By Catherine Harwood, Leiden University
The Rome Statute prohibits the use of children under fifteen years to ‘participate actively in hostilities’ in international and non-international armed conflicts [arts. 8(2)(b)(xxvi) and 8(2)(e)(vii)]. Trial judgments in the Lubanga and Katanga cases interpreted ‘active participation’ broadly to include both ‘direct’ and ‘indirect’ participation in hostilities. Recently, Pre-Trial Chamber II committed Bosco Ntaganda to trial for charges including the use of child soldiers, and implicitly followed this approach. However, Mr. Lubanga is currently appealing his conviction, including on the basis that ‘active’ participation should be limited to ‘direct’ participation in hostilities.
This contribution argues that in light of the drafting history of the Rome Statute, the current interpretation of ‘active participation’ should be sustained. ‘Indirect’ participation which exposes children to real danger should be prohibited, without requiring a nexus between the activity and loss of civilian protection. This would preserve the intended ‘buffer zone’ of protection, so that children’s participation in risky combat-related activities is prohibited, even when they retain civilian protection.
In practice, the Rome Statute’s semantic inconsistencies, inherited from international humanitarian law (IHL), could be ameliorated by using ‘direct participation’ to denote the general limit of civilian protection, and ‘active participation’ to refer to the use of child soldiers. This approach would also encourage greater consistency between the English and French versions of the Statute.
- Active and direct participation under international humanitarian law
In IHL, parties to an armed conflict must distinguish between civilians and military objectives, and attacks directed at civilians are prohibited. Civilians lose this protection when they take a ‘direct part in hostilities’ [Additional Protocol I, art. 51(3) and Additional Protocol II, art. 13(3)]. To make matters more complicated, the limit to civilian protection in Common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions is ‘active’ participation. However, only the English texts contain this irregularity. The term participent directement (direct participation) is used consistently in the French texts, and ‘active participation’ is not recognised. Nicole Urban suggests that this indicates “a uniform meaning across IHL”, and that ‘active’ and ‘direct’ are synonyms.
‘Direct participation’ is not defined in conventional IHL. The ICRC’s Interpretive Guidance provides a narrow definition which comprises a certain threshold of harm, direct causation of harm and a belligerent nexus [p. 93]. Direct participation generally encompasses activities likely to cause harm to the adversary’s military capacity or operations.
IHL also prohibits the participation of children in hostilities. AP I, art. 77(2) requires that children do not take a ‘direct’ part in hostilities. AP II does not contain any threshold: art. 4(3)(c) simply states that children must not ‘take part’ in hostilities. These rules are identical in English and French texts. The ICRC Customary Rules also articulate that customary international law simply prohibits children to “take part in hostilities”.
Why then does the Rome Statute specifically prohibit ‘active’ participation of children in hostilities, in both French and English? To understand this peculiar phrase it is necessary to revisit the statutory drafting history. Continue reading →