Iraq has taken positive steps and a human rights approach towards the release and treatment of children suspected to have ties to ISIS. Special committees have been formed to discuss the cases of numerous children held in detention centres in Iraq. These committees are said to be complying with international human rights laws, and are reviewing individual cases and ordering the release of alleged child offenders. Human Rights Watch (HRW) states that these children are being released for various reasons, some including lack of evidence and the prevention of double jeopardy. These releases all comply with Iraq’s amnesty law. The High Judicial Council has hope that this will set a good example with courts throughout the country, as there are an alarming number of children in custody. Many of these children have been charged with terrorism and ISIS affiliation, and HRW states that many of these are based upon forced confessions and false accusations.
The committee has taken a humanistic approach and set an example that these children should be treated as victims, not criminals. Many were forced to join the terrorist organization at a young age, and some were not even affiliated with them at all. In June, a committee was forced by the courts to stop reviewing pending cases. Another committee has continued to work on reviewing a large amount of child terrorism cases. According to HRW, it has convicted 202 people, released 31 children and released 44 adults under Iraq’s 2016 Amnesty Law.
Many children released admitted to participating in training with the terrorist group ISIS before turning 18, but not engaging in other criminal activities. HRW reports that in one case, the defendant participated in a month of training when he was 14. He was released because the committee believed he did not understand the severity of his actions and did not carry out terrorist activity. This could not be considered affiliation because he is a minor and failed to understand what he was involved in. There are many similar cases where minor defendants made false confessions to legal authorities out of fear.
ISIS often recruits child soldiers, and a large portion of them are forced to do so for the safety of themselves and their loved ones. In Iraq, the Juvenile Welfare Act states that the minimum age of criminal responsibility is nine. Children past this age have the right to be detained and charged as an adult. On the other hand, Canada’s Youth Offenders Act protects children from the ages of 12 to 17. This is very different to the age of criminal responsibility in Iraq. These laws play a key role in how a child is rehabilitated and if they are given a fair chance in the legal system.
HRW also report that Iraqi judicial authorities state that anyone found guilty should be sent to a rehabilitation school where victims can be cared for, instead of being sent to prison. Nine is far too young of an age to hold a child criminally responsible, many of which may not understand the severity of joining and participating in criminal activities with ISIS. These children are victims themselves and should not be treated and charged with terrorism without first being given to opportunity to be rehabilitated.
The High Judicial Council hopes these committees will set an example and improve the legal protections of child soldiers throughout the country. International law attempts to protect children involved in armed conflict and Iraq must assist these children who are victims of these terrorist organizations. Some Iraqi children face physical and psychological abuse and are left with harmful traumas after their interactions with ISIS, as well as while being detained.
Countries must assist these children and help them get the rehabilitation and support that they need. According to The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, “countries should refrain from charging and prosecuting children for mere association with a non-state armed group, including those designated as terrorist groups.” Children who are detained in Iraq for affiliation with ISIS must be released or given a fair hearing by courts. Legal authorities must take into consideration their age and any mental or physical torture they have faced by these armed groups. These children must be rehabilitated and protected by the government, not further punished.
The special committees reviewing individual cases in Iraq are improving protections for children’s voices and legal rights. Though it is important to charge those who are guilty and responsible for their actions, many of those detained unfairly must be protected. The international community must hold Iraq accountable for the influx of children soldiers being detained. Rehabilitation for these victims should be a priority instead of imprisonment, and such programs should help reintegrate these children into society. Human rights organizations and the United Nations must ensure that Iraq is held accountable for their treatment of child soldiers to continue to see positive progress.