De afgelopen periode hebben we hard aan de campagne gewerkt, met een fantastisch resultaat! We hebben het samen met alle partners, ambassadeurs- en niet te vergeten ‘de crowd’- voor elkaar gekregen om 20.000 euro bij elkaar te verzamelen.
Ik wil jullie bij deze graag bedanken voor je steun, en vertellen hoe het project nu verder gaat. Zie daarvoor de onderstaande videoboodschap:
The Dutch government has to ensure that VeVa courses (for 15-16 year olds) do not include physical and mental training that might be harmful to children’s wellbeing
The Dutch government has to establish regular monitoring of VeVa courses
17 year olds should not be military trained
Voluntary military recruitment should be raised to age 18
“The Committee is concerned that children as young as 15 years of age who are enrolled in the Security and Skills (VeVa) vocational course are subjected to harsh mental and physical training modules that may be harmful to their health and development.”
When moving house recently, I recovered a postcard that a friend sent to me in July 2013, during the lead-up to my first (field) research on children’s rights. On the front of the card there is this poem by a Dutch poet, Remco Campert:
Verzet begint niet met grote woorden
maar met kleine daden
zoals storm met zacht geritsel in de tuin
of de kat die de kolder in zijn kop krijgt
zoals brede rivieren
met een kleine bron
verscholen in het woud
zoals een vuurzee
met dezelfde lucifer
die een sigaret aansteekt
zoals liefde met een blik
een aanraking iets dat je opvalt in een stem
jezelf een vraag stellen
daarmee begint verzet
en dan die vraag aan een ander stellen.
Resistance does not start with big words
but with small deeds
like a storm with soft rustling in the garden
or the cat going crazy
like wide rivers
with a small source
hidden in the forest
like a sea of fire
with the same match
that lights a cigarette
like love in a look
a touch something that strikes you in a voice
asking yourself a question
that's how resistance starts
and then posing that question to someone else.
Clearly, my friend knows me and my research well. 18 months further down the road I am still asking questions. I have, for the time being, finished a PHD proposal on children’s rights, which has as its main question: “How can we understand the position of the child in the international legal community?”. I think this is an extremely important question that can provide an impetus for social transformation.
In addition, starting a PHD project for me is a period of great insecurity. Days are filled with questions. Is the proposal good enough? Who do I want as supervisors, and do they want me as a student? Do I possess sufficient capacities to successfully research the subject on a high academic level? Will my articles get published? How do I find the financial means to even start the project?
Regarding the latter, financial issue, I have decided to take a bold and unusual step, which is to try and finance the project (at least partly) through fundraising. It took me two weeks of Christmas holidays to decide to go on this adventure, that had been lingering in my mind ever since I did a small crowdfunding project to finance my previous research in 2013. I think fundraising for research that is socially relevant, is a great way to expand social commitment to and impact of the research. In my experience, this approach gets so many people involved in the process; academics and non-academics, young and old, students and professionals, NGOs and corporations… All this leading to greater societal impact in the end, as well as individual interest and support.
However, the approach is uncommon in present-day academia. Uncommon to say the least. In fact, it might very well be frowned upon by some academics. To not (solely) walk the traditional road of grant applications, leaves out the academic judgment involved in grant distribution. According to some, we cannot leave judgment of academic value up to the court of public opinion. This is probably a legitimate objection.
Yet this also triggers my resistance. With recent financial cutbacks, less academic research can receive grants. Therefore we HAVE to look for different means of supporting our work. Academic value can still be judged through peer-reviewed research articles. In addition, if some of the funding comes from civil society, publication in more popular media should increase in (academic) appreciation.
At times when I feel uncertain and scared about the whole project, which is pretty much my perpetual condition, I sometimes think of the words of Joseph Knecht in Herman Hesse’s “The Glass Bead Game” (1943), who argues that ‘we possess that limited freedom of decision and action which is the human prerogative and which makes world history the history of mankind’. According to Knecht we may therefore choose, in proportion to our understanding of events, in proportion to our alertness and our courage, to either close our eyes to danger and hope that it will not find us, or recollect that ‘we belong to world history and help to make it’.
Suppose through fundraising, one would be able to operate on two levels; at the level of civil society; politics, policy, and at the level of academic research; both using the same data. Would that not be a dream come true? Or should all people who do not receive a grant give up on their dream of doing academic research?
Thanks to Bavo Hopman and Kila van der Starre for (translating) the poem.
It is common knowledge that many child combatants are active in the DRC conflict today. Sometimes child combatants manage to leave the armed group that they are supposed to serve. What happens to Rwandan child combatants after they escape? How are they demobilized and reintegrated into society? How do we even know if they are children? And how does Rwandan government policy on this matter relate to international law?
Child combatants that manage to get away from an armed group in the DRC in which they are serving, report usually to the UN or the ICRC. If they are Rwandan, they are sent to a special demobilization camp in the Rwandan western province, as part of the Rwanda Demobilization and Reintegration Program. When I visited this camp, there were 46 children, ages said to be 14-19 years. This was considered a “quiet period”, because at that moment there was a period of relative rest in the DR Congo after an outburst of violence earlier in the year. In this camp, children get some basic education (upon arrival most are illiterate), which includes reading, writing, the Rwandan language and Rwandan history. There is one nurse employed for therapeutic purposes. The children follow a weekly schedule of schooling, leisure (sports and games) and therapy.
