In many conflicts, the line between victims and perpetrators is not clear. Child soldiers, youth under the age of 18 who actively participate in combat, are often both victims and perpetrators of crimes against humanity such as rape, torture, murder, and genocide. Their place in international law is murky due to this dual role – some former child soldiers, such as Dominic Ongwen, a child soldier-turned-Lord’s Resistance Army leader, have been prosecuted, while others, such as Omar Khadir, eventually go free. While the question, “How should we treat former child soldiers?” seems exceedingly complex in the context of international security and peace studies, the United Nations (UN) method of disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) in Sierra Leone serves as a successful example of post-conflict peacebuilding and peacekeeping by rehabilitating child soldiers and other victim-perpetrators while balancing the constraints of transitional justice, human security, and trauma. It also sets a precedent for the treatment of young ISIS returnees in Europe and North America.
In the wake of the numerous human rights abuses committed before and during World War II, the newly established United Nations set out to clearly define human rights in international law. The 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, while not a legal document or treaty, allowed for states to openly condemn or criticize human rights abuses in other countries. In addition, the Declaration of Human Rights served as a precedent for many regional and national constitutions and bills of rights (including the later UN International Bill of Human Rights). This served as a predecessor for the post-Cold War concept of human security and its importance in international law. For the first time, an international document signed and ratified by many of the most powerful states in the world explicitly stated that humans have rights to life, freedom of thought, freedom from slavery, and access to water. The specific rights of children were further clarified in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, a 1990 treaty in which the social, economic, healthcare, and other analogous rights of children were legally defined and ratified by UN states. This meant that states perceived to be violating the human rights of children could be legally held accountable by the UN if they had previously ratified the treaty. Additional protocols specifically prohibited child pornography and the use of child soldiers in conflict.
Despite this, the use of children in conflict was highly prevalent in Africa, Latin America, and Asia, where children were often drugged, kidnapped, or forcibly coerced into joining armies or militias, an act committed by both state and non-state actors in a variety of countries. The question of why children are recruited into armed conflicts is important for post-conflict peacebuilding; without understanding and eradicating the factors that lead to children willingly or forcibly joining militias, it is impossible to permanently and properly ‘deprogram’ or rehabilitate the children back into society and prevent another warlord from taking advantage of them. Children were ‘extra manpower’ for fatigued rebel paramilitaries, as well as vital in a variety of non-military roles such as sexual slavery, domestic work, and cooking.
Warlords and militia leaders utilize a variety of tactics to find and retain child soldiers. This includes abduction (a popular method of the LRA in Uganda); violence (or the threat of violence) against family members, friends, and neighbours; rape; and physically forcing abductees to commit crimes in an effort to break the soldier’s bonds with civil society. Once the abductees were officially integrated into the fabric of the militia, leaders used psychological torture, as well as physical abuse, rape, and drugs, to ensure that the child soldiers would not defect or desert the group. This trauma, which is described by many former child soldiers, lead to a recurring fear of returning to civil society; many were afraid of returning home because they believed themselves to be incapable of living a normal, law-abiding life. In the context of peacebuilding, understanding and treating the underlying trauma and PTSD of former child soldiers is vital in maintaining peace post-conflict. By helping the children work though their feelings of dirtiness, worthlessness, and victimhood, the children are able to build a more stable psychological mindset. Without this, former child soldiers are more likely to further engage in crimes by joining other militias or gangs, especially if they believe themselves to be irredeemable.
However, there are also several ‘push’ factors that may lead to children willingly joining armed conflicts of their own volition, especially in unstable countries like Sierra Leone with political and economic corruption, low state penetration, and weak state systems. Despite the country’s vast mineral wealth, patronage and neopatrimonialism in the mining sector meant that only a few Sierra Leoneans actually benefit from the country’s abundance of diamonds, aluminum, and titanium. The country’s poor education system and lack of legitimate opportunities meant that many youths felt alienated, disenchanted, and disappointed by the government. Thus, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), with its cries for “democratic empowerment”, “food for all”, and “[an end to] rural folks being exploited” was originally seen as the saviour of the rural poor against the government’s kleptocracy. For the first time, youths who were excluded from the centres of power were able to join a revolutionary political movement that purportedly supported their ideals. Many young girls also ran away to join the RUF because they saw this as the only way to escape traditional village life.
