How Can Peace Agreements Protect Children? Q&A with Eva Smets

The Colombian government negotiating team poses with children after handing them a copy of the peace agreement with the FARC. Carmen de Bolivar, Colombia, September 25, 2016. (Fernando Vergara/Associated Press)

Fewer than one in five documents related to peace processes and ceasefires include provisions for protecting children, according to Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict research. Watchlist Executive Director Eva Smets said this was despite “repeated high-level political agreement and encouragement to incorporate these provisions.”

This process began 20 years ago, when Graca Machel’s landmark report on the “impact of armed conflict on children” found that child protection and rights should be central to United Nations peacemaking efforts. Machel placed children at the center of work in this field: “In a world of diversity and disparity, children are a unifying force capable of bringing people to common ethical grounds. Children’s needs and aspirations cut across all ideologies and cultures…Children are both our reason to struggle to eliminate the worst aspects of warfare, and our best hope for succeeding at it,” she wrote.

Speaking with International Peace Institute Research Fellow Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, Ms. Smets echoed the sentiment of the Machel report, and said the recent peace agreement between the Colombian government and FARC rebels was one that process did prioritize inclusion.

“This is actually one of the few peace processes out there that we would like to highlight as a good example in terms of how UN high-level dignitaries that have experience on children and armed conflict were involved and consulted, and also the space that was available for civil society to bring up these issues, and to advocate for these issues, which ultimately did lead to quite comprehensive inclusion.”

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

How often are child protection provisions included in peace agreements?

Our team at Watchlist conducted research to look into exactly this question. We started out looking at all the written peace agreements, ceasefire agreements, and other documents that are currently within the UNDPA’s (United Nations Department of Political Affairs) Peacemaker Database, which is publicly accessible. We selected a period starting in 1999 and our current overview and research is up-to-date, including February 2016. For that review period we found 431 relevant documents, and of the 431 documents only 75 really included child protection provisions. That means 17%, so roughly less than one out of five of relevant written peace agreements, ceasefire agreements, or other documents, including communiques or unilateral declarations, have child protection provisions. So, despite the fact that there’s repeated high-level political agreement and encouragement to have these inclusions, it’s our finding that in reality it’s not the case.

Can mediators and their teams help ensure that future agreements include better provisions for children?

Well, yes, absolutely, and that’s exactly what we are hoping to achieve with our checklist [on drafting children and armed conflict provisions in ceasefire and peace agreements]. The checklist right now is publicly available. We went about undertaking this checklist over a period of about two years. We brought together the children and armed conflict community on the one hand, and mediation professionals on the other. We had them first speak together back in 2014 and at the end of those first policy meetings there was an agreement that there was a lack of guidance for mediators on how to bring up this topic during negotiations. Then, over a process run between 2014 and 2016, we’ve been working with the mediation community, and with children and armed conflict experts, to really identify this checklist.

There are two things that I can say about what the checklist is and is not at this point in time. First and foremost, we set the status on the checklist right now, purposefully, to be a working draft. Why is that? Because we want to make sure that it is a living document. The checklist indicates in a footnote when it was last updated, and also provides contact details for our team at Watchlist, so anyone who uses the checklist who has recommendations in terms of improvements can definitely reach out and we can update it as we go along. And secondly, we really want to highlight that this is intentionally a light checklist. That means it is not an exhaustive, comprehensive guidance for mediators. It’s a three-page document that really has just some initial guidance in terms of some of the main points that mediators can bring up or can remind the parties of during a negotiation process.

We’ve had to make choices in terms of what to include in the checklist and we understand that choices can always be debated. We did lean very heavily on the professional communities of both children in armed conflict/child protection on the one hand, and mediation on the other hand to help us make the best choices possible. But, again, we’re always open for further feedback. The checklist was launched just in fall 2016, so we don’t yet have a body of evidence of how it’s being used, and what the impact has been thus far. This is very much something that we hope to look into in the future.

