The Shifting Grounds of Conflict and Peacebuilding: Stories and Lessons

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The Statute of the International Criminal Court makes it a war crime to conscript or enlist children under 15 into national armed forces or to use them to participate actively in hostilities in international and internal armed conflicts.

The protection of children in armed conflicts has been supported by improved collaboration between UN agencies and organs, as well as with NGOs. Key partnerships have been developed, especially at the field level. In the new human rights infrastructure of the UN, the Human Rights Council and the Committee on the Rights of the Child are also central in ensuring that the different legal instruments available are of some use.

However, a central challenge now is "to make international humanitarian law understood, recognized, and enforced in places where children are recruited into armed conflicts on a daily basis. Beyond strengthening international laws and making them widely known, it is vital to reinforce local understandings and norms about notions of childhood and child protection from war, as well as to consider the intersections between international and local understandings. Local communities and civil society groups must become actively involved in monitoring conflict situations and making efforts to stop abuses of children's rights.

The trial of Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, founder and leader of the union des patriotes congolais UPC , before the International Criminal Court, the first individual being charged solely for the conscription and use of children under the age of 15 years for active participation in hostilities, has been momentous for the message it sends to those who recruit and use children. Although the case has been suspended on technical grounds pending an appeal, the Court has indicated there are reasonable grounds to believe that Thomas Lubanga committed the crimes alleged against him.

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Similar commitments to address child rights violations by the Special Court for Sierra Leone and some national tribunals such as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are also important developments in the fight against impunity. They have often been both victims of the processes of imposed militarization and violence, and at least in part, perpetrators of that violence as well. Some of them may have also voluntarily enrolled and participated in violence.

The Shifting Grounds of Conflict and Peacebuilding: Stories and Lessons by John W. McDonald

It is not rare to meet former child soldiers who have gone to several DDR processes and ended up returning to fight because they felt that they could have a better life and a social status that civilian life would not afford them. It is also often "youth who socialize the new recruits and who sometimes identify which youth are to be abducted. Having themselves been inducted in this manner, they reproduce the conflict both through the brutalization of their peers and by creating supportive 'family.


Youth may enter armed groups for a meal or shelter or clothing. Or, asserting their own power, they may enter as substitutes for peers, siblings, and adult family members, or to save whole communities from attack. Voluntary enlistment of youth in armed groups is also influenced by peers. That armed conflict affects children and child development is well-documented.


She called for a paradigmatic shift that would involve "thinking about children as agents of their own development who, even during times of great adversity, consciously act upon and influence the environments in which they live. In fact, research suggests: "children may not be as liable to moral disorientation as many imagine.

Among them, the experience of girls is often badly understood and they are often even more reduced to a victim, even more so than boys. The extreme and often prolonged circumstances of armed conflict interfere with identity development. Despite all of this, adolescents, during or after wars, seldom receive any special attention or assistance. This is a matter of urgent concern.

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In many cases, children and adolescents are forced to take on adult roles and responsibilities long before they reach the age. Yet, social and economic constraints, in particular, may affect that transition. Some traditional community leaders may no longer command respect and authority because of their perceived complicity in the war. Children and young people may have also seen their role models that include parents, teachers or elders, torture and kill each other while some trade their children for food and security.

Yet, it is important to stress that only a small minority of young men becomes involved in armed violence. This phenomenon may have harmful consequences as there might be a tendency to associate youth with violence and to treat this category mainly in terms of threat to society, overlooking its positive contribution. An understanding of youth, differences between youths, and appropriate responses is critical to developing strategies that address youth issues. As some studies have stressed, "when paths to legitimate status in defense of the community are blocked [ Young people are sometimes urged to be peacemakers, but they are seldom mentioned in responses to conflict through governance and political measures.

This perception has been evolving as the notion of youth empowerment and the call for their full participation in post-conflict recovery processes have now been endorsed by most actors. At the UN, governments are encouraged to involve youth in policy making through consultations with youth-led organizations and delegations to UN forums. However, despite all these declarations of principles, much of the potential of this empowerment agenda is yet to be realized. It deals with the reasons why children and young people should also be viewed as peacebuilders, the ways in which some of them are actually endorsing this role in a number of cases, and provides concrete illustrations in different areas, namely: in civil society and democratic decision-making, in media production, in conflict transformation and reconciliation programs, in psycho-social recovery, in human rights and transitional justice, on security issues, and in economic recovery.

