Background Briefing

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Problems of Children Facing Reintegration


Some children associated with the FNL were abducted and forced to fight. Others detained at Randa or in prison say they joined the FNL for a variety of reasons, including economic hardship and unstable family situations. Once part of the FNL forces, children are ordinarily prevented from leaving and risk punishment and even death if they try to escape.38


Children who have tried to resume life in their former communities after leaving the FNL often find the same problems that they had hoped to leave behind, further complicated by new hostility and distrust from neighbors. One child who had been recruited to the FNL at age thirteen and later returned home told a Human Rights Watch researcher:


The neighbors kept saying that I was FNL and every time there was a theft, they blamed me. They would go to the police and denounce me for everything. I finally went to the police after about six months and told them that I didn’t want to be in the FNL anymore. They brought me here to Randa. I want to be demobilized and have money for school. I just want [the neighbors] to understand that I am not bad.39


Like this child, many others at Randa and in prison knew that children affiliated with other government or rebel forces received monetary and other assistance when they were demobilized. Several said that even if they were allowed to leave immediately, they would prefer to wait as long as was necessary for a demobilization package.40


To fulfill its obligations of protection and assistance to child victims of armed conflict, the government should decide on a consistent policy that treats children affiliated with the FNL equally, both in relation to other persons affiliated with the FNL, and in relation to children affiliated with other armed groups. It should cooperate with staff of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in verifying the status of any child who admits or is accused of participating in the FNL and send them to a demobilization program for children. These children should receive the medical, social, and educational services necessary for resuming life in their home communities, provided that local security permits this, or elsewhere in Burundi. Children now in prison and who were FNL combatants should join a demobilization program.

International Humanitarian and Human Rights Law


Under the 1949 Geneva Conventions, the civil war in Burundi is a non-international (internal) armed conflict. Internal armed conflicts are those arising within the territory of a state party to the Geneva Conventions. They are regulated under Article 3 common to the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the Second Additional Protocol of 1977 to the Geneva Conventions (Protocol II), and under much customary law applicable to international conflicts. Under article 4(3) (c) of Protocol II, all parties to an internal armed conflict are prohibited from recruiting children under the age of fifteen or allowing them to take part in hostilities. Burundi ratified the 1949 Geneva Conventions in 1971 and Protocol II in 1993.

A further standard on the recruitment of children for the armed forces is set by Article 38 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), ratified by Burundi in 1990, which restates the ban on the recruitment of persons under the age of fifteen years established in Protocol II.41 According to Article 19 of the Burundian Constitution, the CRC is an integral part of Burundian law.42


In addressing the issue of children in the FNL, the government of Burundi must comply with international human rights law as well as international humanitarian law. Apart from adhering to recruitment age limits, the government must also enforce these limits and take measures to hold those who violate them accountable. It must also protect children affected by armed conflict and take positive steps to promote their welfare.


International Prohibitions on Using Former Child Soldiers as Informants

The obligation of states to protect children under the age of eighteen in armed conflict situations is also reflected in the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (No. 182), which member states of the International Labour Organization adopted unanimously in 1999, and Burundi ratified in 2002. Convention No. 182 commits ratifying member states to “take immediate and effective measures to secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labour as a matter of urgency.” It defines a child as any person under the age of eighteen and includes in its definition of the worst forms of child labor:


All forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery, such as the sale and trafficking of children, debt bondage and serfdom and forced or compulsory labor, including forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict.43


The Burundian government’s practice of requiring ex-combatants who are minors to carry munitions and to assist in locating FNL combatants and supporters, is a form of compulsory recruitment for use in armed conflict, and constitutes a violation of this convention.


International Obligations to Promote the Best Interests of Former Child Soldiers

The obligation of the state to protect and promote the welfare of child victims of armed conflict derives from its general duties under the CRC to protect children as the most vulnerable sector of society, and to act in their best interest. According to article 39 of the Convention:


States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to promote physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration of a child victim of: any form of neglect, exploitation, or abuse; torture or any other form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; or armed conflicts. Such recovery and reintegration shall take place in an environment which fosters the health, self-respect and dignity of the child.


In addition, article 6(3) of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict (generally known as the Child Soldiers Protocol), adopted unanimously by the United Nations General Assembly on May 25, 2000, provides that:


States Parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure that persons within their jurisdiction recruited or used in hostilities contrary to the present Protocol are demobilized or otherwise released from service. States Parties shall, when necessary, accord to such persons all appropriate assistance for their physical and psychological recovery and their social reintegration.


Article 7(1) requires that states party:


Cooperate in the implementation of the present Protocol, including in the prevention of any activity contrary thereto and in the rehabilitation and social reintegration of persons who are victims of acts contrary thereto, including through technical cooperation and financial assistance. Such assistance and cooperation will be undertaken in consultation with the States Parties concerned and the relevant international organizations.


The Burundian constitution also recognizes that all children have the right to special protections, because of their vulnerability.44 According to Article 46 of the constitution, children must be detained for the shortest amount of time possible, and all detained children under sixteen must be separated from adults in conditions appropriate to their age.45


The Prohibition on the Use of Children as Combatants

The Child Soldiers Protocol establishes eighteen as the minimum age for direct participation in hostilities, for compulsory recruitment, and for any recruitment or use in hostilities by irregular armed groups.


Burundi signed the Child Soldiers Protocol in 2001 but has not yet ratified it. As a signatory, Burundi is “obliged to refrain from acts which would defeat the object and purpose” of the treaty.46 Burundi must seek to ban children’s recruitment or use in hostilities by any armed group on its territory. The state also may be considered responsible, by omission, if it fails to take adequate steps to prevent the abuse by non-state actors of other rights that children enjoy under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. These include, among others: the right to be protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work that is likely to be hazardous or to interfere with the child’s education, or to be harmful to the child’s health or physical, mental, spiritual, moral or social development;47 protection from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation;48 and the right not to be separated from their parents against their will.49


Burundi is also a state party to the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, as of 2004. According to article 17, states parties must ensure that children in detention are separated from adults. The requirement that children must not be recruited or take any active part in hostilities is reiterated by article 22.


[38] Human Rights Watch interviews with child soldiers, Randa welcome center, May 5 and 10, 2006, and with detained children, Mpimba central prison, Bujumbura, May 16, 2006.

[39] Human Rights Watch interview with child soldier, Randa welcome center, May 5, 2006.

[40] Human Rights Watch interviews with child soldiers, Randa welcome center, May 5 and 10, and with detained children, Mpimba central prison, Bujumbura, May 16, 2006.

[41] Convention on the Rights of the Child, Articles 2 and 3. The Convention’s article 38 is an anomaly in using a fifteen-year age minimum; in all other respects, the Convention’s general definition of a child is any person under the age of eighteen. The Convention states that none of its provisions should affect laws that are more conducive to the rights of the child.

[42] Constitution of Burundi, Article 19, adopted March 9, 1992.

[43] International Labour Organization, Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention (Convention 182), Article 3 (a).

[44] Constitution of Burundi, Article 30.

[45] Constitution of Burundi, Article 46.

[46] Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, UN Doc A/Conf 39/28, UKTS 58 (1980), art. 18, signed May 23, 1969 (entered into force January 27, 1980).

[47] Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 32 (1).

[48] Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 19 (1).

[49] Convention on the Rights of the Child, Article 9.

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