Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN secretary general’s special representative for children and armed conflict, on Thursday asked judges in the Thomas Lubanga trial to deliver justice to girls who were involved in armed conflict.
Appearing as an expert witness on the day the trial resumed following a six month lull, Coomaraswamy’s testimony dwelt on the interpretations of the terms “conscription or enlistment of children” and “using children to participate actively in the hostilities” as they relate to the war crimes which Lubanga is charged with.
She said according to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, there is no distinction between conscription and enlistment. “No parties are allowed to recruit a person below the age of 18 into armed conflict,” she said, stressing that leaders of armed groups could not hide behind the excuse of a child having joined their groups voluntarily.
With regards to what constitutes using children “to participate actively in hostilities”, Coomaraswamy urged the court not to restrict the understanding to combat roles, but to broadly interpret the term to encompass a broad range of roles played by child soldiers that were essential to the functioning of the armed groups.
She particularly made the case for the court to define participation to include the gamut of activities which girl soldiers played in the armed conflicts. “Girls play multiple roles in conflict, including combat, portering, scouting but also [there is] sexual slavery and [they are] bush wives….we need to draw attention to the roles girls play and the need to protect them in every context.”
Coomaraswamy told the judges in the Lubanga trial that it was important that their ruling paid attention to all children and did not ignore what girls did when they were forced to join armed groups “regardless of whether or not they took part in direct combat in armed conflict.” She added: “Give them justice for the cacophony of abuse they suffered.”
Lubanga’s lawyer Jean-Marie Biju-Duval asked the witness to explain the various ways through which children joined armed groups. She said children in an ethnically-motivated war might be forced by their families or community elders to join armed groups so as to defend their communities and to guard against ostracization.
But a lot of children were abducted and forced to become members of militia groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo – as well as in Sierra Leone and Sudan. Poverty and lack of protection also forced children to get involved in armed conflicts.
Biju-Duval suggested that a child who saw their village pillaged or their family massacred could voluntarily join an armed group. Coomaraswamy said it was up to the leaders of those groups to accept or stop such children from joining their groups. But those who accepted them were committing a war crime, as were those who conscripted them, she said.