Many of the children who chose to join the RUF and other militias viewed it as the only alternative in a world in which they could not feasibly access proper education, skills training, or employment. Many former RUF soldiers noted the sense of power they had as soldiers – for once, they were the victimizers rather than the victims. Post-conflict, it is important to establish institutions that allow youths to properly engage in society, such as schools, training programs, and legitimate avenues of employment. Rather than an capitalist, oligarchical system, a more stable and fair government is necessary to ensure that resources and opportunities are more fairly distributed among citizens. The government should also make active efforts in state penetration and engaging rural communities, as well as ending impunity for government and military officials and politicians who commit crimes against citizens. By showing rural and poor citizens of Sierra Leone that the government has a vested interest in their wellbeing, it makes it harder for paramilitary groups to galvanize and incentivize the often neglected demographics with promises of change or revolution.
The civil war in Sierra Leone was a bloody, protracted affair funded by the neighbouring country of Liberia and the wealth of mineral resources in both countries. Charles Taylor, the then-president of Liberia who would later be found guilty for crimes against humanity based on his involvement in the Sierra Leonean civil war, armed and mobilized RUF forces in exchange for diamonds. He then used Sierra Leonean conflict diamonds to fund his own brutal civil war. Furthermore, the Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) headquarters were in Sierra Leone; by destabilizing the country, he hoped to derail ECOMOG’s peacebuilding efforts in Liberia that had begun prior to Taylor’s assassination of former Liberian president Samuel Doe.
In 1994, the head of state of Sierra Leone asked the UN Secretary-General (UNSG) for assistance in brokering peace between the RUF and the government. The fighting in Sierra Leone had many ramifications for international security—particularly human security—as 10% of the country’s citizens had become refugees in neighbouring countries and over 30% were internally displaced. The UNSG hired a Special Envoy and worked with the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to help the government build peace in the war-torn country. By including African regional institutions in the peacebuilding initiative, the UN avoided the criticisms that would later plague the International Criminal Court and other international organizations; unlike the ICC, the UN Observatory Mission in Sierra Leone (UNOMISL) maintained legitimacy in the eyes of African leaders, whereas other intergovernmental institutions have been accused of neocolonialism. When the UN imposed oil and arms embargoes in 1997, ECOWAS affirmed the sanctions as well.
While the UN had been tacitly involved since 1996, it was not until 1998 when an observatory mission was officially launched, allowing UN officials to supervise the peace-building process in Sierra Leone. The UNOMISL mandate pledged to monitor ECOWAS’s ECOMOG in the process of disarming and demobilizing former combatants. In addition, the mandate promised to document human rights violations as well as train soldiers and policemen in respecting internationally accepted standards of policing. UNOMISL helped broker a peace deal between the government and combatants in July 1999, officially ending the observatory aspect of the peacebuilding mission. The UN Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMISL) was the successor of the previous mission; UNAMISL’s mandate vastly increased the number of military and non-military personnel stationed in the country to properly oversee the peace process.
In regards to child soldiers and other victim-perpetrators, UNAMISL dictated a process known as disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration. Children were separated from adults into more child-friendly DDR processes, as they faced high risks of abuse and potential re-recruitment without additional, specialized assistance. Disarmament was the first process, during which firearms and other weapons would literally and symbolically be destroyed. After this, children were ‘demobilized’, which occurred when the children were transferred to ‘interim care centers’ which provided physical and emotional care for former child combatants while helping them transition from military to civilian life. While in these centres, peacekeepers worked on identifying, documenting, and reuniting these children with their parents. Rather than immediately returning the children to their families and villages, longer term mediation and communication between former child soldiers helped rebuild fractured networks and bonds. In Sierra Leone, 98% of child soldiers were eventually reunited with one or more parents. The reintegration aspect of DDR was the most complicated and lengthy. The transitional process from demobilization to reintegration could last anywhere from several weeks to months, depending on the child and their families’ specific needs. Reintegration referred to the actual process of returning the children to civil society by providing them with skills, money, and other items in preparation for education or a career.
