The Burundian government is detaining rather than rehabilitating former child soldiers associated with the rebel National Liberation Forces, Human Rights Watch said in a briefing paper released today.
On the annual Day of the African Child, Human Rights Watch called on the Burundian government to fulfill its obligations under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child to protect the rights of all children in Burundi, including former child combatants.
Dozens of former FNL child soldiers associated with the National Liberation Forces (Forces Nationales pour la Libération, or FNL) languish in government custody – in prisons, jails, and a newly opened welcome center for former FNL combatants – without any clarity of their legal status or knowledge of when they might be returned to their families. Some are as young as 13 years of age. Human Rights Watch has documented how former FNL child soldiers detained in prisons live in overcrowded cells, eat once a day, and are accused of participating in the rebellion. In contrast, children in the welcome center live in better conditions and are not facing prosecution, though they are held with adult combatants.
“The lack of a consistent government policy for former FNL child soldiers has compounded their suffering,” said Alison Des Forges, senior Africa advisor at Human Rights Watch. “Government ministries must coordinate their policies to ensure equal treatment, assistance and rehabilitation to these children.”
The FNL, the only remaining opposition force still fighting the government, continues to use children as fighters and logistical support. Although many children have deserted or been captured by the government, an unknown number continue to serve in the ranks of the rebellion.
The Burundian government has forced some FNL children to collaborate with the military in the search for and identification of active FNL combatants or collaborators. Such forced work puts these children at immediate risk, and may complicate their future reintegration into their communities.
Minors in government custody are held with convicted adult criminals or seasoned combatants, in detriment to the safety and well-being of these minors and in violation of national and international law.
“The government must take urgent action to remove child soldiers from the prison system,” said Des Forges. “Authorities must also ensure that no former child soldiers are held together with adults.”
In 2000, the Burundian government and 17 parties and belligerents signed the Arusha Accords, which laid out a framework for a transitional government and helped bring an end to the civil war. The largest opposition group, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie-Forces pour la défense de la démocratie, CNDD-FDD), signed a peace accord shortly after.
Since December 2004, more than 3,000 former child soldiers and helpers have benefited from a comprehensive demobilization program and have received job training. Since the FNL has not signed the peace accord, however, child soldiers associated with this group have not benefited from these programs. The FNL and the government are currently in peace talks in the Tanzanian capital Dar es Salaam.
“The Burundian government must assist in the recovery and social reintegration of children who are victims of armed conflict,” said Des Forges. “The authorities should take all necessary steps to ensure child soldiers who served in the FNL are released from custody and to provide for their recovery and reintegration.”
The Day of the African Child has been celebrated every year since 1991, in honor of children who were killed in Soweto by the South African apartheid government in 1976 while protesting inferior educational opportunities. Initiated by the Organization of African Unity, the precursor of the African Union, the annual event urges countries to examine progress in the protection, equality and security of all African children.