As children are increasingly weaponised and made a spectacle of on Youtube videos, should justice be meted out? And at what age are children responsible for war crimes before the law?

Screenshot of a video released by Daesh.
Screenshot of a video released by Daesh.

Child soldiers around the world, even if they have no agency in the matter, commit war crimes. But bringing them to justice is a complex issue.

Videos recently released by Daesh show how children as young as eight recruited by Daesh are shooting and butchering captives, and committing war-crimes without hesitation.

Dressed in black, they utter hateful words that mirror those of senior members of the terrorist group.

This brings an old debate that was largely relevant in some sub-saharan fragile nations such as Sierra Leone, to the surface.

"I was forced literally to kill my best friend as an initiation process into the army," a former child soldier from Democratic Republic of Congo Michel Chikwanine told The WorldPost. "That's something I will never forget, and I still fight with every single day.

But should children be held accountable for war crimes, and if so, how should they be prosecuted?

There's no real global standard

International law has failed to address the questions whether child soldiers should be punished for the atrocities they committed during an armed conflict, and distanced itself from the issue by prohibiting recruitment and use of children below the age of 15, leaving the decision to individual states.

However, the threshold for criminal responsibility in some countries is as young as six years old. This can easily give way to problems, especially in cases of international war crimes.

It's not just Daesh

Some children volunteer to be become a soldier, some are brainwashed, and some are threatened and drugged to be become soldiers.

"When you kill for the first time, automatically, you change," said Norman who was forced to fight for Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. "Out of being innocent, you've now become guilty. You feel like you're becoming part of them, part of the rebels."

The issue is not new. During Sierra Leone's civil war of 1991–2002, thousands of children were threatened, or force-fed drugs to become soldiers. A vast majority of children had no choice but to fight, murder, rape, and mutilate, or they would be killed themselves.

In Liberia, children in need of protection or to due to the desire to seek revenge for the killing of their families throughout the conflict approached warring parties to become soldiers.

And after decades of violent conflict in Afghanistan, severe poverty and a lack of other opportunities have driven children into the fighting on all sides.

Children in Iraq and Syria from age 3 to 16 are undergoing indoctrination to the extent that they started referring to their own families as apostates.

In once case, Hadya, 11, and her brothers Fadi, 9, and Shadi, 5 displaced by Daesh in Mosul was forced to dismember a captive prisoner, threatening to take them away from them, and they did. One day Shadi held a knife to our little sister's throat" saying that ‘I'll cut her throat, she's mine.'"

Who's the victim?

International human rights and child protection experts generally see child soldiers as the victims instead of perpetrators of such crimes.

Some experts argue that accountability for war crimes committed by children should be placed squarely on the adults who recruit them. This way both justice can be served for the victim, and the warlords will not be encouraged to recruit children thinking that they could get away with the crime.

Amnesty International recognises the needs of both victims and society for justice and accountability, adding that it in most of the cases, it will be clear if they have committed crimes voluntarily, or threatened or drugged. The human rights body highlights that assessing a child's awareness of their choices should be undertaken critically.

It also stresses that they should be held accountable for their actions in an appropriate setting and should be held in detention as a last resort and for the shortest possible period of time.

Author: Asena Bosnak

Source: TRT World