Harm suffered by children has topped a list of concerns respecting the United States’ behavior during armed conflict in Afghanistan.
The list appeared in just-issued Concluding observations of the U.N. Committee of the Rights of the Child. Of chief concern were child casualties. Noting the U.S. statement that overall civilian casualties had dropped in recent years, the report stated (¶ 7):
‘The Committee is nevertheless alarmed at reports of the death of hundreds of children as a result of attacks and air strikes by the US military forces in Afghanistan over the reporting period due notably to reported lack of precautionary measures and indiscriminate use of force. The Committee expresses grave concern that in fact the number of casualties of children doubled from 2010 to 2011. The Committee further expresses serious concern that members of the armed forces responsible for the killings of children have not always been held accountable and that grievances of families have not been redressed.’
On Friday, the U.S.-led coalition pushed back, insisting that the Committee’s
‘reports of the death of hundreds of children as a result of attacks and airstrikes by the US military in Afghanistan are categorically unfounded.’
Also garnering the U.N. Committee’s attention was the treatment of Afghan children said to be involved with anti-government forces. Reiterating at ¶ 33 its finding
‘that children were detained over extended periods of time, in certain instances for one year or more, the Committee notes with deep concern that the State party continue to arrest and detain children in Department of Defence custody.’
This assertion was not categorically rejected; rather, in a filing last December, the United States endeavored to explain the situation at its Detention Facility in Parwan, Afghanistan:
‘[O]ver the last several years the United States has captured more than 200 individuals under the age of 18 and held them at the DFIP; the average age of these individuals has been approximately 16 years old. The United States was not aware of the age of the children at the point of capture; in nearly all cases their ages were not finally determined until after capture. Few of these juveniles remain in detention at the DFIP; many of them have been released or transferred to the Afghan government.’
That last result drew separate criticism from the 18-member Committee, which asserted in its Concluding observations:
‘Children transferred to Afghan custody face torture and or ill-treatment.’
(¶ 33) The same paragraph stated that children over 16 are housed with adults, and that child detainees have limited access to legal aid or to anyone beside their captors and monitors from the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. With regard to all these concerns, the Committee “urge[d]” the United States to reverse course – to step up precautions against such harms and, should prevention fail, to ensure redress. (¶¶ 8, 34)
The Committee’s report marked the end of a multiyear review of U.S. compliance with the 2000 Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict. Although the United States never ratified the principal convention, it became a state party to the protocol in 2002. Implementation since then has included passage in 2008 of the federal Child Soldiers Accountability Act and Child Soldiers Prevention Act, as well as the opening in many constituent states of child advocacy bureaus. The Committee lauded these efforts, but urged more; to be precise, establishment of a national children’s rights unit and extension of the ban on recruitment to age 18. Given the country’s tradition of recruitment in high schools, it seems unlikely that this last concern will have been addressed to the Committee’s satisfaction by the time the United States returns for a new round of review in 2016.