SUBMISSION OF THE HUMAN RIGHTS AND EQUAL OPPORTUNITY COMMISSION
JOINT STANDING COMMITTEE ON TREATIES ON THE OPTIONAL PROTOCOL TO THE CONVENTION ON THE RIGHTS OF THE CHILD ON INVOLVEMENT OF CHILDREN IN ARMED CONFLICT
This submission is made by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (‘Commission') in response to the terms of reference issued by the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties inquiry into the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict (‘Optional Protocol').
The Commission supports ratification and implementation of the Optional Protocol. In this submission the Commission seeks to:
- provide the Committee with an overview of the obligations contained in the Optional Protocol and the extent to which they have already been adopted in Australian law; and
- bring to the Committee’s attention some of the considerations which, in the Commission’s view, support Australia ratifying the Optional Protocol and ensuring it is fully implemented in domestic legislation.
Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission
The Commission administers the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act 1986 (Cth) (‘HREOC Act').
The Commission’s functions are set out in section 11 of the HREOC Act and include the following:
- promoting understanding and acceptance of human rights in Australia;1
- promoting the public discussion of human rights in Australia;2
- undertaking educational programs for the purpose of promoting human rights in Australia;3 and
- examining relevant international instruments for the purpose of ascertaining whether there are any inconsistencies between that instrument and the instruments which are annexed to the HREOC Act, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child.4
Australian law on the involvement of children in armed conflict
For the most part, Australian law already complies with the minimum requirements contained in the Optional Protocol. The principal obligations are set out below, together with the corresponding domestic legislation and possible issues that arise in terms of compliance:
States Parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure that members of their armed forces who have not attained the age of 18 years do not take a direct part in hostilities.
The Commission notes that the term ‘feasible’ has been understood in treaties relating to war to mean ‘practicable or practically possible taking into account all circumstances ruling at the time, including humanitarian and military considerations’.5
Defence instruction (General) PERS 33-4 (‘Defence Instruction'), issued pursuant to s 9A of the Defence Act 1903 (Cth), came into force on 28 June 2002 and seeks to meet Australia’s obligations under the Optional Protocol. It provides that the Australian Defence Force (‘ADF') will take all feasible measures to ensure that minors (defined as persons under the age of 18 years) do not participate in hostilities. The Commission notes the Defence Instruction appears to surpass the minimum obligation of the Optional Protocol by including direct as well as indirect participation in hostilities, as it provides that all feasible measures are to be taken to ensure that minors are not deployed to areas of operations where there is a likelihood of hostile action.6
While the Commission welcomes the protections contained in the Defence Instruction, it submits that it would be preferable if such fundamental protections were incorporated into the Defence Act itself. Amending the Defence Act would place responsibility for these protections with Parliament rather than the Secretary for Defence and Chief of the Defence Force. This would better entrench these important protections.
States Parties shall ensure that persons who have not attained the age of 18 years are not compulsorily recruited into their armed forces.
The Defence Act provides that recruitment to the Australian Army is voluntary,7 and persons who have not attained the age of 18 years are exempt from service in the Defence Force in times of war.8 This is supplemented by the Defence Instruction which provides that the recruitment of minors must be voluntary.9
The Commission reiterates that it would be preferable to incorporate the provisions of the Defence Instruction into the Defence Act.
- States Parties shall raise the minimum age for the voluntary recruitment of persons into their national armed forces from that set out in article 38, paragraph 3, of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, taking account of the principles contained in that article and recognizing that under the Convention persons under the age of 18 years are entitled to special protection.
- Each State Party shall deposit a binding declaration upon ratification of or accession to the present Protocol that sets forth the minimum age at which it will permit voluntary recruitment into its national armed forces and a description of the safeguards it has adopted to ensure that such recruitment is not forced or coerced.
- States Parties that permit voluntary recruitment into their national armed forces under the age of 18 years shall maintain safeguards to ensure, as a minimum, that:
- Such recruitment is genuinely voluntary;
- Such recruitment is carried out with the informed consent of the person's parents or legal guardians;
- Such persons are fully informed of the duties involved in such military service;
- Such persons provide reliable proof of age prior to acceptance into national military service.
- Each State Party may strengthen its declaration at any time by notification to that effect addressed to the Secretary-General of the United Nations, who shall inform all States Parties. Such notification shall take effect on the date on which it is received by the Secretary-General.
- The requirement to raise the age in paragraph 1 of the present article does not apply to schools operated by or under the control of the armed forces of the States Parties, in keeping with articles 28 and 29 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.
The Defence Instruction stipulates that the minimum age for recruitment to the ADF will be 17 years,10 with the exception of entrants to military schools, apprentices and members of cadet schemes, which article 3(5) exempts from the minimum age requirement.
