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Engaging armed non-State actors on the prohibition of recruiting and using children in hostilities: Some reflections from Geneva Call's experience

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 May 2020


Despite the existence of a comprehensive international legal framework protecting children in armed conflict, ensuring its respect by armed non-State actors (ANSAs) still remains an important challenge. This can be linked to several circumstances, such as their lack of knowledge of the law, the absence of an incentive to abide by the applicable rules, their fragmented structure and their lack of capacity to implement the applicable framework. Certain practical cases, however, show that ANSAs’ behaviours may vary throughout armed conflicts. While certain groups have, at a given moment, breached some of their international obligations, others have shown some degree of commitment to respecting children's safeguards. When addressing the prohibition of recruiting and using children in hostilities, the reasons behind these variations have remained insufficiently explored. This article reviews some of the lessons learned from Geneva Call's experience when engaging ANSAs towards their compliance with child protection norms.

Legal protections for children
Copyright © icrc 2020

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1 Although the international law and political sciences literature normally refers to “non-State armed groups”, “armed opposition groups”, “armed groups”, “rebels” and “insurgents”, sometimes interchangeably, this article will use the term “armed non-State actors”. This term encompasses organized armed entities that are not operating under State control and lack the legal capacity to become party to relevant international treaties. ANSAs comprise different types of actors, such as opposition and insurgent movements, dissident armed forces, de facto authorities, paramilitary groups and self-defence militias. See, generally, Bellal, Annyssa, “What Are ‘Armed Non-State Actors’? A Legal and Semantic Approach”, in Heffes, Ezequiel, Kotlik, Marcos D. and Ventura, Manuel J. (eds), International Humanitarian Law and Non-State Actors: Debates, Law and Practice, T. M. C. Asser Press, The Hague, 2020Google Scholar.

2 Report of the UN Secretary-General: Children and Armed Conflict, UN Doc. A/72/865–S/2018/465, 16 May 2018, p. 3, para. 13, available at: (all internet references were accessed in January 2020).

3 Ibid.

4 Geneva Call, “DR Congo: Child Soldiers Leave Armed Groups Following Geneva Call's Awareness-Raising Efforts”, 1 February 2017, available at:

5 Report of the UN Secretary-General, above note 2, p. 36, para. 263.

6 Report of the UN Secretary-General: Children and Armed Conflict, UN Doc. A/72/361–S/2017/821, 24 August 2017, p. 36, para. 246, available at: See also Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict (SRSG CAAC), “Philippines: MILF Completed Disengagement of Children from Its Ranks”, 18 December 2017, available at:

7 Karim Bahgat et al., “Children Affected by Armed Conflict, 1990–2016”, 2018, available at:; Save the Children, The War on Children: Time to End Grave Violations against Children in Conflict, 2018, pp. 15–17, available at:

8 University of Iowa Center for Human Rights, “Human Rights Index #47: Children in Armed Conflict”, 2016, available at

9 See Report of the UN Secretary-General, above note 6, p. 5, where it is highlighted that in 2016 there were at least 4,000 verified violations by government forces and more than 11,500 verified violations by ANSAs. The SRSG CAAC has, in fact, affirmed that ANSAs “have systematically constituted the vast majority of parties listed for grave violations against children in the annual reports of the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict”. See SRSG CAAC, “Engagement with Parties to Conflict Who Commit Grave Violations Against Children”, available at:

10 Protocol Additional (II) to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts, 1125 UNTS 609, 8 June 1977 (entered into force 7 December 1978), Art. 4(3); Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989, Art. 38; Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, 2000, Arts 4, 6(3), 7(1).

11 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, 1998, Arts 8(2)(b)(xxvi), 8(2)(e)(vii).

12 Report of the UN Secretary-General: Children and Armed Conflict, UN Doc. A/59/695–S/2005/72, 9 February 2005, p. 16, available at: Interestingly, this framework includes not only IHL but also IHRL provisions, such as the prohibition against using and recruiting children below the age of 18 years old. For more information, see SRSG CAAC, The Six Grave Violations against Children during Armed Conflict: The Legal Foundation, Working Paper No. 1, October 2009 (updated November 2013), available at:; Marcos D. Kotlik, “Compliance with Humanitarian Rules on the Protection of Children by Non-State Armed Groups: The UN's Managerial Approach”, in E. Heffes, M. D. Kotlik and M. J. Ventura (eds), above note 1, in particular pp. 392–394.

13 See, for instance, Centre on Global Health Security and Chatham House, Non-State Armed Groups, Health and Healthcare, 2015, available at:; Daragh Murray, Human Rights Obligations of Non-State Armed Groups, Hart, Oxford and Portland, OR, 2016, p. 255.

