Is a child soldier a 'child' in the eyes of the law?

January 25, 2002

As the UN prepares to publish its report on the aftermath of war in Sierra Leone, Richard Wilson reports on the difficulties of intervention in third-world countries and the potential for abuse by those sent to help.

The former British colony of Sierra Leone is staggering to the end of a ten-year conflict that has cost an estimated 75,000 lives, most of them civilians, and that became infamous for the involvement of child soldiers as young as eight. Next month, the United Nations is expected to publish its report, Children and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Sierra Leone , the result of a technical meeting that I attended in the capital, Freetown, last June.

Both sides in the conflict, the government and the rebel Revolutionary United Front, have agreed to a formula whereby the UN will establish a special court to prosecute the main offenders. The UN will hold a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to hear the voices of victims. The technical meeting, attended by international "experts" and Sierra Leoneans who work with children - social workers, juvenile justice lawyers, the police, psychologists and religious leaders - debated what UN policy should be towards child soldiers and how they would feature in the special court and the truth commission.

Would the estimated 3,000 child soldiers accused of committing some of the war's worst crimes, including amputating the hands and feet of victims, be tried and punished in the court? Would they be allowed to publicly speak about their crimes at the truth commission hearings and thus possibly incriminate themselves and others?

There was a surprising degree of unanimity. In the UN special court, children as young as 15 can be prosecuted for war crimes. But the report recommends that children should not be prosecuted at all by the special court, which should focus instead on adult commanders, and that no child under 18 should testify before the truth commission for fear of being marked for life and vulnerable to public retaliation. However, it also recommends that children may have their statements taken in private and then presented in public hearings by a representative such as a social worker or psychologist. And it calls for the press to be monitored by UN offices such as Unicef so that it does not sensationalise the role of children in the war.

The international contingent was initially wary of foisting its own human rights standards on the local population, but there was little in the way of cultural relativism among the war-weary African participants. In the heyday of relativism in the 1980s, it might have been argued that the "child" was a cultural construct and child soldiers should be dealt with by the traditional cultural institutions and values.

But, in the past ten years, the war has destroyed those community structures in Sierra Leone and the global context has been transformed by more than a dozen humanitarian interventions and the establishment of new human-rights courts with international jurisdiction.

What many Africans seem to want now are economic development and the basic political rights that will produce stability and allow them to reconstruct their devastated and poverty-stricken countries. In that context, relativism just looks like misguided paternalism. This makes internationalism on the part of westerners both more possible and more potentially perilous.

As we enter the post-Afghanistan-war era, the stage looks set for even more humanitarian interventions by the UN and western powers. This was the thrust of prime minister Tony Blair's speech at the Labour Party conference in October 2001, when he stated that, "Out of the shadow of this evil, should emerge lasting good." Blair called for a new internationalism to deal with Africa, which was "a scar on the moral conscience of the world". Britain and the US, he argued, must go beyond military solutions to terrorism and deal with the underlying causes - war and poverty in the Middle East and elsewhere. What Blair did not recognise was the highly problematical nature of peacekeeping missions.

All interventions have their hidden costs and unintended consequences. In Sierra Leone, there are more than 10,000 peacekeeping soldiers from Jordan, Bangladesh, Ukraine and the United Kingdom, which is effectively retraining the Sierra Leonean army and running the security situation. In their spare time, the foreign soldiers go down to the beaches outside Freetown to play volleyball, drink and carouse with local prostitutes.

One of the hidden costs of peacekeeping is that a sizeable part of the female population is turned to prostitution. While I walked on the beach I was offered teenage girls by a local social worker entrusted with the task of integrating "bush wives" taken by the rebels during the war back into their communities.

It is clear that UN involvement has created an unprecedented **** economy in the country, and this problem is not confined solely to Sierra Leone. An Italian prosecutor is presently investigating the alleged sexual abuse of girls as young as ten in Eritrea by UN peacekeeping units from Italy, Denmark and Slovakia. Soldiers paying for sex is nothing new, and this is not a moralistic argument against prostitution. Instead, it is a point about child sexual abuse by UN personnel who are meant to be the protectors of Africans in conflict areas.

If the new agenda is going to counter charges that internationalism is simply colonialism by another name, then it is going to have to confront such issues. J. M. Coetzee's novel Waiting for the Barbarians captured well the nature of sexual desire and exploitation at the colonial frontier, and the types of relationships he describes are still found across Africa.

This realisation is not made in order to advance the pessimistic view that nothing can be fixed and all intervention is hopeless. Some recent humanitarian interventions have averted bloodbaths and helped bring lasting peace, such as the UN-brokered peace accords in El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1990s and the peacekeeping operation in East Timor in 1999. Such peacekeeping operations were necessary and successful.

But if Britain and the UN are going to embark on an internationalism that is qualitatively different from previous approaches, they will have to pay more attention to the hidden costs of intervention.

Richard A. Wilson is reader in social anthropology at the University of Sussex and author of The Politics of Truth and Reconciliation in South Africa , Cambridge University Press, £15.95.

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