Statement to the General Assembly Third Committee by Radhika Coomaraswamy, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict

Thursday, 12 October 2006

Thank you Mr. Chairman, Distinguished delegates,

I am delighted to address you today for the first time in my capacity as Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict. I have undertaken this important assignment with the deepest sense of responsibility to the children, many of whom I have met in person in my former capacities including as Special Rapporteur of the Commission of Human Rights on Violence Against Women.

I would like to take this opportunity to pay special tribute to my predecessor, Mr. Olara Otunnu, for his vision and work in bringing the protection agenda for children affected by armed conflict agenda to this advanced stage. The progress that has been achieved is due in large measure to the concerted and collective efforts of member states, key United Nations entities and NGOs and civil society partners. I would like to emphasize my intention to work closely with the members of the General Assembly during my mandate to consolidate the gains that have been achieved and advance further the agenda, and I will seek continuously to foster collaboration and partnership of all the key stakeholders in our collective endeavors.

Mr. Chairman,

We have come a long way since Graça Machel's seminal report on the “Impact of Armed Conflict on Children,” and it is somehow appropriate that this year marks 10 years since the General Assembly first received that report and subsequently decided to establish the Mandate of the Special Representative. In the past year in particular important strides have been taken to promote the application of internationally recognized protection standards for children affected by armed conflict, including the establishment of a monitoring and reporting system.  However, we must work harder and more closely together than ever and maintain the momentum and the political will to make an 'era of application' of protection standards a reality, in the fight against impunity. Further political leadership and determined efforts are still needed to ensure that impunity of persistent violators of crimes against children during times of conflict is not acceptable or tolerated.  I urge the General Assembly to take a strong stand on this issue.

I would also like to take this opportunity to note that since the last General Assembly, 8 additional countries have now ratified the Optional Protocol of the Convention on the Rights of the Child on recruitment and use of children. The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict presently has 121 signatories and 107 parties. I commend those who have ratified this important instrument, and urge those member states that have not yet done so, to consider action on this.

Situation of children affected by armed conflict

More than anything else, it is the real stories of the children that bring home most forcefully a sense of the horrors that are being visited on children in the context of armed conflict, and the tremendous challenges that we face in healing the survivors and getting them back to their families and communities. I have been especially touched by one such story:

In 2000, the United Nations in Sierra Leone demobilized a boy – – “Abou” – – who had been abducted by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) from his school in Kenema.  He was only 11 years old at the time of his abduction. Four years later, by the age of 15, Abou had become a killer – – a known and feared commander of the RUF rebels — one of the youngest. Abou, together with many other child soldiers, received amnesty for atrocities committed during the conflict in Sierra Leone. And although his community accepted Abou back, it was clear that many in the community were still afraid of and angry with the boy and he was quite isolated. Six months after being re-united with his family Abou disappeared. In 2003, Abou was among a number of children disarmed and demobilized in neighbouring Cote d'Ivoire. He told a story of leaving his community in Sierra Leone because he was “haunted by bad spirits,” and of being re-recruited to fight for the LURD rebels in Liberia. He later went as a mercenary to Cote d'Ivoire together with other LURD fighters. In an interview with United Nations staff, Abou explained, “I left because what I really know how to do is fight and be a soldier, but there is peace in Sierra Leone”.

Abou's story illustrates a terrible tragedy: of the trauma of children and the communities that they have been forced to brutalize; of the tremendous challenges to successful healing and reintegration of children into communities in the aftermath of conflict; of the recycling of children into conflicts that shift rapidly across borders; and, of children and young people who take up lives as mercenary fighters because war has become one of the only viable economic options in many of the situations around the globe that have been ravaged by long periods of conflict. These are our children, on whom all hopes for the future are pinned. In stark opposition to the commitments of the international community and the significant progress that has been made on the children and armed conflict agenda, grave violations against children in situations of concern continue to be perpetrated on an alarming scale. Thousands of children are being directly affected, both as victims of violence and as perpetrators of terrible atrocities against their own communities. The resulting mental and physical trauma of these children represents a grave threat to durable peace and sustainable development, as cultures and cycles of violence are perpetuated.

