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Child Justice in Kurdistan

Josh Dankoff, June 2023

Photo: AFP

Child Frontiers has been working with the Ministry of Justice of the Kurdistan Regional Government to map and assess the child justice system and support strategic planning.  During late 2021 and throughout 2022, we worked alongside UNICEF Iraq and Stars Orbit Consultants and Management Development. In this short article, Joshua Dankoff, one of three Child Frontiers researchers on this project, outlines the process and principal conclusions of this important work.


The research aimed to understand better how the child justice system in the Kurdish Region of Iraq (KRI) is organised and how it functions, with a view to generating evidence to inform justice system reform in the future. While the mapping focused on the formal system, it also explored how communities and families interact with the child justice system and the alternative restitution processes they seek.  Child Frontiers conducted mixed-method research. Building on a desk review, the team collected primary data from boys and girls (aged 13-17 years), adults, community leaders, faith leaders and service providers (including civil society organisations) in urban and rural sites in three Governorates (Erbil, Dohuk and Sulaimanyah).  Interviews were conducted with law enforcement, social service agencies, and legal bodies such as the Bar Association, The General Prosecutor's Office, the Judicial Council and Judicial Training Institute, and the Shura Council.   


Overall, the research revealed that the Government of the KRI is committed to promoting, protecting and fulfilling children's rights. This includes children in contact with the law, whether as child victims and witnesses, accused of crimes or offenders. The child justice system has many strengths, but the age of criminal responsibility remains low at 11 years.  There are few initiatives to prevent or mitigate the risk of children coming into contact with the criminal justice system, and children continue to be deprived of their liberty. Conditions in detention are poor, with limited opportunities for rehabilitation. And there remain inconsistent protective responses and reintegration services for children who have already been in conflict with the law.


The picture that emerged is a complex partnership among justice sector service providers who, despite resource limitations, demonstrate professional capacity and a genuine commitment to making the system work for children. According to respondents, adopting and integrating more international standards will support the achievement of a more child-friendly system. Two critical areas for consideration in future reform processes include customary justice and (alleged) association with armed groups.


Customary justice:  Across the board, respondents called for greater recognition of the entrenched and continuing role of customary (or traditional) justice systems. As in many societies, this system seeks reconciliation between the parties, typically relying on negotiations between families to resolve a dispute or mediation by clan elders, Sheik or Imams to help find a long-lasting solution. This is often a financial settlement.


The data from KRI showed a clear community preference for the customary justice system over the formal one. While justice sector professionals conceptualise the child justice system as formal services (represented, for example, by the police, prosecutors and judges), communities consider traditional mechanisms as the primary interface. As such, clan and religious leaders continue to respond to issues involving children in various situations.  


According to respondents, the customary justice system generally provides more timely, equitable, and even more “child-friendly” outcomes than the formal justice system. One respondent stated: “The tribal system will be chosen because it is fairer than the formal system. The people do not trust the formal system because they (formal actors) take bribes. The formal system is a strict system, and that is why the people do not go there.”


Children allegedly associated with armed groups:  One of the enduring and challenging legacies of the conflict in northern Syria, Iraq and KRI is the situation of children suspected of being associated with ISIS.  It is well-known that some of these children are being held in detention without recourse to the formal civil justice system.  Interviews show a considerable stigma towards children perceived to be associated with armed groups, even if the majority (purportedly 80%) are not considered to be among the rank and file of these groups. 


Reintegration of these children into the community is proving problematic. One community leader considers these young people victims, while another told researchers that he thought these children were simultaneously offenders (or perpetrators of a crime) and victims. In a context where the status of ‘victim of terrorism’ can yield certain government benefits, children accused of involvement with ISIS face administrative detention, mainly outside the child justice system, and extreme hardship in returning to the community.


The Ministry of Justice and UNICEF Iraq launched the full report in February 2023. The recommendations will form the basis for the Government’s reform priorities in the KRI.  


You can read the full results, analysis and recommendations here:

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