As terrorism has rapidly increased over the last 20 years, so too have States’ counter-terrorism strategies and the legislation that underpins them. While new measures are often not specifically targeted at children, they dramatically impact them, with children now routinely detained without charge for long periods under counter-terrorism powers in many countries. Meanwhile children convicted of offences, such as association with a terrorist group, are punished with harsh and sometimes extreme penalties; life imprisonment is not unusual, and in some countries children have been executed.

The artwork below first featured alongside CRIN research on anti-terror legislation, which shows how counter-terrorism measures in 33 countries across five continents are leading to extensive violations of children’s rights.


In developing their counter-terrorism strategies, States are obliged to ensure that human rights are promoted and protected in full. But States commonly regard human rights as an operational impediment and are allowing them to erode. No group has been more vulnerable to this than children and young people, particularly from marginalised minority groups. Needless to say that States need not violate the human rights of its public to tackle terrorism effectively, nor is there any advantage to be gained from doing so.


No international definition of terrorism has been agreed; negotiations on a comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism have long been stalled. In the absence of an agreed definition, States use the terms terrorism, extremism and radicalisation without consistency. This has blurred their respective meanings, as well as given rise to at least 250 separate criminal offences since the turn of the millennium.  


Children are also used by States for counter-terrorism operations, particularly as spies and informants. When children are used by armed forces or intelligence agencies, the practice exposes children to the risks associated with infiltrating a terrorist group (including the risk of being killed) and self-evidently puts children in harm’s way.


From a young age, children are potential targets of counter-terrorism surveillance. For example, their behaviour at school and online is increasingly monitored without their consent and sometimes without their knowledge for signs of interest in terrorism and terrorist groups. But when professionals such as teachers are already bound by a duty of care for children’s welfare, it exposes the practice of scrutinising children’s political interests and reporting them to law enforcement authorities for ‘suspicious’ behaviour as unnecessary and excessive.


The criminalisation of children who are drawn in to terrorist groups – and the harsh punishment that accompanies it – fails to recognise children’s vulnerability to manipulation and their consequent diminished culpability. When accused of terrorism offences, children can be subject to extended detention without charge or face harsh penalties that defy international human rights standards. In the worst cases, these punishments can include the death penalty and life imprisonment.


With few exceptions, States are largely failing to embed their human rights obligations into their counter-terrorism strategies and the legislation that underpins them. Many children are now falling foul of anti-terrorism legislation designed to counter adult perpetrators of major acts of terrorism. The criminalisation of children, the routine monitoring of their actions, and the use of children as spies and informants are all increasingly common practices that violate children’s human rights.

Related content: Counter-terrorism