It is evident also that fighting groups have developed brutal and sophisticated techniques to separate and isolate children from their communities. Children are often terrorized into obedience, consistently made to fear for their lives and wellbeing. They quickly recognize that absolute obedience is the only means to ensure survival. Sometimes they are compelled to participate in the killing of other children or family members, because it is understood by these groups that there is 'no way back home' for children after they have committed such crimes. In an interview with United Nations staff in Liberia, a boy of 13 years admitted that he felt that he could not return to his family because he knew that his father would be angry with him for bringing men to the village who had raped and killed his mother in front of the whole family. He said that he had brought the men to the village because the commander had told him that he was going to be taken back to his family – – “after that the rebels became my family and I did everything to please my father [the commander]”. The considerable challenges in healing and re-integrating children into their communities in the aftermath of conflict is sometimes further compounded by severe addiction and dependency of children to hard drugs such as cocaine. In Sierra Leone, for instance, a volatile mixture of cocaine and gun-powder was often given to children to make them fearless in battle. And, because children are now also the instruments of brutality, sometimes committing the very worst atrocities, reintegration is often a complex process of community healing and atonement, and negotiation with families to accept their children back. All these dimensions of the experience of child combatants carry significant implications and challenges in terms of design and resources needs for psycho-social and other re-integration programming.

It is clear also that there are categories of children who are especially vulnerable in situations of armed conflict, such as girls, refugee and internally displaced children, and child-headed households. These children require our special advocacy, attention and protection. The girl child is often the victim of sexual violence and exploitation, and increasingly girl children are being recruited into fighting forces. In intervention initiatives for war-affected children, such as community-based re-integration programmes for children associated with fighting forces, it is girls that are most often being by-passed, even though they are in greatest need of care and services. We miss girls in our interventions because many of them are unwilling to come forward in the first place, to be identified as “bush wives” or to have their children labeled as “rebel babies”. Communities often stigmatize and ostracize girls because of their association with rebel groups and the 'taint' of having been raped.   Often, rebel groups categorically refuse to give up the girls at all even after commitments have been made to release children, because even where associations between perpetrators and victims have begun with abduction, rape and violence, over several years 'family units' have developed which include babies born of rape.  The impact of war on children and the spread of HIV/AIDS is also a factor that needs to be recognized.   In terms of programmes response, all of these factors represent critical challenges for the international community, and more often than not, resources available fall short of the scope and complexity of the challenges. A deeper understanding is required of the acute vulnerability of girls in situations of armed conflict, which should inform more gender-sensitive strategies and protection and programme responses. 

Evidence indicates that refugee and internally displaced people's camps are often prime recruiting grounds for child soldiers because of the convenient concentrations of children in these zones. These children also face severe protection risks during flight as well as outside camp boundaries that can include killing or maiming, sexual violence, abduction and trafficking. In Darfur, Sudan, for instance, the international community has witnessed alarming levels of sexual violence, often as a deliberate strategy of humiliation and ethnic cleansing. Such attacks have been directed especially against the large populations of internally displaced girls and women. In many places, the collection of water and firewood outside the boundaries of camps has become a life-and-death gamble for girls.

Importance of the General Assembly

Together we can and must change this picture, and the General Assembly is crucial in this regard. You have shown your resolve to protect war-affected children and expressed this commitment in various ways in the past years. Notably, children and armed conflict was specified as an explicit concern in the General Assembly Summit Outcome document of the 60th session, signaling that this issue ranks as one of the most important concerns for the community of nations. The General Assembly has been the critical 'enabler' of the children and armed conflict (CAAC) agenda, establishing the mandate of the Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict  in 1997 and renewing it most recently during its 60th session for a further period of 3 years.   The decision last year to move the Office of the Special Representative to the regular budget of the United Nations has also been critical, giving my Office unprecedented stability and capacity to continue this important work.

Strategic Framework

One of my first priorities since taking office earlier this year was to prepare, in close consultation with partners, a strategic framework for the work of my office over the next two years.  The strategic plan is outlined in my report to the General Assembly (A/61/275), and a more detailed document is now also publicly available, and will be posted on the new website of the Office which will be launch on October 18th.