If a mediation process followed the checklist to a T, what kind of provisions would we begin to see in peace agreements?

We do see these provisions in a number of documents already. Out of the 75 documents referred to earlier, some are very comprehensive in terms of child protection provisions. Certainly those that are comprehensive in terms of child protection provisions have a higher chance of effective programming for child protection in a post-conflict period. Now we would hope that in more of the peace agreements and ceasefire agreements, the monitoring provisions would have child protection provisions. So it’s not about introducing anything new, it’s more about making sure that it is a regularly occurring aspect of peace negotiations, of peace agreements, as the Security Council quite explicitly requests.

How did the recent peace process in Colombia address child protection?

This is actually one of the few peace processes out there that we would like to highlight as a good example in terms of how UN high-level dignitaries that have experience on children and armed conflict were involved, and were consulted, and also the space that was available for civil society to bring up these issues, and to advocate for these issues, which ultimately did lead to quite comprehensive inclusion.

With the Colombia peace process between the government of Colombia and FARC, most of the talks happened in Cuba, which was a third party negotiator. And, as we heard from the special representative of the secretary-general (SRSG) on children and armed conflict, she was invited on multiple occasions to attend the talks in Cuba, so she had an opportunity directly with the parties to the conflict to speak about, for example, what is a child? Why do children have to be released? What types of programs and provisions need to be in place when children are released? What needs to happen with a justice system for dealing with former child soldiers in the post-conflict period? So she was able to sensitize the parties to conflict directly.

On the other hand, we also know from our civil society partner, COALICO, which is a network of Colombian civil society organizations that work together to protect girls, boys, and youth in armed conflict, that they’ve advocated quite heavily around child protection throughout the peace process. And they’ve shared with us some lessons learned of what they would recommend in terms of replicating, going forward, outside of Colombia, and also within Colombia, because there is an agreement now with the FARC, but there are still other armed groups that haven’t concluded their agreements yet with the government, for example, the ELN.

They had three major recommendations; the first one being to place child protection squarely on the agenda of the peace talks, and to do so as early as possible in the process. And while that may seem a given, it is actually not. It’s rare that is even is on the agenda, and if it is it may be an afterthought, whereas it’s really important to place these items on the agenda and give them priority. And also, if they’re placed early on the agenda then there’s sufficient time throughout the process to discuss these issues at length. From that perspective, something that’s worth repeating is that the SRSG herself said that agreeing on the unconditional release of children associated with armed groups or armed forces might actually serve as a very good confidence-building measure, because it’s one of those things that it’s hard to disagree on, it’s relatively easy to find agreement on, and doing so may just be a first step toward going into other issues.

A second recommendation that came from our Colombian partners is to really ensure that all parties to conflict agree on the fact that children should be treated as victims first, and we’re talking here specifically about children formerly associated with armed forces or armed groups, and to do so, really, you have to go into two aspects; the first one being that all parties to conflict really have to agree on the basics. For example, what is a child? We, on the checklist, explicitly recommend that a child is defined as anyone under 18, but that is not a universally accepted standard. Another point is agreeing on what is a child soldier? What is a grave violation perpetrated against children?

So really coming to these jointly accepted definitions and principles at the start is very important, and once you are in agreement then really making sure that you agree on the fact that former child soldiers are victims first. They should not be held criminally accountable for the simple of act of having joined an armed group; and a lot of children around the world are detained often for their association, or even their alleged association, with armed groups. At the same time, it’s also important to recognize that there can be certain judiciary measures to look into war crimes that may have been committed by these children once they were with the group, but again, here our checklist very specifically recommends to use juvenile justice and other non-criminal procedures, such as truth and reconciliation measures.

Last but not least, the third recommendation of our Colombian partner was when you are considering reintegration programs, to very much involve both the family and the community in doing so. Again, this is one of the aspects that is covered in the checklist under the heading Social Protection and Services Going Forward.