The Defence Instruction also provides that persons wishing to join the ADF must supply a copy of their birth certificate, must have the written consent of their parent or guardian, and must be informed of the nature of the duties and responsibilities involved.11 The Commission notes however, that the Defence Instruction does not require that the recruitment be ‘genuinely’ voluntary, or that the minor be ‘fully’ informed about their duties or that their parents or legal guardians give ‘informed’ consent, as is required under the Optional Protocol.
The Commission suggests that the protections contained in the Defence Instruction should be expanded to meet those requirements. The Commission also reiterates that those matters would be better dealt with in legislation.
The Commission notes that during the negotiation of the Optional Protocol many delegations and NGOs as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the special representative of the Secretary-General for children in armed conflict advocated a minimum age of 18 for voluntary recruitment.12 In addition, the Committee on the Rights of the Child has repeatedly recommended that states do not voluntarily recruit persons below the age of 18 years.13
While, subject to the reservations outlined above, Australia already meets the minimum obligations contained in the Optional Protocol, the Commission suggests that the Australian government consider taking measures to incrementally implement this recommendation. In the interim it might consider providing further protections for voluntary recruits under the age of 18 years (remembering that the requirements of the Optional Protocol are minimum standards).
- Armed groups that are distinct from the armed forces of a State should not, under any circumstances, recruit or use in hostilities persons under the age of 18 years.
- States Parties shall take all feasible measures to prevent such recruitment and use, including the adoption of legal measures necessary to prohibit and criminalize such practices.
- The application of the present article shall not affect the legal status of any party to an armed conflict.
The National Interest Analysis prepared by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade suggests that the obligation in Article 4(2) might be met by amending s 268.88 of the Criminal Code 1995 (Cth). Section 268.88 currently creates criminal offences of using, conscripting or enlisting persons under the age of 15 years in an internal armed conflict.
The National Interest Analysis suggests that increasing the minimum age below which it is an offence to use, conscript or enlist children from 15 years to 18 years would satisfy Australia’s obligation under article 4(2).
The Commission is of the view that if Australia wished to implement its obligation under article 4(2) in this way it would also be necessary to amend s 268.68 of the Criminal Code, which contains the same offences as s 268.88, but applies in international, as opposed to internal, armed conflict.
Nothing in the present Protocol shall be construed as precluding provisions in the law of a State Party or in international instruments and international humanitarian law that are more conducive to the realization of the rights of the child.
As regards the ‘provisions in the law of a State Party’, the Commission has suggested above that Australia consider adopting higher standards of protection for children involved in armed conflict than those contained in the Optional Protocol.
In relation to international instruments the Commission notes that the Additional Protocol II to the Geneva Conventions, which applies in non-international armed conflicts, provides that children who have not attained the age of fifteen years shall not be allowed to take part in hostilities.14
- Each State Party shall take all necessary legal, administrative and other measures to ensure the effective implementation and enforcement of the provisions of the present Protocol within its jurisdiction.
- States Parties undertake to make the principles and provisions of the present Protocol widely known and promoted by appropriate means, to adults and children alike.
- States Parties shall take all feasible measures to ensure that persons within their jurisdiction recruited or used in hostilities contrary to the present Protocol are demobilized or otherwise released from service. States Parties shall, when necessary, accord to such persons all appropriate assistance for their physical and psychological recovery and their social reintegration.
In the Commission’s view, the obligation in Article 6(2) to make the principles and provisions of the Optional Protocol widely known is a further argument for amending the Defence Act to enshrine the protections contained in the Optional Protocol. This would raise the profile of the protections and ensure that they are easily accessible to members of the public. The Commission understands that the Defence Instruction is only available upon written request to the Department of Defence.
Article 6(3) is likely to have limited significance for Australia given the absence of armed conflict in Australian territory. However, it would seem to require Australia to ensure that asylum seekers under the age of 18 years who have been involved in armed conflict are given all appropriate assistance for their physical and psychological recovery and their social reintegration. That might include creating a special category of visa for such children. This would also give effect to the pre-existing obligations in articles 22 and 39 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child to which Australia is already a party.15
- Each State Party shall, within two years following the entry into force of the present Protocol for that State Party, submit a report to the Committee on the Rights of the Child providing comprehensive information on the measures it has taken to implement the provisions of the Protocol, including the measures taken to implement the provisions on participation and recruitment.
- Following the submission of the comprehensive report, each State Party shall include in the reports it submits to the Committee on the Rights of the Child, in accordance with article 44 of the Convention, any further information with respect to the implementation of the Protocol. Other States Parties to the Protocol shall submit a report every five years.
- The Committee on the Rights of the Child may request from States Parties further information relevant to the implementation of the present Protocol.
The Commission understands that that this obligation would not significantly add to Australia’s existing treaty reporting mechanisms.
