ICTJ Program Report: Children and Youth

8/9/2013

In this edition of the ICTJ Program Report, we look at ICTJ's work on children and youth in countries around the world.

Below, director of ICTJ's Children and Youth program, Virginie Ladisch talks with us about the importance of integrating child and youth sensitivity into transitional justice mechanisms. In addition to giving a detailed look at ICTJ's current child/youth related projects and research around the globe, Ladisch explains how the program works to develop strategies with local and international partners to include children and youth in meaningful post-conflict dialogue, reconciliation and community rebuilding efforts.

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ICTJ’s Children and Youth program aims to further an understanding of the role of children and youth in transitional contexts, and advises transitional justice mechanisms around the world on how best to engage and include these experiences into their work. How did ICTJ first come to work on this aspect of transitional justice?

ICTJ began looking at the issue of children in transitional justice in 2005 in the aftermath of the truth commissions in Sierra Leone and Liberia. Both put children much more at the center of their work than any other truth commissions had before, and each recognized the need to look at violations committed against children and involve children in the actual truth-seeking process.

At that time, UNICEF was the primary body pushing the agenda of children’s rights in transitional justice processes— ICTJ and other transitional justice organizations hadn’t been picking up the same discussion.

We developed a partnership with UNICEF more formally to conduct significant research on what the role of children in truth commissions had been to date, which resulted in the joint publication “Children in Truth Commissions.”

We then launched a two-year project designed to explore the state of children in transitional justice and see what role, if any, ICTJ would have to play in this topic. Over the course of two years, we conducted four country assessments in Liberia, Nepal, DRC, and Colombia, to examine how transitional justice practitioners had or had not looked at violations of children’s rights and involved children in the process.

We found that there were some great innovations and advances, but large gaps remained.

We concluded that with ICTJ’s specific focus on redress for violations in the past and establishing greater accountability, we had something to add to this discussion that would complement what had been previously brought forth by child protection organizations.

Starting from that point in 2008 the Children and Youth Program within ICTJ has operated as a crosscutting thematic program, meaning we look at all the TJ mechanisms and work in most of the countries where ICTJ is currently active.

Transitional justice aims to look at past violations to redress the harm done and to establish a new paradigm of accountability, laying the basis for a more stable and peaceful future with respect for human rights. So if you think particularly about that future-oriented aspect of transitional justice, we believe it’s essential to consider children and youth in that process, considering their involvement from two angles.

The first angle is understanding children as victims or as an affected population: How did the violations impact them? What role did children play in the conflict? What are the enduring consequences of this experience for them?

The second is thinking about children as citizens, as members of society invested in this process. If transitional justice measures are to have a lasting impact, it’s essential that they resonate within society. In many contexts where we work, the age of the population is extremely young, to the point where half or more than half of the population is under the age of twenty-five. We want to make sure these mechanisms engage youth and children throughout the process, as appropriate, and that TJ mechanisms make a targeted effort to communicate the results and findings of their processes to young people.

So we organize our work within ICTJ along two axes: looking at the impacts of violations on children and youth, and engaging children and youth in transitional justice processes. We conduct research on best practices and what has been done to-date, because it’s an area that is still developing. Then we apply that research and our experience to date to identify approaches than may work most effectively.



ICTJ’s Children and Youth program, as you said, is one of these cross-thematic programs. Usually when we think of transitional justice and the ICTJ’s programmatic structure, we think of the local four pillars of criminal justice, truth, institutional reform and reparations. But the Children and Youth Program works within each of these pillars, plus specifically with our country offices. Could you explain a bit more about how the unit works?

Our work requires having familiarity with the various transitional justice mechanisms and being able to apply our work in multiple country contexts.

For that reason we work in close collaboration with our country offices, as our colleagues there are in the best position to identify the key entry points, the key needs, and then we coordinate our work on those topics with the relevant thematic programs.

For example, in Cote d’Ivoire, we work with ICTJ’s Truth and Memory unit on the questionnaire for the truth commission, and provide input on the development of questions of particular relevance to young people, or those who experienced violations as children but are now adults.

In addition, we thought it was necessary to develop a child-specific questionnaire, one which uses a different format and methodology to obtain statements directly from children.

We are also working with the Reparative Justice program to develop questions that should be asked to help pave the way for a reparations program that can adequately address the needs of children and youth.



As you mentioned, children are key actors in transitional justice processes: not only they are a vulnerable group that is often the target of specific abuses, but they are key agents of social change. As a fairly new area in the field of transitional justice, what would you say are the greatest obstacles or challenges that you are facing? Are there assumptions or misperceptions that prevent a greater understanding of these concepts?