It is worth noting that emphasizing this role does not mean that the need for protection should be underestimated. A decisive factor in peacebuilding programs engaged with children and youth as with any other group of the population is the need for a safe environment; this has to take into consideration specific risks that children and youth may face, in particular when they are former combatants. Children and youth as peacebuilders Children and youth can in each case, be considered as peacemakers and peacebuilders, or conversely, as troublemakers.

They represent the future of the country; therefore, engaging them in peace processes and socializing them as peacebuilders early on is important. Bringing their perspective on the conflict as well as on how peace can be built, their experience and resources, not only help having access to a new set of knowledge but constitute an important experience of inclusion. Anthropological studies have revealed the existence of supporting networks and communities by children themselves in war-zones.

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In Angola, during the war, street children created supportive communities in the storm drains beneath the streets. They shared limited resources and created their own system of ideas governing the community. Carolyn Nordstrom, who has studied this, explained that youth provided each other with surrogate family and community, physical protection, and emotional and economic support in ways that are also part of a peacebuilding continuum.

As noted in a UNICEF publication, "whether the community is a war-torn village or a refugee camp, young people will need encouragement and guidance to develop their potential and contribute to their communities.

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With adequate support and access to necessary resources, they can become agents for change and provide a foundation for rebuilding lives and communities, contributing to a more just and peaceful society. For instance, in Sri Lanka, "Little Elephant Finds His Courage" illustrated storybook and discussion guide formed the cornerstone of a family empowerment project for 20, war-affected people living in displacement camps and villages.

They said they emerged with: increased self-esteem; communication and social skills; knowledge about themselves and their peers and community; solutions and ideas for action; connections to one another and key adults; improved community status; a sense of identity and direction; a sense of being better understood by some adults. Womens Commission for Refugee Women and Children.

January , Children and youth's participation in civil society and democratic decision-making Young people also have their own organizations and movements which are an important part of local civil societies. A number of international networks have also emerged, which support this general movement. These are concrete avenues through which children and youth start having a voice in the democratic life.

Go to Actors and Activities Go to the Key websites for youth-led organizations and youth empowerment programs Meaningful participation of children in democratic decision-making is a relatively new concept and still subject to experiment; the movement for child participation in the developing world is gathering momentum. Paradoxically, the case for youth participation is even more difficult. Youth have neither the special status nor the legal protection that may eventually guarantee children a voice in policymaking. One of the motives for that inclusion is the conscience that "young people acquire a status through conflict, and if they are defrauded of this status when peace returns, they can turn into 'spoilers.

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UNDP also promotes the use of youth forums, and identifies support of youth forums as one its main areas of work on youth. Go to Key debates and implementation challenges Children and youth in media production Children have also been increasingly involved in media production, particularly radio programs dealing with peacebuilding issues and addressing people of their age group. Peace media also produce youth programs, which often involve teams of young journalists adolescents and target audience of children and youth. They address topics that matter to young people of their age.

A guide for youth radio production for peacebuilding published by Search for Common Ground examines the big positive impact youth radio can have on young people in the midst of terrible circumstances.

Conflict resolution

Youth radio can: "Fill the information void that most young people experience in conflict zones. Young people say that the lack of access to accurate information leaves them vulnerable to manipulation; Help youth to understand root causes of conflict. Youth are often pulled onto one side or another without understanding why there is conflict in the first place. Teach youth about their rights and how to protect those rights.

In situations where young people's rights are so severely violated, it is important that they know what rights they have; Help youth make good decisions in response to things that are happening to them.


Young people often feel that they have no choice but to respond with violence; Spark youth to action so that they take on positive roles in their own communities; Create outlets for youth voices, helping them communicate with each other and with adult decision-makers. Radio programmes which put young people's voices on the air help them speak directly to their elders about the issues that they face. And when young people hear themselves on the radio they begin to feel that someone does care about the issues that concern them; Model positive responses which youth can have to conflict, showing all listeners that youth dont have to be seen as The Problem, that they can play a positive role in building peace.