Pupavac. This goes against exactly what the Convention stands for by denying their autonomy.
Article 2 of the UN Declaration of the Rights of the Child asserts, “The child shall enjoy special protection, and shall be given opportunities and facilities, by law and by other means, to enable him to develop physically, mentally, morally, spiritually, and socially in a healthy and normal manner and in conditions of freedom and dignity.” Governments have failed to uphold this protection for the children of Syria, as facilities like hospitals and schools are destroyed. Article 6 of the CRC, State Parties must recognize that every child has the inherent right to life, and must ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child; while Article 9 states that “State Parties shall ensure that a child shall not be separated from his or her parents against their will”. The requirements of these articles are not met for Syrians. A child with the inherent right to life is losing their life; children are found under the debris of buildings without a chance for survival; parents are being killed, leaving their children alone in a war-torn country. If children are seen as human beings by the United Nations, then the children who are suffering daily in Syria are experiencing an infringement of their collective rights.
To show exactly what happens when we infringe upon the rights of the children of Syria, CJ Werleman, columnist for the Middle East Eye, shared this tweet on April 8th:
US dropped 26k bombs on Middle East last year. KSA dropped 5k on Yemen, & Russia/Assad bombs Syria into dust.
White Helmets accomplishes the first step into fighting against situations like this: bringing it to public attention. Civic responsibility is a social force that morally binds you to an act. Therefore, it is our civic responsibility to fight for the rights of those who cannot fight for them themselves. While we may not be there physically, we can join their fight. We have seen that through diligence and passion, civil societies can change the world. Without movements such as the Civil Rights Movement, the present day would be entirely different. The White Helmets, on their own, are a civil society, which is here defined as a group of people with similar interests acting together. These interests include protecting the lives of their spouses, children, brothers, sisters, and friends; interests we all support. They are not fighting back, they are simply trying to preserve what little they still have.
As a part of a marginalized group that confronts the complexities of a loss of personal security as a results of threat or attack, due to fear-based hatred, I find that I can identify with the Syrians, in a small way. I am in no way placing a comparison; I simply recognize that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere because all oppression is connected as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.points out. We are all connected.
We can all be White Helmets.
The White Helmets’ website (https://www.whitehelmets.org/en) has an open letter to the UN for anyone to sign. If you are moved by this documentary, or just feel it necessary to support them, please go to the website and sign it. It reads:
“Barrel bombs – sometimes filled with chlorine – are the biggest killer of civilians in Syria today. Our unarmed and neutral rescue workers have saved more than 85,228 people from the attacks in Syria, but there are many we cannot reach. There are children trapped in rubble we cannot hear. For them, the UN Security Council must follow through on its demand to stop the barrel bombs, by introducing a ‘no-fly zone’ if necessary.” – Raed Saleh, head of the White Helmets, the Syrian Civil Defence.
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