UNICEF has for almost 70 years worked to promote and realise the rights of children worldwide, particularly the most vulnerable and exploited. Our mandate comes from The Convention on the Rights of the Child, which I will make reference to in my comments. In that treaty, Article 38 explicitly refers to the protection of children affected by armed conflict. I wish to focus on the special circumstances of children caught up in or associated with armed conflict and terrorism. It is an area in which UNICEF has considerable practical experience.
The increasing scale of exploitation of children and young people, both girls and boys, by armed forces or groups is of deep concern to UNICEF. Children and young people are both targets and tools of war and terrorism. A core part of our work is to seek the release of these children, and their rehabilitation through caring for their mental and physical well-being, and eventually their reintegration into society as positive citizens.
As recently as the end of 2014, UNICEF successfully negotiated the demobilisation and repatriation of some 3000 child soldiers from armed groups in South Sudan.
UNICEF supports legitimate efforts by governments to preserve national security. But we are concerned to ensure that responses are appropriate, and are not inconsistent with the fundamental rights of the child, including best interests as a primary consideration.
Consequently, UNICEF Australia holds serious concerns regarding the Allegiance to Australia Bill in its present form, which in our view, allows for the arbitrary removal of children’s citizenship. In doing so it neglects to take into account the special needs and rights of children, in both process and outcome, as laid down in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Primarily, this Bill is substantially deficient in treating children and young people who have been radicalised or associated with armed groups, first and foremost as children. To adopt this approach profoundly changes the perspective towards the involvement of children in armed conflict and violence as fundamentally a child protection issue.
An estimated 300,000 children worldwide are currently directly involved in armed conflict. Sophisticated online recruitment strategies are contributing to this high number. What is not sufficiently acknowledged is that approximately 40 per cent of this group are girls. Children are often recruited as fighters, human shields, porters, cooks, and messengers. Most alarming is the trend to recruit or abduct girls for the purposes of sexual exploitation and forced marriage.
At worst, children are identified, targeted, indoctrinated, recruited, desensitised to violence and then deployed to commit atrocities.
Understanding this in terms of exploitation should underpin our responses to how we deal with children involved in armed conflict, regardless of whether or not their association appears to be ‘voluntary’ or not. Similarly it should be inconceivable that a child should suffer very serious consequences in relation to his or her citizenship, on the basis and conduct of an adult parent.
The International Criminal Court has recognised the concept of informed consent does not exist for children associated with armed forces or groups. It further recognises a child cannot be punished on the basis of the criminal conduct of a parent. In our view measures that punish or further isolate already vulnerable children will fail both the individual child and any national security efforts. By doing so we are simply building a richer recruitment pool for extremist groups. Those same children whose citizenship is cancelled today, UNICEF will be working with tomorrow, somewhere else.
In UNICEF’s view, the best option for children associated with armed conflict is a safe return, which means demobilisation, psycho-social support, re-education, rehabilitation and eventually reintegration. While the recovery process is intensive, it is the best success measure to prevent children being re-recruited. UNICEF carries out this work globally with considerable success. The Convention on the Rights of the Child specifically refers to protection of children affected by armed conflict in Article 38, and the rehabilitation of child victims in Article 39.
Additionally, Articles 6 and 7 of the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict (2002), of which Australia is a signatory, requires State parties to promote the demobilisation, the provision of physical and psychological recovery, and social reintegration of persons used in hostilities.
UNICEF points out that the Bill as it stands does not reflect these commitments.
In summary, UNICEF Australia is concerned the Bill is an inappropriate, and arguably ineffective tool, to address the complex realities of children involved with armed groups and terrorism.
UNICEF Australia urges the Committee to review the Bill in the light of seeking to strike an appropriate balance so that safety and security can be pursued in a framework that respects the rights of children in particular, to provide protection against exploitation and abuse. UNICEF Australia emphasises that ceasing or revoking a child’s citizenship is inconsistent with the rights of the child. Consequently, we recommend the Bill not be passed as drafted.
Read UNICEF Australia's full submission