14 Geneva Call, In Their Words: Armed Non-State Actors Share Their Policies and Practice with Regards to Education in Armed Conflict, 2017, p. 8, available at: See also International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), Framework for Access to Education, 2017, p. 11, available at:; and, generally, Protect Education in Insecurity and Conflict and Geneva Call, PEIC/Geneva Call Workshop on Education and Armed Non-State Actors: Towards a Comprehensive Agenda, 2015, available at:

15 See Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, International Forum on Armed Groups and the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict: Summary of Themes and Discussions, London, 2007, available at:

16 UNSC Res. 1612, UN Doc. S/RES/1612, 2005.

17 Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, Child Soldiers: Global Report 2008, 2008, p. 22, available at:

18 Geneva Call, Deed of Commitment under Geneva Call for Adherence to a Total Ban on Anti-Personnel Mines and for Cooperation in Mine Action, 2000.

19 Jonathan Somer, “Engaging Armed Non-State Actors to Protect Children from the Effects of Armed Conflict: When the Stick Doesn't Cut the Mustard”, Journal of Human Rights Practice, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2012, pp. 113–114 (stating that “[i]t was also evident that there was no clear consensus on age standards. Many ANSAs agreed with a straight-18 position – that is, a straightforward prohibition of all recruitment and participation in conflict, whether compulsory or voluntary, of persons below the age of 18. Others opposed it on religious or cultural grounds. Interestingly, Islamic-based ANSAs had different interpretations of whether Islam allowed for a straight-18 position”). For other views shared by ANSAs, see Geneva Call, In Their Words: Perspectives of Armed Non-State Actors on the Protection of Children from the Effects of Armed Conflict, 2010, pp. 10–31, available at:

20 Geneva Call, Deed of Commitment under Geneva Call for the Protection of Children from the Effects of Armed Conflict, 2010 (Deed of Commitment for the Protection of Children), available at: For further information on the Deed of Commitment development process and content, see J. Somer, above note 19, pp. 106–127.

21 Deed of Commitment for the Protection of Children, above note 20, Art. 5.

22 Ibid., Art. 6.

23 Ibid., Arts 4, 7.

24 See, for instance, Geneva Call, “Palestinian Factions in Lebanon Adopt a Declaration on the Protection of Children”, 29 January 2014, available at:

25 ICRC, The Roots of Restraint in War, Geneva, 2018, p. 18.

26 See International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 95, No. 889, 2013, specifically dealing with the violence against health care; and with respect to sexual violence cases, see Elisabeth Jean Wood, “Conflict-Related Sexual Violence and the Policy Implications of Recent Research”, International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 96, No. 894, 2014.

27 For an exception, see Bernd Beber and Christopher Blattman, “The Logic of Child Soldiering and Coercion”, International Organization, Vol. 67, No. 1, 2013.

28 Reed M. Wood, “Understanding Strategic Motives for Violence against Civilians during Civil Conflict”, in Heike Krieger (ed.), Inducing Compliance with International Humanitarian Law: Lessons from the African Great Lakes Region, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2015, p. 30. See also Hyeran Jo, Compliant Rebels: Rebel Groups and International Law in World Politics, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2015, p. 6.

29 For instance, although a spokesman for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front stated that the group was indeed committed to not recruiting persons under 18 into its ranks, the group “insisted that there were differences in cultural definitions. Boys older than 13 are normally considered adults in local Islamic law, and if born into families involved in the fight for independence, are duty-bound to help in the struggle.” The New Humanitarian, “Moves to End Use of Child Soldiers, but Problem Persists”, 8 April 2011, available at

30 Further reasons include the following: (1) children require less food and lower salaries, thus costing less for ANSAs; (2) they are somewhat protected by the reluctance of adults to attack them; and (3) ANSAs’ members may not have internalized the prohibition against recruiting and using children at an individual level, as they could have themselves been recruited while they were under 18 years old. Together with certain disadvantages to using and recruiting children in hostilities, some of these reasons are listed in Olivier Bangerter, “Reasons Why Armed Groups Choose to Respect International Humanitarian Law or Not”, International Review of the Red Cross, Vol. 93, No. 882, 2011, p. 371.