I think one obstacle comes in part with the terminology “children.” I think people immediately imagine a very young child who has no place in discussions of the political nature that transitional justice deals with.

I remind people that children legally are people under eighteen, according to international standards, and that is also why we add the term “youth” both in the name of our program and throughout the work we produce. Because we mean children and youth - primarily those from age twelve to twenty-five, who have a really important role to play in this process. So, a first step is overcoming this notion that children are too young.

Another obstacle is the perception that children’s testimony—for example in truth commissions—is not reliable, and that it must be verified by an adult.

But in fact, research from the field of forensic psychology shows that if you use the right methodology, in terms of interviewing skills and having someone who is trained and qualified to interview children, you will get very reliable information— information that is equally as accurate as that given by an adult, even if it might contain fewer details. So there is also a need for people to understand that children’s testimony is valid, accurate, and necessary.

Sometimes, it is an area that governments or TJ mechanisms don’t want to invest in. But ICTJ’s position is that it is in their best interests to invest these resources: it will make the work more effective, it will help the children themselves by giving them space to speak and to receive acknowledgment of what they suffered, it will make the history put forward more complete through the incorporation of their perspectives, and then it will help society as a whole if children and youth feel ownership in this process. If so, they are much more likely to carry it forward and to defend the values that emerge from these discussions and debates.



The challenge of protecting children is particularly difficult during criminal trials, especially when they testify as victims or witnesses. How have you been involved in that? What challenges does that work present?

The general consensus is that children shouldn’t be called as witnesses in criminal cases if it’s possible to avoid it. If they have to be present, there are very specific measures to be put in place for their protection. That field has been fairly well developed, so ICTJ hasn’t identified any need to focus on that.

What we have focused on is the issue of accountability for violations that directly affect children.

For example, if there’s a truth commission looking at the consequences, the impacts and the violations that children suffered, we want to make sure that the accompanying criminal justice process prosecutes those most responsible for these violations and that there is a clear message that this is a violation of rights that won’t be tolerated.

One interesting challenge that we’ve seen recently is that the first trial conducted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) focused on recruitment of children. It was important in signaling the fact that there was a violation that won’t be tolerated. However, it has had, in the short term, a negative consequence that people are still trying to figure out how to address in certain contexts such as the DRC and Colombia: forces that had recruited children decided to release them in secret, without going through a formal demobilization process. in order to avoid scrutiny and potential prosecution.

So, as we continue to push the agenda of accountability for illegal recruitment, some measures need to be put in place to make sure that in the short term the children currently associated with armed groups aren’t adversely affected.



Last year, ICTJ was invited to address the Security Council to speak on issues of accountability and the place of children in transitional justice processes before the Council’s debate on children in armed conflict. This was largely due to the work that you have done. Can you explain the significance of this intervention, what it was about, and what its impact was, in your opinion?

We have a close partnership with the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict. Last year, the focus of the open debate at the Security Council was on the question of persistent perpetrators, which means armed forces or armed groups that have recruited children for some time and who have failed to halt the practice. So the theme of the discussion was centered on accountability, and since ICTJ is one of the few organizations to focus on this issue, they invited ICTJ to speak. So, in that context David Tolbert, ICTJ president, addressed the Security Council in September 2012.

ICTJ’s experience with criminal justice measures has found that generally, in terms of seeing the effects of justice and sending a message of “never again,” there are greater benefits to prosecutions at the national level than at the international level. One of our key messages at the Security Council, then, was a call for a greater focus on accountability specifically at the national level.

Our second message was in relation to the action plans that are signed between the UN task force and countries where there is an armed group that recruits children.

Generally, to date, the focus of these action plans has been to stop the recruiting in the first place. That’s already a big enough challenge, so one compromise typically made in order to facilitate their signing is that the action plans are not publicly available.

Unfortunately, this means that it is difficult or impossible to hold these groups to account, since no one knows for certain what they’ve committed to doing. We think the action plans should be publicly available so that people can monitor them, call for their implementation and keep the government accountable.

In addition, we know from those plans that have been made available to the public that they don’t have a great emphasis on long-term prevention and accountability. We think that at the creation of an action plan there is an opportunity for accountability to be written into the plan, to be implemented once the practice of recruitment has actually stopped.

It’s a difficult juggling act: the need for children currently in armed groups to be released, the need to prevent the recruitment of children in the future, and the need to address the rights violations committed against children who have been recruited. We believe that greater accountability measures in action plans can serve the latter two of those goals, and innovation is needed to see how to do this without sacrificing the first goal.



