Learning from the Past and Looking Towards the Future: The Situation of Child Soldiers in Colombia
Author: Charlotte Reed
Originally Published at Peace and Conflict Monitor on: 09/12/2013
Colombia, with over 50 years of an ongoing internal conflict, is a setting particularly ripe for the exploitation of children. Though children are vulnerable to an assortment of abuses in conflict situations, one of the worst forms, and often the result of the culmination of many other violations, is the recruitment and use of children by armed forces. Currently it is believed that between, 11,000 to 18,000 minors are associated with illegal armed forces in Colombia and an estimated 13 million are at risk of recruitment. In recent years, the average age of recruitment in Colombia by illegal groups has decreased from 14 to 12 years of age. The worst offender of child recruitment is the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a guerilla group that has operated in the country since the early 1960’s. It is believed that over 50% of all FARC members are recruited under the age of 18 and that within the ranks at least 40% are under age.
In September 2012, the Colombian government, under the leadership of President Juan Manuel Santos, announced the beginning of the first set of peace talks with the FARC in over a decade. The round table negotiations, which began in November 2012, continue at the writing of this paper. Many in the international and national community are optimistic with regards to the potential for their success. The government and FARC are meeting in Habana, Cuba and the negotiations are centered around the discussion of six points as outlined by the jointly authored document the “General Agreement for the Ending of Conflict and the Construction of a Stable and Durable Peace.’ The six points are: land reform, political participation, drug trafficking, an end to hostilities, reparations for victims and a plan for putting it all into effect.
Notably, and to the consternation of national and international child rights advocates, children – particularly those associated with the armed forces – are not specifically mentioned, being considered a part of the point on reparations to the victims. With the estimated size of the FARC being between 8,000 and 10,000 combatants, and the understanding that a large portion are underage, if the two sides reach an agreement, the Colombian government and international community can expect the potential demobilization of thousands of child soldiers. The only other time in recent history that the government engaged in a large scale demobilization was between 2003-2006 with the demobilization of the paramilitary umbrella group the United Self-Defense Force of Colombia (AUC). This process is generally regarded as a failure, particularly in their treatment of minors. A recent report found that the government has yet to fully prepare for the potential influx of former child soldiers if the FARC demobilizes.
This paper will explore the ongoing situation of children associated with illegal armed groups in Colombia, the current government led reintegration process, and the lessons learnt from the demobilization of the AUC – all in cautiously optimistic anticipation of a potential demobilization following a successful peace process between the FARC and Colombian government.
Children and Armed Conflict
In the growing number of inter-state conflicts around the world, state and non-state actors have increasingly targeted civilian populations as a weapon of war in order to create fear and gain control of key areas. Currently, women and children represent an estimated 80% of the victims in the conflicts. This is perhaps no more evident than in Colombia where the conflict is characterized by a wide range of human rights abuses including forced disappearance, torture, murder, and the recruitment and use of children by illegal armed forces. As a result of this violence, millions of people have been displaced, ranking Colombia as the country with the second largest IDP population in the world. Academic and humanitarian practitioner, Lisa Alfredson, notes that countries suffering the worst trends in child recruitment, both in numbers and violent treatment, also tend to produce the largest populations of internally displaced people (IDPs). This can be seen in Colombia where the cycle of violence, displacement and recruitment of minors enables the conflict to continue, in turn leading to further displacement and an increased demand for the use of children by armed forces. Additionally, a cited reason for internal displacement in Colombia by families is the risk of recruitment of their children.
Colombia is a country embroiled in conflict and yet it has a relatively strong state institute, particularly in urban centers, as well as a complex legal system that attempts to respond to the conflict. With regards to dealing with children associated with armed forces, the policies ranging from prevention to reintegration are implemented at the same time – both undertaken in a situation of ongoing conflict. Additionally, while in many other countries the recruitment of children is often via abduction, in Colombia it is believed that 80% join “voluntarily.” Further, all reintegration programs are overseen by the government institution, the Colombian Family Welfare Institute (ICBF), while in many other countries the programs are run by international organizations.
Seeing as the use of child soldiers is considered a factor that can prolong a conflict, and Colombia has already suffered through many years of violence, attention must be given to this issue. What follows is an overview of the key laws and policies currently in place that deal with the issue of child soldiers in country.