31 This section is based on earlier work conducted by Geneva Call as part of a research project led by the University of Geneva and ETH Zurich on “Civilian Victimization and Conflict Escalation”. See Swiss Network for International Studies, Civilian Victimization and Conflict Escalation: Executive Summary, April 2017, pp. 11–16, available at:

32 For a brief summary of the conflict, see H. Jo, above note 28, pp. 203–205.

33 Human Rights Watch (HRW), “My Gun Was as Tall as Me”: Child Soldiers in Burma, 2002, p. 121, available at:

34 Ibid. There seem to be divergent views regarding the exact number of children and their age, as some internal documents from this ANSA refer to eighty children between 14 and 17 years old. See, in this sense, statement of the KNU regarding child soldiers, 15 August 2005, and letter from KNU secretary-general Padoh Manh Sha Lah Phan to Ms Radhika Coomaraswamy, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, 31 July 2006. Documents on file with the authors.

35 HRW, above note 33, pp. 121–122. See also Child Soldiers International, A Law Unto Themselves? Confronting the Recruitment of Children by Armed Groups, 2016, p. 15, available at

36 HRW, above note 33, pp. 11–12.

37 KNU, “Recruiting”, 2003, available at: In a response to a report of the UN Secretary-General in 2009, the KNU issued a public statement in which it acknowledged that it had previously accepted children above the age of 16 years into its ranks, but also pointed out that it had revised its policy in 2003 to set the minimum age for recruitment at 18. See KNU, “KNU Press Statement on the Report of the UNSG”, 27 April 2009, available at:

38 KNU, “Recruiting”, above note 37.

39 KNLA, “Informing Directive”, 2003, available at:

40 Report of the UN Secretary-General: Children and Armed Conflict, UN Doc. A/58/546–S/2003/1053, 10 November 2003, p. 22, available at:

41 In Resolution 1539, the UN Security Council requested the Secretary-General to “devise urgently” an action plan for a comprehensive monitoring and reporting mechanism that could provide accurate and timely information on grave violations against children in armed conflicts. The resolution also called on listed parties to prepare concrete “action plans to halt the recruitment and use of children in violation of the international obligations applicable to them”. UNSC Res. 1539, UN Doc. S/RES/1539, 2004. See also M. D. Kotlik, above note 12, p. 391.

42 For the most recent report, see Report of the UN Secretary-General: Children and Armed Conflict, UN Doc. A/73/907–S/2019/509, 20 June 2019, p. 40, available at:

43 Geneva Call, “The KNU/KNLA Commits to the Protection of Children and the Prohibition of Conflict-Related Sexual and Gender-Based Violence”, 24 July 2013, available at:

44 This information was conveyed by the KNU on several occasions to Geneva Call. See, for instance, Geneva Call, Armed Non-State Actors Speak about Child Protection in Armed Conflict, 2016, pp. 20-21, available at:

45 Child Soldiers International, Chance for Change: Ending the Recruitment and Use of Child Soldiers in Myanmar, 2013, p. 30, fn. 164, available at: In 2007, the KNU secretary-general issued a new directive to reiterate the prohibition on child recruitment and warn KNLA brigade commanders and special battalion commanders that those found in violation would “face appropriate action in accordance with army regulations”: see KNU, “Child Soldier”, 2007, available at:; HRW, Sold to Be Soldiers: The Recruitment and Use of Child Soldiers in Burma, 31 October 2007, available at: HRW researchers speculated about the leaders’ possible reluctance to alienate ground-level forces by imposing policies and threatening disciplinary procedures. In 2007 and 2009, the KNLA adjutant-general issued a directive and a reminder, respectively, to KNLA commanders regarding their obligations not to recruit or use children. See KNLA, “Informing Directive Concerning Child Soldier”, 10 November 2007, available at:; KNLA, “Reminder and Statement”, 12 May 2009, available at:

46 Deed of Commitment for the Protection of Children, above note 20, Art. 4.

47 Geneva Call, “Burma/Myanmar: 40 High-Ranking Officers from the Karen National Liberation Army are Trained on Child Protection”, 25 November 2015, available at:

48 Geneva Call, “Burma/Myanmar: Update of Geneva Call's Latest Activities on Gender Equality and the Prevention of Sexual Violence”, 21 June 2016, available at:

49 Ibid.; Geneva Call, above note 47.

50 Information on file with the authors.

51 Information on file with the authors.

52 Information on file with the authors.

53 Olivier Bangerter, “Comment – Persuading Armed Groups to Better Respect International Humanitarian Law”, in Heike Krieger (ed.), Inducing Compliance with International Humanitarian Law: Lessons from the African Great Lakes Region, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2015, p. 113.

54 The term Mai-Mai (Mayi-Mayi) refers to a range of ethnically defined ANSAs that usually claim autochthony and have operated in the DRC since the 1960s on all sides of the political spectrum. The term means “water” and relates to supposed magical powers that protect fighters from enemy bullets. Zachariah Mampilly, Rebel Rulers: Insurgent Governance and Civilian Life during War, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 2011, p. 180, fn. 13.