Considerations supporting ratifying and implementing the Optional Protocol
The use of child soldiers is a tragic and widespread problem. The United Nations estimates that 300,000 children are involved in armed conflict in over 36 countries. The Commission submits that ratification and implementation of the Optional Protocol would allow Australia to show leadership on this important issue.
The Optional Protocol entered into force on 12 February 2002 and has been ratified by seventy-two states. The Convention on the Rights of the Child16 is the most widely ratified international human rights instrument with 192 state parties. The near universal support enjoyed by the Convention gives it particular weight in the international community. Australia signed the Optional Protocol almost two years ago on 21 October 2002. The Commission submits that by ratifying the Optional Protocol Australia will add further momentum to the international effort to protect children’s rights.
- As a party to the Convention on the Rights of the Child Australia is already obliged not to recruit persons younger than 15 years, and where it does recruit persons between the ages of 15 years and 18 years to give priority to those who are oldest.17
As Australian law largely complies with the minimum standards contained in the Optional Protocol, only relatively minor changes are required to implement the Protocol. The Commission has highlighted those matters above. The Commission suggests that the Australian government consider ways in which it might progress beyond the minimum standards contained in the Optional Protocol.
- The Convention on the Rights of the Child requires that in all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.18 The Commission submits that ratifying and implementing the Optional Protocol is in the best interests of children as it contains important safeguards against their use in armed conflict.
As a final point the Commission notes the Convention on the Rights of the Child obliges States Parties to assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.19 The Commission encourages the Committee to seek the views of children who may be affected by the Optional Protocol (including those minors currently in the armed services and children who have come to Australia from areas of armed conflict).
- The Commission supports the ratification and implementation by Australia of the Optional Protocol. As the current Chair of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Australia has a unique opportunity to demonstrate human rights leadership in the field of children's human rights. Australia's signature and ratification of the Optional Protocol to would send a clear signal to the international community of the importance of these principles and Australia's continued commitment to their implementation.
- HREOC Act s 11(1)(g).
- HREOC Act s 11(1)(g).
- HREOC Act s 11(1)(h).
- HREOC Act s 11(1)(m).
- Michael Dennis, 'Newly Adopted Protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child', (2000) 94 American Journal of International Law 789, 791.
- Defence Instruction, instructions 10-11.
- Defence Act s 34.
- Defence Act s 59.
- Defence Instruction, instruction 8.
- Defence Instruction, instruction 4.
- Defence Instruction, instructions 5-7.
- Dennis, above n 5, 790.
Committee on the Rights of the Child ('CRC'), Report on the Second Session,
September/October 1992, UN Doc CRC/C/10, paras 61 et seq. See also Concluding Observations of the CRC, Argentina, UN Doc CRC/C/15/Add.35 (1995), para 3; Concluding Observations of the CRC, Germany, UN Doc CRC/C/15/Add.43 (1995), para 4; Concluding Observations of the CRC, Spain, UN Doc CRC/C/15/Add.28 (1994), para 3; Concluding Observations of the CRC, Uruguay, UN Doc CRC/C/15/Add.62 (1996), para 3.
Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, Relating to the Protection
of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts (Protocol II), art 3(c). Opened for signature on 8 June 1977, UNTS 1125, 609 (entered into force generally on 7 December 1978; entered into force for Australia on 21 December 1991).
Article 22 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child provides:
- States Parties shall take appropriate measures to ensure that a child who is seeking refugee status or who is considered a refugee in accordance with applicable international or domestic law and procedures shall, whether unaccompanied or accompanied by his or her parents or by any other person, receive appropriate protection and humanitarian assistance in the enjoyment of applicable rights set forth in the present Convention and in other international human rights or humanitarian instruments to which the said States are Parties.
For this purpose, States Parties shall provide, as they consider appropriate, co-operation in any efforts by the United Nations and other competent intergovernmental organizations or non-governmental organizations co-operating with the United Nations to protect and assist such a child and to trace the parents or other members of the family of any refugee child in order to obtain information necessary for reunification with his or her family. In cases where no parents or other members of the family can be found, the child shall be accorded the same protection as any other child permanently or temporarily deprived of his or her family environment for any reason , as set forth in the present Convention.
Article 39 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child provides: States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to promote physical and psychological recovery and social reintegration of a child victim of: any form of neglect, exploitation, or abuse; torture or any other form of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; or armed conflicts. Such recovery and reintegration shall take place in an environment which fosters the health, self-respect and dignity of the child.
- Opened for signature 20 November 1989, 1588 UNTS 530 (entered into force 2 September 1990; entered into force for Australia 16 January 1991).
- Convention on the Rights of the Child, Art 38(3).
- Convention on the Rights of the Child, Art 3(1).
- Convention on the Rights of the Child, Art 12(1).