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Juveniles in Somalia face abuses in sentencing in the war-torn nation as conflict between the government militias and the al-Shabaab Islamist group continues. Children in rural communities are being captured to serve as child soldiers for the insurgent group. These children later face criminal prosecution and sentencing for involvement with al-Shabaab. These procedures are in violation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and International Labour Organization Worst Form of Child Labour Convention.

Throughout the last decade, al-Shabaab has implemented a recruitment campaign which involves taking children between the ages and nine and fifteen away from their families and rural communities to hand them over to serve as child soldiers with the militant group. Al-Shabaab was successful in taking at least fifty children in a village named Bulo Fulay last September alone, and thousands of children throughout Somalia over the last ten years. Communities that refuse to comply face death threats, abductions, and physical violence from the militant group. In order to avoid forced recruitment into the insurgent military, hundreds of children in Somalia have fled their homes.

Moreover, children who are captured by al-Shabaab suffer “mistreatment and hardship” at the hands of the government, according to Laeitita Bader, Human Rights Watch Senior Africa Researcher. According to the United Nations (UN), hundreds of male children have been in government custody for alleged association with al-Shabaab forces. While child soldiers can be tried for some serious crimes, international legal standards require those proceedings to consider the age of the detainees and for the government to consider non-judicial measures.

A report entitled, “’It’s Like We Are Always in a Prison’: Abuses Against Boys Accused of National Security Offenses in Somalia,” documents the abuses by al-Shabaab against hundreds of boys who were detained by the Somalian government for alleged involvement with al-Shabaab. For example, fifteen-year-old Hamza was tried for insurrection and terrorism after he was forced to fight for al-Shabaab in 2016 and was sentenced to ten years in prison. The report further recounted that detained child soldiers were held in the same cells as adult detainees, denied legal counsel, and cut off from communicating with their families. Furthermore, the detained children received inconsistent treatment as a result of the corrupt detainment proceedings – some are released after families bribe the government, others are handed over to reintegration centers, while the rest face serious criminal charges before military courts.

On January 18, 2018, thirty-six children were captured by al-Shabaab soldiers, leading to a week of negotiations between the militant group, the UN, and child protections advocates. Somalia’s government has vowed to turn in detained children to United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) for rehabilitation services, but the federal government’s past conduct has not been reliable. Since 2015, the Somalian government has handed over 250 children to UNICEF, most of whom had spent significant time in detention already.

The Somalian government’s conduct in detaining al-Shabaab’s juveniles associated with al-Shabaab and trying them for serious crimes punishes children who were forced to serve as soldiers. Human Rights Watch recommends that Somalia ends arbitrary detention of children and find independent monitoring of detention facilities, consider alternatives to detention, and allow for basic juvenile justice protections when detention is necessary. Somalia ratified the CRC in 2015 which discourages nations from bringing children before military courts. Moreover, in 2014, Somalia ratified the International Labour Organization Worst Form of Child Labour Convention, which places restrictions on recruitment of child soldiers. While the Somalian government has international obligations to prevent recruitment of juveniles in armed conflict and to consider the age of detained al-Shabaab associates, it has not incorporated these duties into its domestic laws. The Somalian federal government should adhere to its international commitments and make efforts to hand over detained child soldiers to UNICEF for rehabilitation, rather than subject them to criminal prosecution as adults.