ICC Prosecutor’s Policy on Children, an international criminal justice capstone

Children have become the unwilling emblems of armed conflict and extreme violence.

Searing images have surfaced in news stories, aid workers’ alerts, and rights groups’ dispatches: a 5 year old pulled from Aleppo rubble, orphans at a Goma children’s center, a young Colombian woman struggling to readjust after years as a child soldier, and, face down on a Turkish beach, a drowned 3-year-old refugee. Images of this nature were shown yesterday at the International Criminal Court, during the opening statement in Ongwen, with Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda herself warning “that some of these images are extremely disturbing.”

There is no better time than now to press for strategies both to combat such harms and to bring the persons responsible to justice. Presenting an important step toward those goals is the Policy on Children of the International Criminal Court Office of the Prosecutor.

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Prosecutor Bensouda launched the Policy on Children at an event during last month’s meeting of the ICC Assembly of States Parties. Bensouda quoted from the U.N. expert Graça Machel’s pathbreaking 1996 report on children and armed conflict, then commented:

“[I]t is indeed unconscionable that we so clearly and consistently see children’s rights attacked and that we fail to defend them.
“It is unforgivable that children are assaulted, violated, murdered and yet our conscience is not revolted nor our sense of dignity challenged. This represents a fundamental crisis of our civilisation and a failure of our humanity.
“By adopting the Policy on Children, which we launch today, we at the Office of the Prosecutor seek to ensure that children suffering the gravest injustices are not ignored. That through the vector of the law, we do what we can to protect and advance the rights of children within the framework of the Rome Statute.”

Leading the event was journalist Zeinab Badawi. Among the many others who offered live or video interventions were: Mamadou Ismaël Konaté, Mali’s Minister of Justice and Human Rights of the Republic of Mali; Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights; Leila Zerrougui, Special Representative of the U.N. Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict; Angelina Jolie, Special Envoy of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees; Nobel Peace Prizewinner Leymah Gbowee; Lieutenant General Roméo-Dallaire, Founder of the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative (see also IntLawGrrls post by Kirsten Stefanik); Marc Dullaert, Founder of KidsRights and the Netherlands’ former Children’s Ombudsman; and Coumba Gawlo, U.N. Development Programme Goodwill Ambassador and National Goodwill Ambassador for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

screen2I am honored also to have offered brief remarks – and am especially honored to have assisted in the preparation of this Policy in my capacity as the Prosecutor’s Special Adviser on Children in & affected by Armed Conflict, working alongside a dedicated Office of the Prosecutor team led by Shamila Batohi, Gloria Atiba Davies, and Yayoi Yamaguchi. Preparation included experts’ gatherings at the University of Georgia School of Law Dean Rusk International Law Center, at Leiden Law School, and at the ICC itself, as well as consultations around the globe with young persons who had endured armed conflict. (Legal research produced by my students, in seminars on Children & International Law and through the work of the Georgia Law Project on Armed Conflict & Children, also was invaluable.)

The result is a Policy on Children spanning 47 pages, published simultaneously in Arabic, English, French, Spanish, and Swahili. Identifying children as persons under eighteen (paragraph 16), it covers a gamut of issues related to children and the work of the Prosecutor; for example, general policy, regulatory framework, and engagement with children at all stages of the proceedings. Among many other landmarks, the Policy:

► Embraces a child-sensitive approach grounded in the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, a treaty ratified by every U.N. member state save one: the United States, which is also an ICC nonparty state. (My remarks happily noted that my other state of citizenship, the Republic of Ireland, is a state party to both the Child Rights Convention and the ICC’s Rome Statute.) Paragraph 22 of the Policy on Children thus states:

“In light of the foregoing, the Office will adopt a child-sensitive approach in all aspects of its work involving children. This approach appreciates the child as an individual person and recognises that, in a given context, a child may be vulnerable, capable, or both. The child-sensitive approach requires staff to take into account these vulnerabilities and capabilities. This approach is based on respect for children’s rights and is guided by the general principles of the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child: non-discrimination; the best interests of the child; the right to life, survival and development; and the right to express one’s views and have them considered.”

► Views children, like all human beings, as multi-faceted individuals and, simultaneously, as members of multi-generational communities. (See, for example, paragraph 100.) Paragraph 25 states:

“Children, by the very fact of their youth, are frequently more vulnerable than other persons; at certain ages and in certain circumstances, they are dependent on others. Notwithstanding any vulnerability and dependence, children possess and are continuously developing their own capacities – capacities to act, to choose and to participate in activities and decisions that affect them. The Office will remain mindful, in all aspects of its work, of the evolving capacities of the child.”

► Acknowledges in paragraph 17 “that most crimes under the Statute affect children in various ways, and that at times they are specifically targeted” – and then pledges that “the Office will, in order to capture the full extent of the harm suffered, seek to highlight the multi-faceted impact on children, at all stages of its work.” The regulatory framework thus enumerates a range of crimes against and affecting children:

  • recruitment and use by armed forces and armed groups of children under fifteen as war crimes (paragraphs 39-43);
  • forcible transfer of children and prevention of birth as acts of genocide (paragraphs 44-46);
  • trafficking of children as a form of enslavement constituting a crime against humanity (paragraphs 47-48);
  • attacks on buildings dedicated to education and health care as war crimes (paragraph 49);
  • torture and related war crimes and crimes against humanity (paragraph 50);
  • persecution as a crime against humanity (paragraph 50); and
  • sexual and gender-based violence as war crimes and crimes against humanity (paragraph 52).

► Details the Office’s plan for applying the child-sensitive approach, with respect both to all stages of proceedings, including preliminary examinations, investigations, and prosecutions, and to cooperation and external relations, institutional development, and implementation.

Even as cases involving crimes against and affecting children, like Ongwen, go forward, the Office is working on implementation of its new Policy on Children. The implementation phase will include developing versions of the Policy accessible to children. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to contribute this phase – and to hearing others’ views on the Policy.

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