Statement at the Paris International Conference “Free Children from war”



Radhika Coomaraswamy

Special Representative of the Secretary-General
for Children and Armed Conflict


Monday, 5 February 2007


Monsieur le Ministre, Mme Veneman, distinguished delegates,
and chers collegues:
Enchantée d’être parmi vous à l’occasion de cette grande manifestation, je voudrais remercier le Gouvernement français et l’UNICEF de nous avoir rassemblés pour que nous nous engagions ensemble à protéger les enfants, à empêcher qu’ils ne soient recrutés illégalement et envoyés au combat et à veiller que leurs droits fondamentaux ne soient plus bafoués en temps de guerre.

We have come a long way since Graça Machel’s ground breaking report to the General Assembly in 1996 calling the world’s attention to the needs and rights of children affected by armed conflict. While progress is being made, it is also true that today, in over 30 situations of concern around the globe, children are being brutalized and callously used to advance the agendas of adults. It has been estimated that over 2 million children have been killed in situations of armed conflict; another 6 million have been permanently disabled; and more than a quarter of a million children continue to be exploited as child soldiers. Thousands of girls are being subjected to rape and other forms of sexual violence and exploitation, and girls and boys are being abducted from their homes and communities. Schools and hospitals, which should be safe havens for children, are also increasingly becoming the targets of attack by armed groups. Further, in many situations, parties to conflict systematically deny humanitarian agencies access to areas under their control, with devastating consequences for civilian populations, especially children.

In the course of the past year, there have been new tragic experiences of terror and deprivation to which children have been subjected in many conflict situations, including the Middle East, Darfur and eastern Chad. In other situations, such as Haiti, where the dynamics of conflict are very different, children also face similar grave violations including systematic recruitment into armed groups, death and maiming, abductions and sexual violence. Further, recent evidence indicates that recruitment and use of child soldiers and other grave violations are beginning to “migrate” within regions such as in the Great Lakes regions of Africa. Although Herculean efforts have been undertaken to identify and re-integrate these children, the lack of long-term funding and integration into post-conflict programming, often results in vulnerability which breeds a population of abandoned children who are most apt to be enticed or forced into conflicts in neighboring lands.

I have just returned from a week long visit to the Sudan. This visit has only further highlighted the suffering of children in times of conflict.. I met with parents whose children had been killed by the conflict; children who had been recruited into the fighting forces of all sides to the conflict; girl children who had been subject to violence; and IDP children who have had no real access to humanitarian aid. No schools, few hospitals, trapped in a situation of abject poverty. However, I was encouraged by my discussions with the Government of Sudan and other parties and the commitments made to end recruitment and use of children as well as to combat sexual violence. We look forward to their timely implementation.

International protection instruments – ending impunity

Having visited conflict zones and seen the suffering and the hope of children who await or have been re-integrated with their communities, I find myself asking why? Why, ten years after Machel and five years since the first Cape Town conference on re-integration of child soldiers must we continue to speak of reintegrating thousands of children across the globe who have been abused as child combatants, porters, spies and sexual slaves? More must be done to stop these abuses, to bring those responsible to justice.

While the situation on the ground is a reminder that there is no room for complacency, we should nonetheless acknowledge significant steps being made to protect children from armed conflict. To date over 114 countries have ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict. This call for action to protect children in situations of armed conflict was most recently reaffirmed by Heads of State and Government at the 2005 World Summit. I urge those governments that have not yet done so to consider action on this and for those that have already ratified, to take the necessary measures to prohibit and criminalize practices such as the recruitment and use of children in armed conflict by armed forces and groups.

Significant initiatives are now underway to end the impunity of groups who repeatedly commit grave violations against children in situations of conflict and to protect children from the scourge of conflict.