Key Colombian Laws and Policies Regarding Child Soldiers
The Colombian legal system provides impressive protection for children and youth. The Constitution guarantees the rights of the child in Art. 44. Colombia has made efforts to adapt its law to the international requirements. In 1991 the government ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and in 2005 the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict. Further, the Code of Childhood and Adolescents of 2006 includes provisions relevant to children affected by the armed conflict, including the prevention of recruitment and use of children by illegal armed forces.
In 2003 a judge of the specialized court of Colombia convicted, in absentee, members of the Secretariat of the Central High Command of FARC for the recruitment of minors. Despite this, the success rate of prosecution for the recruitment of child soldiers in Colombia is extremely low. The ICTJ reports that as of 2008 the success rate for prosecutions of illegal recruitment and use of children in hostilities was less than 2% and it has not improved since then.
The first conviction of former paramilitaries for sexual violence against minors and child recruitment occurred in 2011 and came under the Justice and Peace Law enacted in 2005. This law was designed to advance the peace process in the demobilization of illegal armed groups in Colombia and at that time the main target was the AUC. 2011 also saw the creation of The Victims Law. This law formally recognizes the internal conflict and, compared to the Justice and Peace Law, shifts the focus from the perpetrators and facilitating their demobilization, to the victims of conflict. The law particularly addresses assistance and reparation to victims. It is an attempt to address the harms and losses suffered by the victims of the conflict, at the hands of both sides of the conflict. The new statute acknowledges a victim’s status from 1985 onwards, and accepts land restitution claims from 1991. Within the law, Article 181 deals with the rights of children and adolescents and affirms a child’s rights to: 1) truth, justice and reparations; 2) the re-establishment of their rights; and 3) protection against all forms of violence including illegal recruitment.
The Victims Law considers all those under 18 who have been associated with the illegal armed forces a victim. It must be noted though, that the Victims Law refers only to the armed conflict between the government and illegal armed groups. Thus, those youth associated with criminal gangs such as the BACRIM do not receive the same protection. Further, it does not protect those who may have been recruited as a child but emerged from the groups older than 18 years. Other laws related to the recruitment and use of children in the armed forces include Laws 1098 and 1257 which provide the framework for the implementation of policies. The government has also created an inter-sectorial working group, the Inter-sectoral Commission for Recruitment Prevention (CIPRUNA), made up of all agencies working on issues related to the recruitment, use, and demobilization of children in the armed conflict in order to facilitate sharing of information and improving policies and program implementation.
While efforts by the government are valiant, much can still be done. It has been reported that the government remains removed, not always by choice, from many of the rural areas where the majority of recruitment and abuse occurs. The lack of government presence and coordination, in addition to past abuses by government troops, leads many communities to distrust government initiatives, hindering protection attempts and also the voluntary entrance of youth into government led reintegration programs.
As noted earlier, Colombia is in a very unique position in that the government is currently attempting to address damages caused by a conflict that is ongoing. This issue is perhaps no more evident than with the reintegration of child soldiers, where, unlike most youth demobilization and reintegration programs, the conflict continues as the government attempts to assist youth formerly associated with the illegal armed forces. This means the government, and other agencies, must work both on prevention of initial recruitment and providing strong enough reintegration programs to provide support for the youth and avoid re-recruitment. At the moment, despite fairly strong laws and policies, gaps remain in the protection of children and they continue to be recruited and re-recruited into the illegal armed forces. Thus, it is crucial to take a more in-depth look at the specific situation of child soldiers in Colombia and their reintegration process.
Overview: Child Soldiers in Colombia
While valid statics on the issue are hard to gather, the range of estimates of child soldiers in Colombia range from between 11,000 – 18,000 child soldiers in Colombia. The University of Externado in Bogota, Colombia, places the number at 15,000 children involved with armed forces broken down into 9,000 children with the FARC, 3,000 with the ELN and 3,000 with the BACRIM. Natalia Springer, who undertook an extensive investigation on the topic, places the highest estimate at 18,000. While Human Rights Watch is the most conservative at 11,000 minors. It is believed that over 50% of the FARC members are recruited while under age. As noted previously, a unique factor of Colombian child soldiers is that the majority (80%) of these youths report entering the forces “voluntarily.”
