Op-Ed by Leila Zerrougui
Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict
A few days before I was scheduled to travel to Afghanistan, I read about the death of Wasil Ahmad. You may remember him. Wasil was an 11-year-old Afghan boy, described as a hero by some in his community for helping fight the Taliban.
According to the news reports, he took up arms last summer, reportedly after a member of his family was killed. Earlier this year, he was gunned down on his way to school in an act of revenge by the Taliban.
Wasil’s death is in many ways emblematic of the challenges we face to protect children affected by conflict in Afghanistan.
Last year, the UN recorded the highest number of civilian casualties since 2009, when it began its systematic monitoring. One in four civilian casualties was a child – an average of 54 children killed or injured ever week. Over 730 boys and girls died and close to 2,100 children were injured in ground battles, airstrikes, by improvised explosive devices or in suicide attacks.
Child recruitment and use is another serious concern in Afghanistan, and the number of cases verified by the UN in 2015 also increased dramatically. Most cases are attributed to the Taliban and other armed groups, but the UN also continues to document the recruitment and use of boys by the Afghan Local and National Police – both listed by the Secretary-General for the recruitment and use of children. Cases by the Afghan National Army have also been documented.
Afghanistan has been a country of concern on my agenda ever since the children and armed conflict mandate was created. In the first report produced by my office and presented to the UN General Assembly in 1998, poverty was identified as a key driver of child recruitment. My predecessor highlighted the importance of mobilizing domestic and international efforts to protect child soldiers and children affected by war and recommended working to improve access to education, health services, and the creation of employment opportunities.
Nearly twenty years later, sadly, this assessment is still valid. But Afghanistan has also moved forward to protect children from recruitment and use and the country is fully engaged in the campaign ‘Children, Not Soldiers’, which aims to end and prevent the recruitment and use of child soldiers in national security forces in conflict.
In 2011, the Government signed an Action Plan with the United Nations to end and prevent the recruitment and use of children in the Afghan national security forces.
Last month, in my exchanges with President Ashraf Ghani, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah and other members of the Government, it was clear that Afghan national security forces are not recruiting children as a matter of policy.
In the past year alone, the Government has made substantial progress to implement its Action Plan. A presidential decree banning the recruitment of children in the Afghan national security forces entered into force in February 2015, and national age assessment guidelines were endorsed in December 2015 – an essential tool to protect children in a country where not everyone has been registered at birth.
During my visit, I went to a child protection unit located at the National Police recruitment centre in Herat. There, the staff told me about the importance of having people trained not only to identify and turn away underage recruits, but also to sensitize their colleagues and the population on the importance of protecting children.
There are currently six child protection units in provincial police recruitment centres in Afghanistan. The first one was established in 2011 and, by all accounts, they have kept hundreds of children away from the national security forces. The Government wants to set up these units to serve the country’s 34 provinces. This will contribute to the success of the Action Plan and I encourage the international community to support this initiative.
“Teenagers often come to the recruitment centre because they are desperate to find a job,” one of the women working at the Herat child protection unit told me. She said some of them have lost their parents and have to support their brothers and sisters. She hopes one day she will be able to propose alternatives to these boys. Promoting reintegration programmes as well as educational and economic opportunities will be key to turn the page on the recruitment and use of children in impoverished communities.
While in Herat, I also visited a juvenile rehabilitation centre where I met children – boys and girls – held in detention. The detention of children on national security-related charges, including for association with armed groups, is an issue of concern – particularly where these children are not held in juvenile facilities and dealt with by the juvenile justice system.
There are currently over 160 detainees who were arrested as children, including over 50 who are still minors, being held on national security-related charges in Parwan, a high-security facility for adults. This is a serious issue that I raised with the Government during my visit. These children should benefit from the protections guaranteed by international law, in particular the safeguards required by juvenile justice standards.
Strengthening the rule of law and accountability are central to the success of the Action Plan, and to improve the protection of children in general. The Government has criminalized the recruitment of children in its national security forces. I strongly encourage authorities to enact in national law a general prohibition of child recruitment and use.
The momentum generated by ‘Children, Not Soldiers’ has led to tangible progress in Afghanistan. In the campaign’s last year, I invite all of those who can make a difference to join forces to support the Government’s commitment to fully implement its Action Plan to end and prevent the recruitment of children in its national security forces.
Putting in place the measures and mechanisms to protect children is hard work. Changing attitudes about the recruitment and use of child soldiers is even harder. We have come a long way. But until children like Wasil Ahmad can grow up protected from conflict, our work won’t be done.