A police officer talks to children before the inauguration of a new police station in La Uribe, a former stronghold of the FARC, in southern Colombia. 2009. AP Photo/Fernando Vergara.
In recent weeks, the media, analysts and experts have been talking a lot about the challenges that lie ahead with the demobilisation of children from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia – People’s Army (FARC-EP). The issue was brought up in a joint communiqué by the Negotiating Table on May, 15, in which an agreement on the exit of children under 15 from the guerilla camps was announced, together with a commitment for the drafting of a roadmap for the disengagement of the remaining child soldiers and the development of a comprehensive care program for them.
Even though multiple challenges must be overcome for this process to succeed, this is undoubtedly an opportunity that cannot be missed. The Technical Committee, established on May, 19, is responsible for the drafting of the protocol for the release from the camps of children under 15, for the transitional reception plan, and for the proposed assistance program should play a key role in ensuring that the guiding principles regarding the rights of children are truly respected.
Pending task 1: Getting to know the total number of children who will be demobilized from the ranks of the FARC
We do not know how many children are or have been part of illegal armed groups in Colombia. This is due largely to the low visibility of the problem and to the political will of the parties while "negotiating peace". Despite the efforts of international organizations and state entities to bring this reality up to the public eye, this is an issue that still generates some uneasiness, especially because of the mistakes made in the past.
The figures released by the Childhood Welfare Observatory of the Colombian Institute of Family Welfare (ICBF) show that from 1999 to March, 31, 2016, 5.969 minors were taken care of by the Specialized Care Program for the restoration of rights to children and teenagers who have been victims of illegal recruitment. From this total, the FARC is the illegal armed group from which the highest percentage of these children disengaged (60% - that is, 3.607 children and teenagers), a fact that puts pressure on this group for committing to hand over all the available information on minors in its ranks. The figure of 21 under 15s who could be handed over immediately that was put forward by “Iván Márquez” understates the scale of the phenomenon. The country is waiting to know how many children under 18 are held by the FARC in order to get the whole picture of the involvement of children in the Colombian armed conflict.
On the other hand, according to figures released by the Analysis and Contexts Unit, attached to the Attorney General’s Office (DINAC), more than 11.500 children were allegedly recruited by the FARC between 1975 and 2014, as part of a systematic policy for the inclusion of new fighters (the recruitment of minors peaked during the period of the so-called Distension Zone). This information comes from several sources, including the statutes of the FARC, computers seized from leaders of this group, USB devices, and documents from the 3rd and 7th Conference, among others. Finally, the DINAC asserts that the FARC Secretariat, with its 7 commanders and 32 front chiefs and regional blocs, are responsible for conducting forced recruitment, which is considered a war crime.
Lack of information and the disparity of the figures only puts more pressure on state institutions to face the challenge of assisting adequately the population which is about to disengage, identifying the distinctive nature and features of the phenomenon, and proposing recommendations tailored to the needs of the people affected.
Pending task 2: Guaranteeing the rights of children and teenagers in order to diminish the risk of recruitment and of being used
The working perspective on which the document of the National Council for Economic and Social Policy on Recruitment Prevention and Use of children and teenagers is based offers a broader vision of the problem we are facing. A large number of children and teenagers who were recruited are seeing their rights constantly violated due to the risk factors they encounter in their families, communities and regional contexts.
According to this document, some of the situations which increase the risk of recruitment and use of children under 18 are: i) the presence or transit of groups operating outside the law and of organized criminal groups; ii) the presence of illegal economies and activities; (iii) high rates of sexual and domestic violence against children; iv) depressed regions with low economic and high social marginality indexes.
We need to understand that existing conditions of vulnerability make a comprehensive response by the state, communities and families inescapable. Some of the contexts in which children live in Colombia are not appropriate to keep them away from the armed conflict. Decreasing the risk factors and strengthening protective environments and networks are essential to guarantee and promote the rights of children.
Pending task 3: Remembering the lessons of the past
During the paramilitaries’ demobilization process, not all the children and teenagers in their ranks were reported or handed over. Several of these children were sent back to their homes, without restoring their rights or benefitting from a reparation process.
According to ICBF figures, 963 children (3%) were disengaged from the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) between 2003 and 2006, a very low figure indeed, considering that an estimated 31.671 members of this organization were demobilized. Human Rights Watch claims that children represented about 20% of the paramilitaries’ troops, suggesting that very few children who had been part of this group benefitted from the Colombian Institute of Family Welfare’s attention services.
In order to avoid a similar situation, and as mandated by the United Nations Security Council, the verification commission of an eventual surrender of arms and bilateral cease-fire must agree on the verification mechanisms and monitoring process for the effective disengagement of all children from the FARC.
According to the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies), only five countries (Burundi, Liberia, Sudan, Nepal and South Africa) explicitly and specifically included the childhood perspective in the agreements that put an end to their armed conflicts. But even though it was included, the implementation of the agreements failed to meet the target on this issue.