All reintegration programs in Colombia are implemented under the auspice of the government mandated, Colombian Family Welfare Institute (ICBF), with great support from the International Oganization for Migration (IOM) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Reintegration programs began in 1999 and as of January 2013 the programs have assisted 5,003 children and youth. This number seems relatively low considering the aforementioned thousands of youth currently associated with the armed forces. The low number of children passing through the programs may be for a variety of reasons. Firstly, besides the formal demobilization of the AUC in which an estimated 450 youth arrived to the reintegration programs, there has never been a formal release of children by the illegal armed forces. Rather, the youth must either escape (with the consequence of death or punishment if they are captured) or be rescued by the police of Colombian government. The majority of the youth who have gone through the ICBF (83%) entered voluntarily, meaning they found a way to programs after escaping the groups, while the rest (17%) are “captured” by the police or armed forces. Though no numbers exist it is beleived that a great many children who are able to escape the groups many not enter the programs. Studies have indicated that many youth do not enter the programs due to a distrust of the government, lack of knowledge regarding the programs or fear of prosecution (by the government and/or armed groups) if they enter. It has also been noted that some youth just do not wish to enter an institutionalized program. Thus it is believed that many former child soldiers remain outside the care of the ICBF.
The following tables provide graphs illustrating basic descriptive statistics regarding the youth that have entered ICBF programs, since their inception in 1999 up until January 31, 2013. Additional descriptive statistics are provided that are not seen in the graphs, which also emerged from the same ICBF source.
Table 1: Annual Entry of Youth into Reintegration Programs
As seen in Table 1, the greatest number of youths (775) demobilized in 2003. Over the past 7 years the numbers of children entering the programs have been fairly steady, ranging from 480 to 264 minors and thus, as previously noted, the government may not be prepared for the influx of thousands of youth in a short period of time, particularly since no year has ever seen more than 775 youths.
Table 2: Illegal armed group from which the youth emerged
Table 2 shows the various groups from which the youth emerged and is broken down by years. Overall, the FARC has been the most represented in the ICBF but the AUC, ELN and BACRIMs also have seen 100’s of youths go through the programs. Children who join the armed forces typically come from rural regions, though some are recruited from urban areas. This can be seen in the departments with the highest level of youth emerging from them (more than 200) which are: Antioquia, Meta, Caqueta, Cauca, Tolima and Narino. Of the youth entering the programs, 71% had attained an education of only five years or below with 439 never having attended school.
Table 3: Ages of entry into the specialized reintegration programs
Table 3 shows the ages in which the youth enter the programs. The vast majority (86%) of the youth entering the programs are 15 years or older, with 38% of all youth entering at the age of 17. Over the course of the ICBF programs, the youngest reported to enter the programs are 9 years old. Indigenous and afro-Colombian youth are also reported in the programs, though this data has only been recorded since 2008. The gender breakdown of youth entering ICBF programs over the past 14 years shows that the majority (72%) were males with (28%) female.
The above information provides a brief overview of the children associated with the illegal armed forces in Colombia that have entered the ICBF programs and also hints at some of the challenges that may be faced in their reintegration.
The Reintegration Process in Colombia
It has previoulsy been noted in this paper the unique context of Colombia in that its laws and policies are often seen as more befitting a post-conflict state rather than the situation of ongoing conflict facing the country. This can be seen in the fact that few countries attempt to demobilize before peace. While it is admirable and critcal that the government address the issue of youth associated with illegal armed forces, the situation of ongoing conflict is extremely complex and the risks of re-recrutiment or entry into criminal gangs are particuarly high.
As mentioned, all reintegration programs are run by the ICBF with the assistance of the IOM, USAID and contracted local organizations. Under the aforementioned Victims Law and the Peace and Justice Law, children associated with the illegal armed forces who emerge from these groups under the age of 18 are considered victims. As such, these youth enter specialized reintegration programs and receive assistance as victims. When the youth come of age, they have the option to enter, and receive further assistance, from the programs run by the Colombian Agency for Reintegration (ACR), which are the demobilization and reintegration programs for adults. While the programs of the ICBF, which will be outlined below, are impressive and continue to improve, there remains much to be done and lessons to be reflected upon with regards to youth demobilization and reintegration in Colombia.