You mentioned the issue of child recruitment and how criminal justice in itself is not sufficient in dealing with the consequences of this specific issue of children being victims. But criminal justice also must reconcile the fact that child soldiers are often perpetrators of horrific violence. Where would you say you have seen successful cases of dealing with this? And how is your work contributing?

Child protection advocates tend to say that in all cases a child should be considered a victim. Our position is that while we are not advocating for them to be tried for the serious violations they may have committed, given that transitional justice is focused on accountability and establishing a regime based on rights, we don’t think ignoring all responsibility of the child is the most effective way to helping them re-integrate into society. So we are currently asking: how can we view children as rights-holders with certain privileges, but also recognize their responsibilities?

I think the case that really moved us forward on this issue was Sierra Leone, where the Special Court (SCSL) decided not to hold any children criminally responsible for violations committed—only their commanders. It sent the children a clear message that they weren’t going to be prosecuted, and encouraged many to come forward and tell their stories to the truth commission.

One thing we are looking at is how to move away from this false duality of a child as either a victim or a perpetrator when in fact, the reality is a lot more complicated than that¬– they can be both. It continues to be a question we’re exploring in the context of our work elsewhere, now particularly in Colombia and Uganda.



In Colombia, peace negotiations between the government and the FARC are advancing, and transitional justice is one of the issues under discussion. Colombia is home to ICTJ’s biggest country office, in part because it shows great promise for transitional justice to be integrated into what could be a genuine new start for this society after 50 years of conflict. What is the Children and Youth program doing in Colombia?

Currently, we are working closely with the Victims Unit and trying to support their work in providing reparations. We’ve consulted with other NGOs that have been there a long time – there is quite a developed field of civil society that has been looking at the issue of the recruitment of children with a lot of expertise.

We’ve just completed a study that looks specifically at what reparations are most appropriate to deal with the consequences and the impact of child recruitment.

The study–which is forthcoming– reviews what has been done to date, what are some of the challenges, and puts forth recommendations on how Colombia’s current reparations program can strengthen its work in this area.

We are also thinking ahead to the peace negotiations. If the end goal is to help the reintegration of these children and youth into society, how can this issue of those recruited as children be taken into consideration in the talks?

A key conclusion that’s come out of our work in Colombia is that there is a need for more consultation with the youth and children themselves, in terms of how they identify the impacts of their experience and their specific demands.

For example, one thing we’ve found is that some children who had been involved in armed groups felt uncomfortable receiving reparations for their status as a victim given that these groups had committed atrocities. Instead, they wanted to do something to help prevent other children from being recruited, or to inform authorities about the location of potential mass graves. They need to feel like they can make amends for some of the things they’ve done.

We looked at Colombia’s reintegration programs that have helped in the demobilization process and have provided training to give these youth different possible avenues for the future. But some of the training courses offered are mostly for trade positions: hair dressing, tailoring, cooking. But some of the youth will say, “You know, actually in the fighting forces, we learned strategy, political analysis – I’d rather study political science.” So, are the reparations programs keeping these children at a lower socioeconomic level, or not allowing them to actually flourish in something they would like to be doing? It is something that must be examined.



Tunisia is another country where ICTJ is significantly invested; but instead of a long-running conflict, there was a long-running dictatorship. Despite all its problems, the transitional justice process is quite alive and seems to be advancing: Tunisia’s government has one of the only Ministries of Transitional Justice in the world, and the adoption of the transitional justice law is imminent. What is your engagement with children and youth in Tunisia?

In Tunisia, there is a danger that the transitional justice mechanisms will be seen as being in the hands of the political elite and not address the demands of the population, especially the youth.

What we found is that while youth played a key role in starting the revolution, since then they have been largely pushed aside. Some youth I’ve spoken to feel that the transition has been taken over by the older generation and is not going in the direction they had wanted.

I recently conducted a workshop for the Ministry of Women and Family Affairs, whose staff wanted to have a better understanding of transitional justice. So we presented an overview of how to include the perspective of children as an affected population, as victims in the transitional justice processes.

There is a youth activist group called I Watch that is working very closely and very efficiently on anticorruption measures and election monitoring. I recently asked a member about Tunisia’s truth commission, and if they were following the debates on the transitional justice bill. The activist expressed some reservations: “Yet another commission? Is anything going to really come out from this? Is this just another way to whitewash the past and move forward?”

