UNICEF has reported that Boko Haram's use of children in "violent attacks," particularly suicide bombings, in the Lake Chad region has increased tremendously in 2017. At least 27 children have been used as suicide bombers in attacks orchestrated by Boko Haram from January through March of this year within Nigeria, Chad, Niger, and Cameroon. This is a three-fold increase from the nine documented child bombers used within the same period in 2016.
Unfortunately, these findings constitute only the most recent of the countless horrific acts the group has committed in the region. According to Makmid Kamara, Amnesty International’s interim country director for Nigeria, Boko Haram has conducted almost daily abductions and attacks in the region, most of which can easily be identified as war crimes or crimes against humanity.
Many times these acts are openly directed against children, such as the infamous and still unresolved abduction of over 200 Nigerian girls in 2014. But the use of children as actual perpetrators in the crimes stokes disagreement on how to handle any sort of prosecution, as some believe these children are then complicit in the acts. This is especially prevalent in the communities most affected by Boko Haram's activities. In fact, the same UNICEF report found that children who'd been held captive by Boko Haram typically must keep their experiences a secret, or risk violence and retribution from their communities upon their return.
Humanitarian officials have openly disagreed with such treatment, such as the UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa, Marie-Pierre Poirier. In a news release accompanying the report, Poirier insisted that these children are typically forced or deceived into committing these violent crimes, rather than taking part of their own will. The isolation that underage perpetrators experience at the hands of their communities may be just as traumatizing as their actual forced participation in the violence itself, further intensifying the harm inflicted upon them.
Although there is some controversy over whether children should be prosecuted for executing war crimes, and indeed some have been prosecuted in the past, the use of children in violent acts is considered a war crime in itself under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (1998). Additionally, the UN Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict (2000) prohibits the use of children in conflict by both state and non-state actors, and asserts that all care possible should be taken to ensure children are not used in such activities.
Access to the 2017 UNICEF report, Silent Shame: Bringing Out the Voices of Children Caught in the Lake Chad Crisis, can be found here.