As previously noted, the two main ways youth enter the ICBF programs are either voluntarily or via rescue by the police or army. In either case, from the moment that the child is identified they must be delivered to the ICBF within 36 hours, it is illegal for the youth to be held for purposes of information or espionage by the army or police. Despite this, there have been occurrences where this has happened. The youth enter the programs via the decision of a judge or ICBF. Once the youth have entered the protection of the ICBF, the process of reintegration is organized into three stages. It should be noted that the assistance offered in this process is not a linear sequence as the route traveled by each child depends greatly on their individual needs and context. During their time with the ICBF, the youth receive a monthly stipend that is dependent on various factors including their attendance of the ICBF programs. The three phases of the process are briefly described below:
1) Phase One (Duration about 45 days): The minor begins in a transitory attention home where their immediate needs are met, they are documented, and evaluated to determine their well-being and needs, particularly with regards to issues of health, education, psychological state, vocational skills and family situation.
2) Phase Two (Duration varies and depends greatly on the need and age of the youth – typically 9-12 months): At this point the youth can enter a variety of care situations including group homes. If they youth is determined able to live with a family they may enter a foster family situation. If more specialized needs exist, due to issues such as drug abuse or a pregnancy, they enter Centers of Specialized Attention (CAE) or protection institutions. No matter where the child ends up, they continue to receive services related to health, education and vocational trainings in addition to psychosocial monitoring and, if possible, meetings with their family.
3) Phase Three: In this last stage, when the youth reaches the age of 18, focus is on independence and continuing education or vocational training. As such they may live in a youth home, with their families, with foster families or on their own. Additionally, they can choose to enter the ACR to continue to receive assistance.
Generally, in most reintegration programs for former child soldiers, the ultimate goal is reunion with family. While this is true in Colombia, due to the ongoing conflict and instability, more often than not family reunification is not possible. Thus, the goal of this process is to develop strategies for the children and youth to be able to support themselves and live successful lives. The majority of the reintegration centers are in urban centers, including: Bogotá, Armenia, Medellin, Cali, Piedecuesta, Bucaramanga, Dosquebradas, Tunja, Cartagena y Palmira.
While the process outlined very briefly above is impressive with regards to its breadth and goals, there are those who express the need for improvement in these programs. Many working on child issues feel that the outlined process and goals of the ICBF do not always translate into action. Some of the main issues identified, though by no means an exhaustive list, with regards to the reintegration programs include varying quality in the homes and assistance offered, gaps in addressing the needs of different populations, poor transition between ICBF programming and the ACR and a lack general lack of knowledge by youth regarding the programs and how to access them.
Variation in Quality of Services Provided
While the reintegration policy is defined by the ICBF, many of the homes and care provided to the youth are contracted to other organizations. As such not all the programs are uniform and quality can greatly vary.
Unsupported Transition out of Programs
The majority of youth (67%) enter the programs between the ages of 16 and 17, which means that they have a limited amount of time to receive assistance from ICBF programs. This in and of itself is an issue as the programs in the ACR are geared to adults not children and thus may not provide what the youth need. Further, there is little support in the transition from the ICBF into the ACR. As a result many youth do not make the transition and may end up out of the ICBF, alone, without the support they need.
Lack of Knowledge and Access to Programs
Youth have indicated a lack of knowledge regarding the programs of the ICBF and how to access the assistance. As such it is believed that a large number of youth that leave the armed forces do not enter ICBF programs. This may be for a variety of reasons including a lack of knowledge of the programs and fear or distrust of the state. Further, it may be that some youth do not wish to go through the process, which includes institutionalization. Youth have also reported a lack of knowledge of within the process to fully receive assistance.
Addressing the Needs of Different populations
The needs of the youth entering the programs vary greatly due to their individual characteristics. Firstly, gender is a critical part of the experience with the armed forces and thus must be paid great attention to though it has been reported that, as of yet, little attention is given to gender dynamics and the needs of this population.. Additionally, the needs of the indigenous communities and afro-Colombian communities must be met. The ICBF is working in some areas on specific programming for indigenous populations but it has been noted that the programs themselves do no vary greatly from what is implemented in the rest of the populations and the majority of indigenous demobilized youth are within the general programs.
