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Protecting children in war

In December, the BCCLA and Amnesty International Canada sent a letter to Minister of National Defence Peter MacKay, calling on the DND to ensure that children being captured by Canadian Forces in Afghanistan are treated in accordance with international standards governing the handling of child soldiers.

Documents disclosed through the MPCC Afghanistan Public Interest Hearings and an Access to Information Request filed by the CBC suggest that children are being apprehended by Canadian Forces and transferred to the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s notorious intelligence service widely believed to engage in abuse and torture of prisoners. We found this to be deeply troubling.

Recruiting and using children by government forces or armed groups is a serious crime under international law. Accordingly, child soldiers are victims in their own right, and need to be treated as such. The victimization of child soldiers is well-recognized under international law: the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Optional Protocol relating to juvenile combatants make clear that children accused of taking part in hostilities must be demobilized and provided with the assistance necessary to promote their recovery and eventual social reintegration.

As we outlined in our letter, BCCLA and AI Canada had serious concerns that juvenile detainees were not being treated in accordance with international law.

First, it appeared from the disclosed documents that a number of the captured children were simply released, which gave rise to the very real possibility that they would again be returned to conflict, notwithstanding Canada’s obligation to ensure that child soldiers coming into its custody be demobilized.

Second, none of the documents suggested that juvenile detainees in Canadian custody were provided with necessary supports or programs to facilitate their physical and psychological recovery, or their social reintegration — both of which are required under international law.

Third, as readers of these pages will know, we find the fact that Canada continues to transfer any prisoners to the NDS to be deeply troubling. That it transferred children to the NDS — and to the risk of torture — was alarming.

The BCCLA and AI Canada called on the government to do the following:

  • discontinue any NDS involvement in the custody or treatment of children detained by Canadian Forces;
  • ensure that the approach taken to the arrest, detention, transfer and release of children captured by CF be fully consistent with Canada’s obligation to ensure that such children are demobilized and assisted with their physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration;
  • ensure that child prisoners transferred into the custody of Afghan officials are not at risk of torture or ill-treatment, are not arbitrarily detained, and are imprisoned only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time;
  • actively monitor the legal status and detention conditions of transferred child prisoners against applicable international human rights standards;
  • cease transfers of child prisoners if there is a serious risk that they will face human rights violations in Afghan custody; and
  • provide public information with respect to the arrest, detention, transfer and release of child prisoners, including numbers of child detainees, their ages, where they are held, and details with respect to detention conditions and programming.

Last week, we received a response to our letter from Minister MacKay. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he declined to undertake any of the recommended actions outlined in our letter, though he did assure us that Canada is committed to conducting itself in accordance with its international legal obligations. However, he provided no assurance that child detainees were being provided with any of the rehabilitation and supportive programming required under international law. He declined to make any statement with respect to whether children would continue to be transferred to the NDS. He informed us that individualized information concerning child detainees could not be disclosed from “an operational security standpoint.”

In short, we still don’t know much more about how child soldiers are being handled by Canadian Forces in Afghanistan, and whether they are being given the protection to which they’re entitled, under international law. The tone of Minister MacKay’s letter, though, suggests that the DND still doesn’t seem to quite understand the international consensus that children in armed conflict — even ones that have taken active part in the hostilities — must be considered as victims of war, as evidenced by his assertion that “Canadian Forces detains only individuals who represent a threat to the lives of Canadian soldiers, our allies or Afghan citizens.” Until that understanding comes, we remain very concerned that Afghan children are being victimized over and over again.