Sierra Leone, Demobilization of Child Soldiers

Demobilizing children from armed forces and armed groups in Sierra Leone: 2001–2002

IHL says

Basic international humanitarian law (IHL) rules applicable to this situation:

Children affected by armed conflict are entitled to special respect and protection. 

Children must not be recruited into armed forces or armed groups. 

Children must not be allowed to take part in hostilities. 

The case in brief

Between 1991 and 2002 Sierra Leone was ravaged by armed conflict involving government forces and non-state armed groups. Thousands of children were recruited to the ranks of the various parties. Many had never been to school.

Between May 2001 and January 2002, in the context of a large-scale demobilization, disarmament and reintegration (DDR) programme aimed at restoring peace and security in the country, the parties to the conflict released more than 6,500 children. Cooperation between the parties and the international community, including the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), was essential to the success of the process and sought to support the children’s return to civilian life.

IHL compliance highlights

  1. In May 2001, in the framework of peace negotiations and under a UN-backed DDR programme, the parties to the conflict issued a joint statement committing to releasing children who had been recruited.
  2. By January 2002, the parties had released 6,845 children in accordance with the programme.
  3. The following actions contributed to the children’s successful demobilization, made possible by cooperation between the parties to the conflict and the international community:
    • public information campaigns raised awareness of the peace agreement among armed groups and the wider public, helping gain their support for the DDR process
    • UNAMSIL deployed 17,500 troops to ensure adequate security
    • child advocacy groups, including UNICEF, helped prepare the children for their return to communities at transitional care centres; 3,000 children benefited from UNICEF community educational programmes to support their reintegration and help prevent child recruitment in future.

Case prepared by pro bono research assistant, Adv. Romina Liberman, under the supervision of Adv. Yael Vias Gvirsman, Clinic Director, IDC University; with the contribution of Jemma Arman and Isabelle Gallino, LL.M. students at the Geneva Academy.



[Source: BBC News, Sierra rebels free child soldiers, May 26 2001, available at]

Sierra rebels free child soldiers
Rebels in Sierra Leone have released nearly 600 child soldiers as part of a process of ending the West African country's decade-long civil war.
Oluyemi Adeniji, the head of the United Nations mission in Sierra Leone, said the release "clearly demonstrates the commitment of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) to the total stoppage of war".
It comes a week after the RUF released more than 200 child soldiers - but thousands of children have been forced or cajoled into the conflict.
Children have carried out some of the worst atrocities of the war, including hacking off the limbs of enemies and civilians.
"We are happy that these children who should have been in school and playing with their companions have now dropped their guns," Mr Adeniji said.
But correspondents say the children, some as young as six, will be traumatised for a long time by their horrific experiences.
Signs of progress
The release of the child soldiers is another sign that progress is being made towards ending the civil war in the country, after an announcement ten days ago that rebels and pro-government militias had agreed to start disarming.
A joint statement after the talks said both sides had agreed to give up child soldiers who had fought for them after being abducted from, or cajoled, to leave their villages.
The RUF, which has brought havoc to the country since it embarked on its rebellion, says it will begin a programme of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration into society without delay.
Both sides will hand over their weapons to United Nations peacekeepers.
The UN peacekeeping force numbers about 12,000 and is the largest of its kind in the world.
A peace accord agreed in Lomé in 1999 collapsed a year ago after hundreds of UN peacekeepers were taken hostage by rebels.
But in recent months, the outlook has been more positive, with UN peacekeepers advancing into some rebel-held areas.


[Source: UNICEF, The Disarmament and demobilization and reintegration of children associated with the fighting forces, Lessons Learned in Sierra Leone, 1998-2002, available at]
[…] By the end of the process in January 2002 a total of 72,500 combatants had been demobilised, of which 6,845 (92 % boys and 8 % girls) were children. The official percentage of children demobilised in relation to adults was 9.5 %. The number of children who bypassed formal systems to move from a military to civilian existence is unknown. The length of the conflict was such that the majority of children recruited, particularly to the RUF, were adults at the time of any formal demobilisation process.
UNICEF and child protection agencies continue to review their role and how best to manage children’s best interests in DDR processes. A key part of this is improving coordination with other agencies consistently involved in the process and defining clear responsibilities with governments in place. […]


[Source: United National Mission in Sierra Leone, Fact Sheet 1: Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration, December 2005, available at]
[…] A 17,500-strong contingent of peacekeepers provided security as the DDR [Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration] got under way, thereby improving significantly the effectiveness and pace of the programme. This allowed UNAMSIL to do a careful balancing act; combining flexible and decentralized disarmament procedures with “fast-track” demobilization. Special arrangements set up at care centres with the assistance of UNICEF and other child advocacy groups provided benefits to child soldiers and the dependants of combatants. Another important feature of DDR was the use of public information campaigns to publicize the details of the peace agreements and the DDR exercise as well as to raise awareness among the rank and file of the rebel groups.
The majority of the over 6,800 demobilized child soldiers were reunited with their families. Some 3,000 were absorbed into the community educational programmes run by UNICEF. As a result of these arrangements, Sierra Leone’s model for demobilizing and reintegrating child soldiers is widely considered as success that could be applied to other peace- keeping operations. […]


I. Classification of the Situation and Applicable Law
1. How would you classify the situation between the government of Sierra Leone and the Revolutionary United Front? What additional information would you require in order to make such a determination? Under which conditions would Additional Protocol II be applicable? (GC I-IV, Art. 3; P II, Art. 1)
II. Children in Armed Conflicts
2. What special protections are children afforded in non-international armed conflicts?  Do they differ from those prescribed for international armed conflicts (P I, Art. 77; P II, Art. 4(3) and 6(4)CIHL, Rules 135-137)
3. Do children have a right to education in times of non-international armed conflicts under IHL? (P II, Art 4(3)(a); CIHL, Rule 135)
4. At what age may a person be recruited into the armed forces or armed groups in a non-international armed conflict? Is it different for State armed forces and armed groups? Had Sierra Leone ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child at the time of the armed conflict? (P II, Art. 4(3)(c)CIHL, Rules 136-1371989 Convention on the Rights of the Child, Art. 38(2) Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, Art. 1)
III. Elements Contributing to Respect for IHL
5. (Document A) What factors may have encouraged the Revolutionary United Front to release the children? Was it linked to the general process of disarmament and peace?
6. Considering the reactions of UN entities in the texts, how did the international community interpret the release of the children by the rebel group? How might the local population perceive this act?
7. What has been the impact of peacekeepers and UNAMSIL on the demobilisation of child soldiers in Sierra Leone? What was UNICEF’s role? In your opinion, was the coordination between the different agencies efficient?
8. (Document C) Why was the DDR process in Sierra Leone considered a “success”? What factors seem to have contributed to such positive results? In your opinion, how important is it to raise awareness among rebel groups and to publicise the content of the DDR program?