Strengthening the protection of children associated with violent extremist groups

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The use of children by violent extremist groups, including terrorist organizations, is a growing concern. Often used as carriers, spies or cooks, these children are often led to commit crimes, take part in violent actions or even conduct acts of terrorism. Among the children used by violent extremist groups, many are victims of sexual violence and abuse.

From 1 to 3 June 2016, security, justice and child welfare professionals and experts from the Sahel region met in Dakar, to analyze this growing phenomenon and to identify the root causes and the consequences of children's exploitation. Moreover, the gathering allowed participants to reflect upon the assistance needed by demobilized children in their rehabilitation process.

Some of these children can be responsible of acts of violent extremism, while simultaneously being victims of violent extremism. This recurring exposition to violence and extremism greatly impact their physical and psychological well-being while exposing them to many other social and health risks, including auto-immune diseases, cognitive-development issues, psychological distress, reproductive problems, scholastic difficulties and many other traumatisms.

The recruitment of these children can take several forms: kidnapping, forced enrollment, financial and material incentives or directly within schools under the control of violent-extremist groups.

Understanding what type of assistance should be provided to demobilized children and their community of origin is a highly complex effort. It is hard to identify appropriate care institutions for these underage children or to manage and approach those which have committed violent crimes (including murders) within these groups.

Through working groups and plenary sessions, this workshop allowed participants from Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger, and Senegal to bring their input and their specific views and experiences on these difficult topics. Experts from the security, justice and children welfare sectors have been able to share their expertise and their experience while also engaging members of MINUSMA, UNHCR, OHCHR, and UNICEF.

In order to address this phenomenon, participants underlined the need to increase coordination between the various services and actors and regarding the means to be taken to achieve greater coordination between all actors. They have also highlighted the importance of preventing further victimization of children during their contact with the judicial system.

Debates also focused on the legal status of these children, and whether they should be considered as responsible for their actions when taking part to the activities of their respective groups. Most Member States represented at the workshop have created specialized investigation and prosecution services to process terrorism-related cases. On the other hand, the juvenile justice system and the institutions in charge of child protection are spread among multiple state departments, local authorities and non-state actors, making coordination more difficult. Consequently, building capacities to monitor these children and to provide case-specific responses through government agencies was also identified as an area of importance by workshop participants.

The delegation of Mali provided the example of an agreement protocol between the authorities in Mali and UNICEF, which allows UNICEF to take care of the child and start the reintegration process without having to go through the traditional judiciary path.

This activity follows-up on a meeting held in October 2015 on children associated with Boko Haram's activities, which follows the action plan for the prevention of violent-extremism (A/70/674) of the UN Secretary-General. This activity is part of UNODC's Sahel Programme. The mandate of UNODC for the justice of children has been stated on many occasions over the past years and has been materialized through many resolutions passed by the General Assembly, the Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) and the Human Rights Commission.