The problem of children associated with armed forces has been bedevilled by two conflicting objectives: dealing with a 'hard' security concern and converting it into a language and vocabulary that ordinary people understand, with the attendant transitional justice concerns; and at the same time preserving societal cohesion at the community level, as the return of such children may not be acceptable to communities that have suffered atrocities committed by them.
One country that is struggling to deal with this problem is Chad. With a population of only 11,3 million, Chad's profile has been blighted by the fact that it has never seen a peaceful transfer of power. Since independence coups d'état have remained the primary means of changing government, intermixed with political dynamics that intersect with localised inter-ethnic tensions and violence.
Until recently, children in Chad were being used by both the Chadian army and Sudanese and Chadian armed groups. Thousands have been recruited in recent years as the Darfur conflict over the border in Sudan has engulfed eastern Chad. This area has suffered a spillover from the Darfur conflict in part because many of the rebels come from ethnic groups that live and operate across the Chad-Sudan border. Some Darfur rebels have had bases in Chad, and Chadian groups have had bases in Sudan.
Recently there has been only limited cross-border fighting, because the governments of Chad and Sudan have improved relations. However, the report of the United Nations Secretary-General on children and armed conflict in Chad, released in February 2011, notes that the recruitment and use of children still persist. The report, which covers the period from July 2008 to December 2010, also notes that children continue to be targets of sexual and gender-based violence, and that mines and other explosive remnants of war continue to expose them to danger.
Chad has been identified as one of the countries that have used children in the national armed forces. With a view to redeeming its tainted image, Chad signed an agreement with the UN in June 2011 to demonstrate its political will to do something to end the recruitment and use of child soldiers. The action plan spells out concrete steps that, once taken, will result in Chad being removed from the UN Secretary-General's list of parties who recruit and use child soldiers.
In effect, the Chadian government has committed to stepping up efforts to ensure that the Chadian National Forces and recently integrated armed groups are child-free; to enable verification of military installations by the UN in order to monitor compliance with the action plan; to align national legislation with its international obligations for children; to take punitive measures against those who continue to violate the agreement; and to put in place other preventive measures.
While this effort by the Chadian government can be lauded as timely and necessary, a closer examination reveals that a similar initiative was launched in 2007, when the government, with the assistance of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), launched a demobilisation and reintegration programme for children associated with armed forces and groups, albeit with little success. The failure of the programme was partly due to underfunding, but was also exacerbated by continued insecurity, extreme poverty, and the reluctance of political and military officials to engage with demobilisation processes.
How different, then, is this national action plan signed in June, and what lessons are carried over into the current initiative from the last initiative? Is there a possibility that this new initiative can add value to ongoing processes? The current situation is both urgent and precarious. The critical question, therefore, is whether this initiative will last, as its success is a matter of the greatest consequence: a relapse could increase political instability and the resultant use of children in violent armed conflict. Such an outcome would represent a betrayal of the faith that children in Chad have put in their community and government.
Unfortunately, the efforts in Chad reflect a common scenario in many countries that are dealing with this issue. Various approaches and policy options, together with legislative, practical and administrative measures, have been undertaken to try to deal with the issue. The Chadian initiative will see the active engagement of actors, but one thing that stands out is that the same actors and stakeholders that should implement the recently signed agreement had largely failed to implement the previous one.
One challenge that will surely face the recent agreement is the concerns over working with children associated with armed forces and groups. They are a specific and high-profile group and interventions require specialist assistance and considerable resources, but it remains to be seen whether sufficient funding will be provided to realise these commitments in practice.
In addition, child soldiers represent only a small percentage of the children whose lives are impacted by armed conflict, and many others will be equally in need of support. All children affected by conflict should receive due attention, and each should be given the possibility to actively engage in the peacebuilding process. Once again, however, recognition of this fact needs to be supported by adequately resourced programmes in the field.
Also, the protection issues that affect children tend to be categorised into separate thematic areas and, as such, approached as separate areas of technical expertise. This technical nature of working in child protection programmes becomes rather complex, and the labelling of experts may confine the interventions into neatly defined 'quarters' for quarterly reports, leaving out significant issues at the social and community levels. Perhaps the most significant dynamic, however, is at the level of donors who allocate funding to thematic projects, resulting in many broader, purely protection-based initiatives going unsupported.
The reintegration of these Chadian children is complex and will be a long-term proposition. It is therefore important that Chadian government officials and the UN take into account the glaring gaps in our understanding of and response to children associated with armed forces and groups, for policy and programmatic interventions have not always managed to transform the lives of such children. There is a need for both parties to engage with the strategic environment, since the Chadian matter may have regional dimensions and hence a regional approach to addressing the problem is needed.
Unless the protection of Chadian children associated with armed forces and groups takes the strategic environment and current realities into account, the impact of recurrent weak responses will continue to reduce the incremental progress made to date in protecting Chadian children. The recently launched initiative between the Chadian government and the UN has embarked on a grand and noble journey. It is an effort worthy of pursuit and strong support.
Source: Institute for Security Studies (Tshwane, South Africa)