Broadly, the objectives of this plan are:

Supporting global initiatives to end grave violations against CAAC – – to struggle against impunity and to ensure accountability.

Promoting rights-based protection for CAAC, especially for girl-children, IDP and refugee children.

Making CAAC concerns an integral part of Peacekeeping and Peace-building, and working closely with DPKO and the Peacebuilding Commission

Raising awareness in regard to all other issues relating to CAAC before, during

and after conflict – – in particular on problems relating to the reintegration of child soldiers

In pursuit of these objectives we will focus strategically on:

Monitoring and reporting of grave violations – – especially the monitoring and reporting mechanism set up under SC Resolution 1612.

Advocacy to raise awareness on CAAC and for concrete actions to halt and prevent violations as well as for rehabilitation and re-integration programmes through field visits and a communications strategy.

Working in partnership, coordination and mainstreaming of all aspects of the CAAC agenda with member states, UN partners and NGOs, in a consultative and inclusive process

Research and study to broaden and deepen the knowledge base on this issue, especially issues relating to the girl child, the boy soldier and transitional justice and its impact on children

Security Council Resolution 1612

2005 saw some very significant advances, including the adoption by the Security Council of its landmark resolution 1612 (2005) on children and armed conflict. The resolution requests the Secretary-General to establish a mechanism to systematically monitor and report on six grave violations, and establishes a Working Group of the Security Council on Children and Armed Conflict to review information emanating from the mechanism and to recommend appropriate action to the Council on this basis. One of my priorities will be to ensure that the advances that have been made in the framework of the Security Council are consolidated and further strengthened. Now that this first phase of implementation is coming to an end, it is time to look beyond the limited scope of the first phase and to broaden the geographical scope of the monitoring and reporting mechanism to all situations of concern where grave violations are perpetrated against children in armed conflict. 

Aspirations of war affected children for the GA resolution on the rights of the child

Our aspirations for this General Assembly session is for a further strengthening of the segment of the omnibus resolution on the Rights of the Child that deals with children and armed conflict, and I count very much on your strongest support and consensus in this regard. A number of important messages should be reflected in the resolution, including:

Need for even broader and stronger consensus and concrete action of the international community for the enforcement of international standards for the protection of all children affected by armed conflict

Focus of equal care and attention to children in all situations of concern (including the implementation of the monitoring mechanism in all situations), and equal consideration of all grave violations

Adequate funding for programmes for the rehabilitation and reintegration of all children that have been associated with armed forces are critical to secure the long-term sustainability and success of such interventions. The collaboration, and the coordination, as well as the collective actions on behalf of CAAC by all the key stakeholders, especially Members States, UN entities and NGOs are therefore essential.

I would also urge that the General Assembly call for a strategic review of progress and remaining challenges on the agenda, 10 years after the submission to the Assembly of the Graça Machel report on the “Impact of Armed Conflict on Children”. Ideally, the results of this review could be presented to the General Assembly at its next session under this agenda item.

                                                ===     ===     ===

Mr. Chairman,

This has been a terrible year for children in armed conflict.  The recent war in Lebanon and other conflicts around the world where far more children (and civilians) have been killed than combatants point to the fact that we have entered a dangerous era where the basic principles of international humanitarian law, the foundation of all our work, is now being called into question.  The distinction between civilians and combatants, the principle of proportionality and the refusal to use civilians as human shields are principles that have sustained traditional armies and restrained the brute use of force.  In the past, all combatants would create the humanitarian space for the protection of children.  Today, we are facing an uphill battle to ensure that these principles remain entrenched.  I call on all member states and non state actors to abide by internationally recognized rules of war so that children will be protected in times of conflict.

At this crucial moment, I am reminded and challenged by Graça Machel's words, and would close my remarks with these:

'We cannot waste our precious children. Not another one, not another day. It is long past time for us to act on their behalf – the impact of conflict on children is everyone's responsibility and it must be everyone's concern. ”

Thank you.