So first, we’re waiting for the bill to be passed. Then, if the truth commission gets underway, we will offer assistance to the process of selecting commissioners who can be the bridge between the youth and older generations. And we will work with local partners to suggest creative ways of engaging youth again in the truth seeking process. In this way we hope to help build the bridge between the generations, and between the revolution and the transition.



The long-term impact of violations on children is emerging as a focus of many conversations of transitional justice, particularly the trans-generational transfer of trauma to children, some of whom possibly have not even experienced abuses directly. One of the cases where this is a very significant element of the discussion is Canada, where a truth commission is investigating the abuses committed when government and church policies led to children of indigenous peoples being taken from their families and placed in residential schools, essentially stripping them of their culture. Some of the abuses go back to the late 1800s and continued at least into the 1970s. We have done a lot of work to support the TRC in Canada, especially with youth. What are your observations from the work we had done and what are the plans for our future engagement?

As you said, we’ve worked very closely with the TRC of Canada for the past three years to help bring more focus on youth as part of the truth-seeking process. We started with a few small retreats to discuss the TRC and the Residential School legacy with young people as a way to engage them in thinking about how they could create some kind of a product or a submission to the truth commission that speaks to their experiences as inheritors of the legacy of the Residential Schools.

One of those products that came out of our first retreat is this video by Molly Tilden and Marlisa Brown, which exemplifies some of the challenges faced currently in Canada. These two young women went to their school and interviewed their peers asking a few questions about whether they knew about Residential Schools, whether they thought it had any impact today, and whether they thought it contributed to racism.

The answers are shocking: some students have no knowledge, or simply complete indifference; those are largely the non-aboriginal youth interviewed. Other students talk about the enduring impact they see in terms of high rates of alcoholism, suicide, and teenage pregnancies.

So there’s a huge disconnect in terms of the how young people view the relevance of this legacy and what knowledge they have of it. When that video was shared with people involved in designing the secondary school history curriculum for the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, they could not believe that their youth had such reactions.

So the curriculum on residential schools, which was previously barely addressed in the classroom, was revised to be a mandatory 25 hours of instruction, of which Ms. Brown and Ms. Tilden’s video is a critical component. The work that these two young women did as part of the Truth Commission process has now contributed to change in the education system. That is exactly the type of effect we want to have in our work and that is exactly the kind of role we see youth able to play. This is a youth-produced documentary, with youth speaking to youth; it is short, it is rough, it is not censored, but it is very powerful in its message and can speak much more concisely to these issues than a two-hour production prepared by a fancy team.

That was the first video created as a result of our work with the TRC and youth filmmakers. For the TRC’s National Event in Halifax in October 2011 we organized a different project to support youth reporters. Students prepared ahead of time, came to the truth commission event, documented what they saw, conducted interviews on site, and went back to the community to create a documentary called “Our Legacy, Our Hope,” which is also available online.

We were able to help some of the students involved in producing the documentary to present their film during the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in 2012; so, this group of young people from an indigenous community in Nova Scotia was able present their views on how the Indian Residential School legacy has affected them to an audience of policymakers at the United Nations, which was tremendously powerful.

The TRC has another year in its mandate and we are hoping to engage with them as they think about what the final report might look like: how can it effectively include that enduring, intergenerational impact of the violations in their findings and recommendations? How can it transmit the work of the Truth Commission into a format that is accessible to younger audiences? These are questions we will be exploring with the TRC over the course of the next year



There is increasing interest in the role of education potentially as one of the key factors in a successful transitional justice process, again especially because of the long-term nature of the change required in societies affected by such massive human rights violations. Together with UNICEF , ICTJ’s Children and Youth Program and our Research Unit is conducting a major study into education and transitional justice. Can you elaborate a little about the goals of this project, what it’s looking into, and what its concrete outcomes should be?

The role of education is a fundamental question, but as yet there are very few success stories in which the results of a transitional justice process have actually been integrated into educational systems because educational reform is very political, involves a great variety of actors and it takes a long time.

Our new project grows out of UNICEF’s focus in peace-building and education. Within that larger framework we put together a proposal for a research and technical assistance project that will explore the links between education and transitional justice.

To do this, ICTJ’s Research Unit and the Children and Youth Program are looking at three sets of questions: The first question is how can transitional justice contribute to peacebuilding goals by shaping the reform of education systems? What are the legacies of human rights violations on the education system and how can a justice sensitive education help further goals for transitional justice, especially the guarantees of non-recurrence? The second element will be looking at reparations programs, and how educational benefits can facilitate the reintegration of children and youth in the society.

But we also want to address more practical questions, such as to what extent can educational benefits be part of a reparations package and how do you put that into practice? What does that look like, and what are the specific challenges around that?