When they come out of the Congolese jungle they have to tell their age. This determines whether they are children or adults, which has as its first consequence to which camp they are sent (the adult camp or the children’s camp). But often these children do not know their age. For example, I spoke to a boy who, when I asked about his education, said he had finished second class in primary school. He said he was recruited after, ‘at age 16, when he finished his studies’. In the second class of primary school in Rwanda you are usually 8 years old. The conversation in which I tried to find out about his current age and his age at the moment of recruitment is illustrative for the complexity of child combatants and information about age:
MH: What is your education?
Int: He was recruited for soldier when he was in second primary.
MH: Second primary, and then?
Int: When he got into soldier. When he got recruited.
MH: How old was he in second primary?
Int: 16 years.
MH: In 2nd primary you are 16 years?
Int: He went into…he was recruited when he had finished his studies.
MH: So, finished primary school?
Int: He was recruited when he was in 2 primary.
MH: But in the second of primary, you are not 16 then, are you?
Int: He was born here, in Bukavu, and he was being recruited when he was in secondary school.
MH: Secondary school?
Int: Not secondary school. In primary school.
MH: So how come he was at primary school when he was 16 years old?
Int: He started when he was very young.
MH: He started what?
Int: To study. To go to school. He thinks it was between 10 or 15.
MH: When he started?
MH: Do you know how old you are?
Int: He doesn’t know. He guesses.
The respondent said he was 18 years old now, but he looked more like 16 years old to me. Later during the conversation the respondent said he was confused ‘because of the bullets’. For three of four former child combatants that I spoke to, I was certain their true age was not how old they said or thought they were – they all seemed younger.
These former child combatants get to stay in the camp for a minimum of three months and a maximum of nine months. During this period authorities try to locate family members and to reunite the children with their families – but, according to the stories I heard, this is often not very successful. Either families can’t be found or they are in the DRC, children who were recruited at a very young age might not know where they come from at all, etc. After finishing the Demobilization and Reintegration program, each person gets about €120 and a food package. They are encouraged by the two camp leaders to group together, to stay together, add up their money to be able to rent a place and maybe buy some supplies, like for example some simcards or postcards or other things they can sell in the street. There is no follow-up from the government.
The question is if in this situation the Rwandan government acts in accordance with formal law. Are these “all feasible measures” that can be taken to ensure protection and care for children who are affected by an armed conflict (CRC, art. 38.4)? Does the Rwandan government in this respect take ‘all appropriate measures to promote physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration of a child victim of (…) armed conflicts’ (CRC, art. 39)?
From my experience in the camp for former child combatants, I can positively confirm that this recovery takes place in ‘an environment which fosters the health, self-respect and dignity of the child’ (CRC, art. 39). The question is of course if all former child combatants get to go to the camp, but this seems likely since there is a follow-up situation from the point where children report to the UN up until they get to the camp, by the ICRC. However, I worry about what happens when children leave the camp. What do you do when you are a 15 year old child who, after spending six months in the camp, is put in the street with some money and some food (and maybe some friends)? Where do you go? What are you going to do? You are most likely traumatized by your experiences, you have hardly had proper schooling and now you have to survive, probably start your own business or work on a farm. I am not sure if the Rwandan government in this sense takes all appropriate measures. This situation, after children leave the camp, conflicts with Rwandan national law too, for example part two of art. 24: ‘A child who is temporarily or definitively deprived of his or her birth family shall be entitled (…) to a replacement protection which could consist of his or her placement in a foster family, an adoptive family or a placement in a relevant social welfare institution’. This does not happen. In this sense the Rwandan government can do more; they can for example find foster families for these former child combatants and provide opportunities for counselling if necessary. If they were to change policy in this respect, they have to take into account the fact that age in this situation is not a good designator anymore to decide whether someone is a child. A 15 year old child might say he is 18 years old.
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has expressed concerns with regard to military education of minors in the Netherlands, especially with regard to the vocational programmes VeVa (“Veiligheid en Vakmanschap”). This practice has been questioned by the Dutch Coalition of Children’s Rights in their OPAC report, published September 2014. As a result of this report, the UN Committee for the Rights of the Child has drafted a “list of issues”.
VeVa students during exercise (picture by Vrij Nederland)
This list of issues consists of ten points for which the Dutch government has to answer to the committee, before march 2015. The third issue, on the military vocational military education VeVa, is extensive; the Dutch government is asked to provide information on, amongst others, the content of the program, the military internships and the suitability of the guidelines used for children.
There are approximately 2500 students currently in the VeVa program, of whom most are under age 18. The Dutch children’s rights coalition has expressed concerns on these issues in the OPAC report. They are especially concerned with the military self-defense and mental training courses, for which the teacher’s manuals are the ones used for military training of both adults and minors. Research conducted by the coalition raised suspicion that these practices are regularly unsuited for minors.
The issues has already raised some concerns among the Dutch community and received some media coverage. Whether the expressed concerns by children’s rights organizations and the UN will have some effect on Dutch government policy is still uncertain. The issue will hopefully not be disregarded by the Dutch Ministry of Defence, but rather be seen as an opportunity to improve the military education programs. The OPAC report does conclude, after all, that there are certain benefits to this kind of educational program, provided that it does not have an adult military character.