One of the main objectives of UN peacekeepers in this case was to prevent feelings of alienation, isolation, and guilt that could prevent child soldiers from fully participating in society. Traditional cleansing processes and rituals were used to ‘purify’ the child of their sins; however, the success of this depends on the community’s willingness to help former child soldiers. In Sierra Leone, the Special Court and Truth and Reconciliation Commission were both established for accountability and truth-seeking reasons; transitional justice in this case was focused on reconciliation and amnesty rather than vengeance. Transitional justice refers to a post-conflict method of peacebuilding that focuses on acknowledging human rights abuses and atrocities while focusing on rebuilding, rather than punishment or blame. This prevents former combatants from becoming resentful and potentially reigniting the conflict. While reintegration was a partial success in Sierra Leone, many victims of combatants viewed it as impunity rather than amnesty. In the future, open dialogue between the UN, government, and citizens could better illustrate the benefits of reintegration over revenge.
Other aspects of UNAMISL, although not directly concerned with rehabilitating child soldiers, supported peacekeeping efforts by reforming and strengthening state and military institutions to prevent the dismal economic, political, and social conditions that had given rise to the RUF. They engaged in state-building efforts to increase the legitimacy of the government, including running the country’s first free and fair elections in over a decade. By addressing these issues, the government could show an active interest in inclusion and equality, decreasing the number of disenchanted youth that join anti-government militias. Although UNASMIL and its successors, UNIOSIL and UNIPSIL, provided guidance and advice to the Sierra Leonean government and military, economic corruption remains rampant, with much of the mineral wealth remaining in the hands of private individuals.
While the issue of child soldiers is primarily thought to only affect the third world, the UN’s peacebuilding efforts for former child soldiers in Sierra Leone can serve as a model for dealing with other adolescent victim-perpetrators, as in the case of ISIS returnees. Linda Wenzel was a 16-year-old German girl who had converted to Islam and joined ISIS in Iraq. She was found after Iraqi troops liberated Mosul in 2017 and she requested to return home, although she was later tried for her crimes by the Iraqi government. The study of why children joined armed conflicts is relevant in this case. While Wenzel was not dealing with the poverty and economic insecurity that plagued youths in Sierra Leone, she mentioned feeling disenchanted and depressed. Like the former child soldiers who were wooed by promises of revolt and equality, Wenzel was also wooed by ‘rosy’ pictures and videos of families and couples. By acknowledging the similarities between child soldiers and teenage ISIS fighters, family members, psychologists, and politicians can make a better effort to recognize, identify, and rehabilitate high risk adolescents, thus preventing them from joining ISIS and other terrorist groups in the first place. Post-conflict, institutions similar to interim care centres, which focus on reconciling the child with their families as well as treating the psychological trauma caused by their time in combat, hold the child accountable for their actions while showing them that they are not irredeemable.
The question of how to treat child soldiers post-conflict is a complex issue. The fact that they are both victims and perpetrators of unimaginable horrors mean that they have a multifaceted role in the international security matrix. Reintegration and rehabilitation of former child soldiers, as seen in Sierra Leone, is a reconciliation-focused peacebuilding method that works to integrate former perpetrators into their communities. This prevents former child soldiers from returning to crime by addressing and eradicating the feelings of exclusion, poverty, and anomie that lead to children willingly joining armed conflicts. The precedent set in Sierra Leone can also be used as an example for deprogramming and rehabilitating young ISIS returnees. The UN peacekeeping’s method of demobilization, disarmament, and rehabilitation, showcases the importance of amnesty in transitional justice in helping create a more stable state.