Human rights groups aid release of child soldiers from FARC in Colombia

Mark Koester

Colombia’s left-wing FARC rebels have agreed to release child soldiers from their ranks as part of the peace deal they are close to signing with the government. Now, authorities are working out the details on how the children will be transitioned and reintegrated back into society.

“There will have to be clear guidelines as to who is going to do what,” said Roberto De Bernardi, UNICEF representative in Colombia, in an interview with Humanosphere. “This sort of comprehensive program will include access to health care, access to education and, of course, psycho-social support from the very beginning.”

In a statement read out at a news conference in Havana, where the FARC and Colombian government have been negotiating a peace deal since 2013, the FARC said there are an estimated 21 former soldiers under the age of 15. The rebel group agreed they would not face any charges for crimes they might have committed.

“We have agreed with the national government that these minors cannot be prosecuted and that, as victims of an immense social and political drama, they will be treated as such and never as criminals,” said FARC lead negotiator Ivan Marquez.

There are also more than 100 minors ages 16 and 17, Reuters reported, who will be pardoned for “rebellion” but will not escape post-conflict trials for more serious crimes such as rape or murder.

Under the terms of the agreement, UNICEF, the Red Cross and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) will oversee the process of releasing and reintegrating the child soldiers. The committee is to submit clear guidelines of release and reintegration within the coming weeks.

As is the case with any release of minors from the ranks of armed conflict, the process of reintegrating these children into mainstream Colombian society will need to be handled with delicacy. Child soldiers who flee their ranks often receive threats and struggle to readjust to life outside the camps and sometimes feel the need to return to the camps they have long called home.

UNICEF and other human rights groups are taking what precautions they can to keep them safe.

“There is a possibility of a sort of refusal that some communities, and even some families, may express towards these children,” said De Bernardi. “Physical danger … is a possibility, of course, but within these comprehensive guidelines, the government and the FARC will [ensure]the security of these children will be guaranteed.”

He added that the children’s names and other identifiable information will not be disclosed.

The use of child soldiers under 15 is a violation of international humanitarian law, but remains one of the most common war crimes committed by the FARC rebels in the war they’ve been waging against the state since 1964. According to United Nations and national data, an estimated 1,000 children have been used or recruited by nonstate armed groups since peace talks began three years ago.

“One of the biggest horrors of a conflict is when we drag our children and young people into combat,” said Humberto de la Calle, a chief government negotiator. “It’s for this reason that this agreement is a crucial advance in the process of bringing this war to a close.”

Although a deadline for a final peace deal was missed in March, negotiators say they are in the final phase of talks and hope to announce a definitive ceasefire before the start of the summer.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com