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In promotional videos posted online by Islamic State (IS), children ranging from about five years old to their early teens stand in perfect formation wearing combat outfits and black headbands emblazoned with the militant group’s flag. The videos show the meticulous training of these youngsters – so-called “cubs of the Caliphate” – not only in combat exercises but in the group’s radical interpretation of Islamic ideology. Other yet more brutal videos show children shooting dead or decapitating prisoners in single or group executions.
The most obvious purpose of such indoctrination is ensuring loyalty to IS ideology that can survive possible IS disintegration. As a result, the propaganda goes hand in hand with daily religious education where children are made to memorize the Koran and Hadiths (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), contextualized by their teachers within the framework of the group’ s religious beliefs. Using modern technology, predominantly the internet, IS is safeguarding its survival by reaching out to the most vulnerable and impressionable.
Under international law, a state bears primary responsibility for protecting its children from exploitation or abuse. In IS strongholds, this responsibility is nearly impossible to maintain and has resulted in the abduction of hundreds of children. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which documents kidnappings, executions and other human rights abuses in Syria, estimates that IS recruited at least 400 children in the first three months of 2015 alone.
Once the children have been abducted or handed over by their sympathetic parents, the indoctrination begins. The children are isolated from their homes and families, and have no option but to comply with the group leader who becomes the principal figure of authority. Many children in IS custody take direct part in combat, but they also fulfil many other roles including lookouts, messengers and sex slaves. The latter, often young girls, have reportedly been sold in open-air markets with price tags attached to them for a few hundred dollars or as little as a pack of cigarettes. More recently, disabled children have been coached specifically to serve as suicide bombers
Since children are by nature more susceptible to propaganda and brainwashing, IS has used a war tactic that has been shown throughout history to be highly effective for indoctrinating children: psychological trauma. This is defined by Merriam-Webster dictionary as “a very difficult or unpleasant experience that causes someone to have mental or emotional problems usually for a long time.” It could be argued that the trauma is both the result of an unpleasant event and a tool for manipulation.
A United Nations report on the impact of armed conflict on children shows that child soldiers have a higher incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and deep psychological trauma when compared to other children of the same age and same cultural background. Studies dealing exclusively with adult soldiers show that war, and especially the killing of another human being, has dramatic and lasting psychological consequences. The effect is magnified in child soldiers. Thus IS’s handling of children cannot only cause PTSD, it can also lead to personality disorders in adulthood. This is a concern not only for child executioners but also children who have lost family members. Leila Zerrougui, the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, said that : “The impact of the armed violence on children has reached unprecedented levels during the current crisis in the Middle East.”
According to the United Nations, “regardless of how children are recruited and of their roles, child soldiers are victims”. As such, their respective countries should ensure proper physical and psychological treatment to facilitate a gradual reintegration back into society. The issue was highlighted in the case of Canadian national Omar Khadr. He was captured at age 15 by US forces in Afghanistan and was the first person since World War II to be prosecuted in a US military court for war crimes committed while still a minor. He was sentenced to ten years in prison. The ruling underlined the failure of both the United States and Canada to protect the rights of children who are caught up in armed conflict and are in greater need of psychological recovery services. This despite a public appeal from Radhika Coomaraswamy, the then Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, for the governments of both countries to respect the spirit of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child to which they are signatories. The problem arises in the “reservations and understandings” that the US attached (as it customarily does) to the formal legal document:
(1) NO ASSUMPTION OF OBLIGATIONS UNDER THE CONVENTION ON THE RIGHTS OF THE CHILD. – The United States understands that the United States assumes no obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child by becoming a party to the Protocol.
In other words, the US ratified the protocol while declaring that by doing so it has no obligation to comply with the standards set out in it. The Paris Principles, another relevant human rights document that was adopted by the UN General Assembly in its Resolution 48/134 of 1993 and complements the Paris Commitments, aimed at protecting children from unlawful recruitment or use by armed forces or armed groups, has failed to produce the intended results because many vital countries, the United States included, have yet to endorse them. Of the 20 commitments, number 11 in particular stands out:
“[To]ensure that children under 18 years of age who are or who have been unlawfully recruited or used by armed forces or groups and are accused of crimes against international law are considered primarily as victims of violations against international law and not only as alleged perpetrators. They should be treated in accordance with international standards for juvenile justice, such as in a framework of restorative justice and social rehabilitation.”
Sadly, for those children who have been caught up in the recent conflict or live under IS rule, their only hope is a post-IS Middle East and UN programmes such as Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR), the objective of which is to assist the physical removal of weapons and ammunition from countries where conflicts have ended or treaties have been signed, together with the dismantling of armed groups and the reintegration of ex-combatants into civilian life. The end of the conflict will only be the beginning of the long process of undoing the effects of IS indoctrination, a formidable task that will eventually fall to clerics with proper training in Islamic theology and government initiatives created for the purpose of rehabilitation.