55 For the most recent report, see Report of the UN Secretary-General, above note 42, p. 40.

56 UN Security Council, “Letter dated 22 January 2014 from the Coordinator of the Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo Addressed to the President of the Security Council”, UN Doc. S/2014/42, 2014, p. 35, available at:

57 Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, Briefing Paper: Democratic Republic of the Congo: Mai Mai Child Soldier Recruitment and Use: Entrenched and Unending, 2010, p. 9, available at

58 Information on file with the authors.

59 Joanne Richards, “Forced, Coerced and Voluntary Recruitment into Rebel and Militia Groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo”, Journal of Modern African Studies, Vol. 52, No. 2, 2014, p. 317.

60 APCLS, Règles de la Guerre dans le Mouvement Alliance du Peuple pour un Congo Libre et Souverain, 2015, Art. 6, available at :

61 Information on file with the authors.

62 Information on file with the authors.

63 UNICEF, Innocenti Insight: Birth Registration and Armed Conflict, 2007, p. 7, available at: This difficulty was also pointed out by the ICRC when dealing with child detainees: “In some circumstances, for example where births are not registered, official documents or records may not exist to help check the age of individuals facing detention, execution or other legal measures, thereby reducing their chances of being treated properly.” ICRC, Children and Detention, Geneva, 2014, p. 3, available at:

64 There are, of course, exceptions. In Aleppo, the United Courts Council, a temporary judicial council, was reported to issue birth and death certificates: see Ivan Watsin and Raja Razek, “Rebel Court Fills Void Amid Syrian Civil War”, CNN, 26 January 2012, available at: It has been also reported that the Islamic State group issued birth certificates printed on Islamic State stationery to babies born in the territories that it controlled: see Rukmini Callimachi, “The ISIS Files: We Unearthed Thousands of Internal Documents that Help Explain how the Islamic State Stayed in Power So Long”, New York Times, 4 April 2018, available at: See also Nabih Bulos, “Born Under a Bad Sign: Mosul Residents with Islamic State Birth Certificates Need a Do-over”, Los Angeles Times, 6 March 2017, available at:

65 Geneva Call, above note 44, pp. 10-11.

66 See ibid., p. 10, for the methods and standards that were shared with ANSAs participating in the meeting.

67 For a brief explanation, see Anne Peters, “The Turkish Operation in Afrin (Syria) and the Silence of the Lambs”, EJIL: Talk!, 30 January 2018, available at:

68 See, for instance, Jonathan Horowitz, “The Challenges of Foreign Assistance for Anti-ISIS Detention Operations”, Just Security, 23 July 2018, available at:

69 Report of the UN Secretary-General, above note 2, p. 25, para. 185.

70 SRSG CAAC, “Syrian Democratic Forces Sign Action Plan to End and Prevent the Recruitment and Use of Children”, 1 July 2019, available at:

71 Ibid.

72 Report of the UN Secretary-General, above note 42, p. 42.

73 Report of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic, 5 February 2015, p. 7, para. 42, available at:

74 Report of the UN Secretary-General: Children and Armed Conflict, UN Doc. A/68/878–S/2014/339, 15 May 2014, p. 30, para. 145, available at:

75 HRW, “Syria: Kurdish Forces Violating Child Soldier Ban”, 15 July 2015, available at:

76 The YPG rules of procedure are included in HRW, “Under Kurdish Rule: Abuses in PYD-Run Enclaves of Syria”, 19 June 2014, available at:

77 See YPG, “Circular Issued by the General Command of YPG”, 2013, available at:

78 HRW, above note 76.

79 See the Deed of Commitment as signed by the YPG/YPJ, p. 5, available at: Article 15 of the Deed of Commitment allows the entering of a reservation under certain strict conditions: “Any reservation to this Deed of Commitment must be consistent with its object and purpose, international humanitarian law, and the minimum obligations of State parties to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict. It must be expressed in writing upon signature and will be periodically reviewed towards attaining the highest possible respect for the rights of children. Geneva Call will be the final arbiter on the permissibility of any reservation.”