For example, in the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement for Burundi, signed on August, 28, 2000, the need to promote care, welfare, health and safety for all children, and to pay special attention to protection against mistreatment, abuse, exploitation and direct use in armed conflicts was made explicit. In 2003, the Transitional Government, with the help of UNICEF, began separating children and teenagers from the armed structures. In December 2004, 2.261 children had been disengaged and were returned to their families and communities. However, despite efforts to include this issue in the final agreement, in 2006 - four years after the Agreement was signed -, the UN Secretary General called on the government of Burundi to work towards immediately putting an end to the persistent violations, killings, arrests and recruitment of children who, even though they had been released and returned to their families, continued to suffer the indignities of war.
In the case of Liberia, the Accra Peace Agreement signed on August 18, 2003, mentioned that the Transitional National Government would draft and implement a program for the rehabilitation of war victims (children, women, the elderly and disabled people), and to pay special attention to demobilised children. About 15.000 children had been recruited by different armed factions involved in the conflict. Because of the scale of the problem, the agreement reflected the need to mobilize resources from the international community, particularly UNICEF, the African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of Children and other relevant agencies, in order to address the special needs of disengagement and reintegration. However, and despite the fact that the agreement envisaged a differential treatment, demobilised children and teenagers followed the same Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR) program as adult former combatants, thus increasing the problems for the restoration of their rights.
These examples show what situations demobilised children from the FARC could face. Even if an effort to link the issue to the peace agreements is actually being made, it is nevertheless necessary to consider the scale of the challenges that not only the relevant bodies but society in general are up against. It is not enough to establish a reintegration program only for the demobilized children or a special care program for children who leave this particular guerrilla; it is urgent to start thinking that demobilized children are essential to peace building and reconciliation in the territories.
What can be done?
The work ahead is an opportunity for the national government and the FARC, and now the Technical Committee, to reflect on the perception the institutions and the armed group have of the demobilized children and to take decisions on:
i) Institutional and community spaces that must accommodate in an equitable manner children disengaged from all illegal armed groups.
ii) The responsibility of government agencies, families and communities for establishing protective environments and integrating them in society in a dignified way.
iii) The measures to be taken to ensure their security, the restoration of their rights and full compensation as victims, especially to prevent re-recruitment by other illegal groups.
Regarding this last point, upon reviewing the agreement on victims of the conflict, it is somewhat frustrating to see that there is no explicit mention in it to minors that are to be disengaged from the ranks of the FARC, even though they must be treated as victims. The agreement refers to the differential and gender approach, emphasizing the particular needs of women and boys and girls who are victims of the conflict, but only in general terms. But this issue cannot be left to interpretation; it is necessary that the separation protocols, the paths of assistance, and the mechanisms that ensure the restoration of rights should be absolutely clear.
Attending demobilised children and teenagers is a state duty. However, under the principle of shared responsibility, families and society in general should act to ensure that they can effectively enjoy their rights. Several efforts and admonitions have been made from different sectors recommending specific points to be worked on regarding this issue, not only within the framework of negotiations with the FARC but also in peace-building scenarios.
The Colombian Ombudsman Office, in his report Voices and opportunities for children and teenagers in peace building in Colombia, urges:
i) The negotiating teams, to establish, within the framework of the negotiations, the conditions, mechanisms and paths for demobilization, disengagement, disarmament and reintegration.
ii) The FARC, to hand over to the relevant state institutions all children and teenagers under 18 who are currently in their ranks.
iii) The Government, to avoid the invisibility of children and teenagers recruited by this guerrilla force in the negotiation process, and to ensure the handing over of all minors for the restoration of their rights. Also, to make a flexible institutional offer depending on the necessary conditions for the handing over of recruited children, so that the disengaged population can develop life projects which go beyond the frame of technical education and entrepreneurship, and explore and strengthen the relations between art, culture and peace in their territories.
iv) The media and state agencies, to establish measures to prevent re-victimisation and stigmatisation of the demobilised children and teenagers.
These are some of the lines drawn in this report which are critical to addressing the issue. Other views, however, can complement this approach. There has recently been much talk about the concept of inclusive reparation, which considers the child as a citizen with rights, responsibilities and continuous training. This approach confers a different connotation to the reparation processes, because the victims cease to be perceived as passive agents, and attention is drawn to the development and strengthening of these individuals’ capacity for agency, with a view to their integration in their territories. In this sense, this process should not only be addressed in the individual dimension, but also in the transformation of the relations between demobilised children and teenagers and their communities.
 National and international standards state that recruitment is a war crime and may be penalized by the International Criminal Court. (ICC). In 2012, in a landmark decision, the ICC condemned Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, head of the Union of Congolese Patriots, for enlisting and conscripting children under 15 and using them in ethnic clashes. Court judgments such as this set a precedent for the protection of children in the context of armed conflicts and become milestones within the system of international criminal justice.
 Human Rights Watch. Aprenderás a no llorar. Niños combatientes en Colombia. (Spanish versión), Bogotá: Editorial Gente Nueva, 2004.
 See: Defensoría del Pueblo, Informe Voces y oportunidades para los niños, niñas y adolescentes en la construcción de la paz en Colombia, November 2014.
 Later on, UNICEF established a reintegration program for demobilised children based on skills. Also, together with the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), it helped rebuild schools run by the government throughout the country.