While these are areas in which the programs and policies of reintegration can be improved, it should be noted that the ICBF, IOM and other agencies are working hard to do just that. Currently the ICBF is engaging in a large-scale evaluation of their programs. A report in 2006 showed a decline in the number of children voluntarily leaving the without completing the process and an increased duration of stay within the programs. Likely, this a result an improvement in working with the youth and providing them what they need. The above
Lessons from the AUC Demobilization
As noted earlier in this paper, in 2003 the government undertook a massive demobilization of the AUC, similar to what may occur with the FARC. There have been critics of the process, many claiming that a large number of those who demobilized were not really members of the AUC but rather taking advantage of the reduced sentences and potential opportunities. Prior to the demobilization process the AUC claimed an estimated 15,000 individuals, but by the end of the process more than 30,000 had gone through the programs.
While it seems that many people enjoyed the benefits of the demobilization process, the opposite occurred with regards to minors. Despite an estimated 5,000 children associated with the group, a mere 450 children passed through formal ICBF programs. Within the demobilization process, the government of Colombia failed to enforce the formal demobilization of youth and thus thousands were unable to receive the assistance they both needed and deserved. It has been posited that this failure of enforcement was not an accident; the International Center for Transitional Justice reported in 2011 that the Office of High Commissioner for Peace in Colombia, which was leading the demobilization process, allegedly advised members of the paramilitary to avoid officially releasing the children associated with their groups. This claim, which emerged from numerous interviews, reports that an advisor to the High Commissioner for Peace recommended that commanders release child soldiers discretely and avoid the formal demobilization process so as to not complicate things. It is believed this was done to avoid providing evidence, which could later be used in prosecutions by National or International courts. As a result, potentially thousands of children were “sent home” without entering the formal demoralization process by the ICBF,  meaning many minors did not receive the programs of protection and support that they needed,. It is believed this caused many of them to be re-recruited by neo-paramilitary groups and the BACRIMs that sprang up in their predecessor’s absence.
Thus, in addition to the challenges already facing the reintegration programs, the government must be prepared to enforce the demobilization of all youth associated with the FARC. Numerous child protection agencies such as the Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict and the Coalition Against the Use of Children in the Armed Conflict in Colombia (COALICO) have argued that in the peace process the separation and reintegration of children associated with the FARC must be done through a formal and transparent process so as to ensure that all the youth benefit from the programs. COALICO also noted in a press release that particular attention must be paid to the formal release of children under the age of 15, as their use is an international war crime. Evidently, much can be learned from the demobilization process of the AUC to improve the process if the government and FARC reach and agreement.
While the government of Colombia has made valiant efforts and great strides in addressing the needs of youth associated with illegal armed forces, particularly with regards to the demobilization and reintegration process, evidence suggests that this is an ever-evolving process and more must be done. In looking at the situation of child soldiers in Colombia, and reflecting on the government’s past experiences with demobilization, the following recommendations are respectfully made to the government of Colombia and relevant stakeholders:
· Specifically include child protection and demobilization issues in the peace negotiations.
· Begin preparations immediately for the potential demobilization of minors associated with the FARC. This includes increasing the capacity of existing programs and contacting additional organizations for expanding programs and homes.
· If the negotiations are successful, the government must enforce the demobilization of all youth as well as engage in a campaign throughout the country to identify those who do not demobilize properly – ensuring their access to programs.
· Create a way to evaluate quality of individual homes/centers to ensure that all youth are receiving quality services.
· Increase differential specialized programming for the varied populations including: gender, indigenous communities and afro-Columbiana communities.
· Improve transitional programs out of the ICBF to ensure that all youths’ over the age of 18 receive the care they need.
Ideally, in the upcoming months a peace agreement will be reached between the government of Colombia and the FARC. If this happens the Colombian people will be one step closer to living in a country free of large-scale conflict and ongoing violence. No matter the outcome of the peace process though, it is evident that while the government and partner organizations have made great strides in the protection and reintegration of children, continued attention and improvements must be made to ensure the successful reintegration of youth into society, and one day the ultimate achievement of sustainable peace.
Bio: Charlotte Reed is a doctorate student in Politics, Human Rights and Sustainability at Scuola Superiore Sant’anna in Pisa, Italy. She received her Masters in Public Policy and International Development from Georgetown University and her BA in Peace and Conflict Studies from Colgate University. Her dissertation investigates the reintegration process of former child soldiers with a particular focus on the individual experiences of the youth and the role they play in the process – with a focus on the agency and resilience of youth. She is interested in investigating whether the needs of former child soldiers, as expressed by them, are actively included in reintegration programs. Her dissertation includes an in-depth case study of Colombia and she has recently concluded 6 months of fieldwork in Bogotá, Colombia.