The third and final question will look at the connection between education and outreach – more specifically how education can serve to promote the goals of transitional justice by expanding its outreach agenda and helping to change a culture of impunity into one of human rights and democracy in a more sustainable manner.

This work just started in mid-March. We recently finished the design phase of the project, and the research team is now identifying people to conduct case studies from different contexts on each of those topics.

We conduct our research to inform our technical work, and our work informs our research – it’s a cycle in that sense. The aim of this research is to target those who are working both in education, development, and peace-building sectors and the transitional justice sector. So that’s why there will be a longer report aimed at academics and practitioners, but also more concise pieces seeking to influence policy on these questions.



Lastly, we have been engaged for quite a while in Kenya, where the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission just recently published its final report. The report is not without its problems, as there have been accusations of politicization. However, outside of that discussion, there is the issue of children participation and the presentation of the findings of this report to children, which is something that we have worked on. What child-focus work was done in Kenya? And what are the plans vis-à-vis the parts of the TJRC report that deal with children and youth?

In Kenya, the TJRC took steps to involve children in its proceedings. They took testimonies from about two thousand children and had a children’s hearing in which children testified in camera. There were also several cultural activities at the different hearings.

We provided advice to the commission on how to conduct those hearings on the proper protections and support for children, and then closer to the conclusion of the commission’s work we conducted a mission to gather information about the role children had played.

Unfortunately, the TJRC’s report is somewhat contested given some of the final changes that were made purportedly under political pressure, as well as problems concerning the legitimacy of the chair of the TJRC.

We plan to partner with organizations like UNICEF, GIZ, Facing History and Ourselves, and Shikaya, to produce something for school children that captures the aims of TJ processes in Kenya, the role of children, how children have been impacted over the years, and some suggestions for moving forward. So that will be a joint project undertaken to ensure that something comes out of that process that goes directly back to the children who were involved.



Looking ahead to the coming year, what are the plans for Children and Youth program? Where do we go from here?

We will continue our work in Colombia, providing advice to the reparations program for children and youth affected by conflict. As the peace process develops, we will also address the role children and youth should play in a future truth commission and how to make sure the full scale of the violations that affected children is addressed.

In Tunisia, we will continue to find ways of creating options for more genuine engagement of youth and children in the process underway.

In Cote d’Ivoire, we are working in an interesting context with the truth commission that is underway, trying to establish a specific methodology for taking statements from children. So we’re learning from what was done in Liberia and Sierra Leone, but building on that work and innovating where necessary - -for instance in the development of a separate child-friendly statement-taking form. And as part of that process, we’ve reached out to a network of psychologists, child psychologists, mental health professionals who have already worked with children in relation to trauma in order to get feedback on this process, which has been a really enriching experience.

In Uganda, we will be looking at this issue of children, transitional justice and reintegration exploring collaborative approaches. It will bring together experts from the TJ field, the psycho-social field, and the reintegration field to think about what lessons we can take from reintegration programs that already have worked with former child soldiers in various contexts that may be able to inform transitional justice mechanisms.

Building on the research and the work we’ve done to date, now we want to incorporate the knowledge that we both developed and gathered from other contexts and implement it more and more directly in our country programs.


Photo: (Top) A child placing a flower on the "Sarajevo Red Line" of chairs symbolizing the victims of the siege. April 2012 (Reuters/Dado Ruvic); Two children light candles of remembrance at a vigil in Nepal (ICTJ); A child in kindergarten completes schoolwork in Myanmar (UN Photo); Guatemala graffiti reads "We the youth reclaim memory, truth, justice." (Flickr); A rebel fighter carries his son in Aleppo, Syria on December 7, 2012. (ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images); Mohamed Bah of Sierra Leone, a former child soldier, assists a young boy in a wheelchair as part of his work as an advocate for Sierra Leoneans with disabilities (Glenna Gordon/ICTJ); A young girl in Baranquilla, Colombia (ICTJ);A young visitor to the Museo de la Memoria in Chile (Flickr); Indigenous youth in Maine, United States greet the newly-appointed commissioners of the Maine-Wabanki Truth and Reconciliation Commissions (Hannah Dunphy/ICTJ); A Palestinian schoolgirl is seen through a hole in a blackboard days after an Israeli strike hit a school in Gaza City, Nov. 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Adel Hana); Participants at ICTJ's Intensive Course on Truth Commissions n Barcelona, 2011 (ICTJ); Father Mohamad Bah with his daughter, Sierra Leone (Glenna Gordon/ICTJ).