80 Geneva Call, “Syria: Kurdish Armed Forces Demobilize 149 Child Soldiers”, 7 July 2014, available at:

81 Geneva Call, “Syria: Kurdish Forces Take Further Measures to Stop the Use of Children in Hostilities”, 29 May 2015, available at:

82 See Geneva Call, “A Report from Inside Syria: A Visit to Monitor the Prohibition on the Use of Child Soldiers in Kurdish Areas”, 10 February 2016, available at:; Geneva Call, “Syria: New Measures Taken by the Kurdish People's Protection Units to Stop Recruiting Children under 18”, 22 June 2018, available at:

83 Following a field visit to Syria in 2017 to monitor compliance with the Deed of Commitment, Geneva Call confirmed the existence of cases of violation of the prohibition on child recruitment and use in hostilities. In an official response, the YPG/YPJ admitted responsibility and announced a series of measures that would be included in its internal regulations in order to address these violations, such as the establishment of “[n]ew and rigorous internal investigation mechanisms to follow up violations resulting from recruiting or using children aged under 18 years in combat positions” and the issuing of “an internal circular notice to all its units, forces and centres to explain their new policies and request them to abide by these new instructions”: Geneva Call, “Syria: New Measures Taken”, above note 82. The YPG General Command had already issued, in 2015, an internal circular to commanders and heads of recruitment centres instructing them not to recruit or accept any person under 18. See YPG, “Circular”, 2015, available at: The YPG/YPJ also established a monitoring committee responsible for inspecting military camps, recruitment centres and front lines and investigating all complaints and allegations of child recruitment made by families, media and human rights organizations. The committee had full authority to demobilize persons who did not meet the membership conditions according to their ages and sanction officers responsible for these violations. Information on file with the authors.

84 This information was collected through interviews conducted by Geneva Call's staff directly with children who have joined the YPG/YPJ. See, for example, Geneva Call, “A Report from Inside Syria”, above note 82.

85 Adrian Goodlife, “Armed Non-State Actors and Child Protection”, in Mohamed A. Babiker, Maxence Daublain and Alexis Vahlas (eds), Enfants-soldats et droits des enfants en situation de conflit et post-conflit, L'Harmattan, Paris, 2013, p. 179.

86 See concrete suggestions in Geneva Call, above note 44, pp. 9, 11–12.

87 Michael L. Gross, The Ethics of Insurgency: A Critical Guide to Just Guerrilla Warfare, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2015, p. 74, referring to different behaviours of Kosovar and Aceh guerrillas and the Taliban in Afghanistan. This does not exclude the fact that a number of ANSAs still reject international law or some of its norms, such as the 18-year standard, for ideological, military or other reasons.

88 Report of the UN Secretary-General, above not 42, p 39.

89 Jessica A. Stanton, Violence and Restraint in Civil War: Civilian Targeting in the Shadow of International Law, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2016, pp. 221–233, for an analysis on the variation of behaviours by the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional in El Salvador.

90 In this sense, Jo has argued that compliant ANSAs emerge when they seek legitimacy, which in turn is “typically politically situated and audience specific. Compliant rebels are those that want to enhance the ‘legitimacy’ of their own organization and movement in the eyes of key political ‘audiences’ that care about values consistent with international law at domestic and international ‘levels’”. H. Jo, above note 28, p. 13. In any case, this scenario will depend on each context. In Sri Lanka, for instance, it was claimed that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) were responsible for war crimes during the final months of the conflict, including the use of civilians as human shields, shooting civilians as they tried to flee LTTE control, deploying artillery near civilians and forcibly recruiting children. Meenakshi Ganguly, “Sri Lanka Takes the Wrong Road to Peace”, 17 May 2011, available at:

91 Fazal, Tanisha M., Wars of Law: Unintended Consequences in the Regulation of Armed Conflict, Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY, 2018, p. 59Google Scholar.

92 See Kristin M. Blakke, Kathleen Gallagher Cunningham and Lee J. M. Seymour, “The Problem with Fragmented Insurgencies”, Washington Post, 13 May 2015, available at: A large body of conflict research, it is affirmed, “demonstrates that [ANSAs’] fragmentation makes conflict more violent, longer lasting and harder to resolve”.

93 ICRC, above note 25, p. 21.

94 Ibid., p. 65.

95 Jeremy Weinstein, Inside Rebellion: The Politics of Insurgent Violence, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006, p. 210.

96 Geneva Call, Administration of Justice by Armed Non-State Actors: Report from the 2017 Garance Talks, 2017, available at: See also Ezequiel Heffes, “Administration of Justice by Armed Groups: Some Practical and Legal Concerns”, ICRC Humanitarian Law and Policy Blog, 22 November 2018, available at:

97 Richard A. Falk, “On Identifying and Solving the Problem of Compliance with International Law”, Proceedings of the American Society of International Law at Its Annual Meeting (1921–1969), Vol. 58, 1964, p. 5.

98 Ibid.