In 2001, the US-led invasion of Afghanistan raised hopes for a new peaceful beginning in a country fraught by violence and never-ending conflict. Seven years later, violence continues and peace seems to be a fading hope.
In early 2007, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported as many as 950 civilian deaths, including those of 49 children due to insurgency-related violence in a period of six months. The recent civilian deaths in air strikes near the Azizabad village in the western province of Herat only adds to the uncertainty. But as the conflict rages between anti-government elements, including the Taliban, and national and international security forces - the US-led coalition as well as NATO-led International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) - children have become more than just helpless victims. Used by the anti-government forces as unwilling soldiers, they are also witness to death and endure injury, detention and sexual violence.
In May 2008, the Security Council Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict (SCWG-CAAC) decided to put Afghanistan on its agenda with a comprehensive report being submitted to the UN Security Council in October. So, what propelled the SCWG-CAAC to focus on Afghanistan now? Well, as Laurence Gerard, Liaison Officer for SCWG-CAAC points out, "Afghanistan was placed on the agenda when it was identified as a situation of concern (due to Taliban recruitment) in the Secretary General's annual report on children and armed conflict (S/2007/757)."
Therefore, in June 2008, at the invitation of the Afghan government, Radhika Coomaraswamy, UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict to Afghanistan (SRSG), along with Louis-Georges Arsenault, Director of Emergency Programmes, UNICEF, made a five-day visit to the war-ravaged country. The purpose of the mission was to initiate the monitoring of serious violations committed against children affected by armed conflict. As Coomaraswamy states, "There is an urgent need to take all appropriate measures including, where possible, reconciliation measures to ensure that security problem is overcome." But as the delegation met up with families, NGOs representatives, religious leaders and children, the true depth of the situation emerged.
The issues are too many to outline in a few words but the aim is to shed some light on the problems being faced by children in Afghanistan. One of the most serious concerns is the killing and maiming of children in conflict. They are not only victims of attacks by the Taliban but also operations conducted by international forces. As Coomaraswamy clearly states, complaints need to be seriously addressed and appropriate measures put in place to prevent excesses, execute prompt investigations and, where necessary, pay compensation.
The recruitment and use of children in combat has increased in the recent months. Children are being recruited into the Taliban and also by others. However, in a contradiction, the Taliban recognizes this recruitment as unlawful and against international law. In fact, Coomaraswmay reveals that as per their own rule 19, Mujahideen were not allowed to take "young boys with no facial hair on to the battlefield or into their private quarters."
There are also eyewitness accounts of recruitment by the Afghan police but there remains a dearth of statistics to put an actual number to the problem. The SCWG-CAAC has also got credible reports of cases where children have been used as suicide bombers.
The worse consequence of child combatants is the detention of children after military operations. According to Human Rights Watch, the US military acknowledged that among the detainees held in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, at least three were children, aged between 13 and 15 years. There clearly is an absence of clarity and direction in addressing the issue of child detainees. Coomarswamy admits there are no proper guidelines, and adds that there is a lack of exact data available on the numbers of children detained by Afghan or the US authorities. The detention of children has long been criticized by Human Rights groups stating that, "child detainees should be charged with a recognizable offence, provided with full judicial safeguards and transferred to a suitable juvenile detention facility."
Broad international consensus recognizes that detention is detrimental to the wellbeing of children (generally defined as persons under the age of 18) given their physical, mental and emotional vulnerability. So, as Catherine Mbengue, UNICEF Representative in Afghanistan, rightly advocates, "we need to invest more to prevent children coming into conflict with the law while we continue to assist children already in detention."
Rape and sexual violence further lead to deterioration in the status of Afghanistan's children. According to Afghanistan's Human Rights Organization (AHRO), in recent years child rapes have risen sharply with most offenders being government officials and other powerful men. Lal Gul, head of AHRO, feels that the situation is getting more critical every day and that the government must not be quiet, but do its best to address the problem. Most importantly, the law must be enforced equally on everyone. But while the recent case of a two-and-a-half-year-old girl raped in the northern province of Jowzjan and the gang rape of 12-year-old Anisa by five armed men in front of her family in the northern City of Sar-e-Pul drew attention, the fact remains that many rape cases go unrecorded or unreported by families under pressure from vested interest.
The arrest and dismissal of five security officials including the Police Chief by The Interior Ministry in the rape case of Anisa in July this year for criminal negligence is simply not enough. Anisa's family had the courage to step forward and pursue justice against all odds. It led to the arrest of one of the rapist and while four are still absconding. The case is a drastic departure from the usual apathy shown by officials, but it would take more that just this one-off intervention by the government to restore faith in justice.
As Abdul Hameed Aimaq, a senator from Kunduz, states with a note of disillusionment: "The courts take bribes, the attorney offices take bribes, and there is no one to ask about all this. For this reason, there are killings, rapes, thefts, and everything else. There is no government in reality." The cases of sexual violence are not limited to girls only. The SCWG-CAAC has received complaints regarding boys. There has been particular criticism about bacha-bazi, or the practice of having young boys associated with military commanders.
The reality that children always suffer the consequence of conflict is not new. But what sets Afghanistan apart is that this violence has continued for three decades. It would be easy to criticize, blame and even find excuses for the state of affairs. The responsibility for change lies with the government, civil society and the people themselves. But, at the same time, the international community cannot be mere spectators. They need to ensure that the rights and dignity of children are upheld beyond the law books and speeches to more concrete initiatives. It is said that children are the future of a country, but for now children in Afghanistan find themselves exceedingly victimized from all fronts, struggling to make sense of their present amidst the ruins of the past and the aspirations for the future.