In 2005 the Security Council adopted Resolution 1612 which calls for the establishment of a monitoring and reporting mechanism and the creation of a Security Council Working Group on Children and armed conflict. In the year since the adoption of this resolution, the Security Council Working Group (SCWG) has been set up and meets regularly under the able Chairmanship of Ambassador de la Sablière of France. At the same time, steady progress has been made in establishing the monitoring and reporting mechanism in the seven situations that were designated as priorities for the first phase of implementation, namely Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Somalia, the Sudan, Nepal and Sri Lanka. To date, the SCWG has examined reports from all situations except Sri Lanka and Nepal which will be reviewed later this week. In addition, the SCWG receives on a bimonthly basis a ‘horizontal note’ covering other situations of concern or updates since the last reporting period. The intention is that reports to the Working Group should serve as “triggers for action” by the Council and other relevant players, resulting in pressure upon parties to conflict to halt violations against children.

Already we are able to identify some significant results, including the decision of armed groups to enter into dialogue with UN Teams on the ground and commit to an action plan to release all children associated in their forces. Recent cases include groups such as the ‘Force Nouvelles’ in Côte d’Ivoire who, under concerted pressure from the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Côte d’Ivoire and from UNICEF, submitted an action plan to prevent recruitment and to release children associated with their forces. More recently, both UNICEF and my office have received a commitment from Colonel Karuna, leader of the Tamil Makkal Viduthalai Pulighal (TMVP) in Sri Lanka, to collaborate with UNICEF on developing and action plan to prevent recruitment and to release all children in its ranks. Similarly, the Karen National Liberation Army, who have been reported to be recruiting from refugee camps in Thailand, have also signaled to the UN country Team in Thailand and through a letter to my Office indicating a commitment to take action to ensure that no children are within its ranks, and would cooperate to allow unhindered UN access to monitor and verify compliance to non-recruitment. My Office is currently liaising with the UN Country Team to finalize a deed of commitment and action plan to address the Karen National Liberal Army indications.

Other important precedents in motion to end the impunity through the application of international child protection standards include, the confirmation of charges this week by the ICC against Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, founder and leader of the Union of Congolese Patriots in the Ituri region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for commission of war crimes, conscription and enlistment of children under the age of 15 and the use of children for active participation in hostilities; and the arrest warrants issued by ICC for five senior members of the insurgent Lords Resistance Army (LRA), including its rebel leader, Joseph Kony, who is charged with 33 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the forcible enlistment and utilization in hostilities of children under 15 years.

Significantly, national processes in the Democratic Republic of the Congo also recently saw the successful prosecution, conviction and sentencing of Major Jean-Pierre Biyoyo of the Mudundu Forty armed group by the National Military Tribunal in South Kivu, for the recruitment and use of children in armed conflict. Additionally for the first time, a former head of State Charles Taylor of Liberia, was transferred into the custody of the Special Court for Sierra Leone under indictment of 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including “conscription or enlisting children under the age of 15 years into armed forces or groups, or using them to participate actively in hostilities”.

All situations of armed conflict and equal treatment of all children regardless of where they live

While the above examples give testimony to a growing movement toward ending the impunity of violators of child rights and in particular the recruitment of child soldiers, we must also move towards expanding the focus of our efforts to all situations of armed conflict so that there is equal treatment of children regardless of where they live. In addition, greater focus needs to be given in our collective efforts, to other grave violations such as: killing or maiming of children; attacks against schools or hospitals; abduction; rape or other grave sexual violence against children; and denial of humanitarian access for children.

Ensuring protection for especially vulnerable children: the girl child and internally displaced children (IDPs)

As noted in the guidelines before us, the girl child remains particularly vulnerable in situations of armed conflict. The girl child is often forced to play multiple roles in conflict. She is often sex slave, mother, domestic aide and combatant at the same time. Yet it is the girls that tend to be over-looked in post conflict demobilization and reintegration strategies and special measures must be implemented along with proactive engagement on the part of all actors to ensure that the girl child is not only protected but empowered when she is reintegrated into society.

Refugee and internally displaced children, as well as unaccompanied, separated children or child headed households are particularly vulnerable in situations of armed conflict. Strategies to protect these from recruitment, abduction and attack are critical and need to be supported to the fullest.

Inclusion of children in peace agreements sustained DDR

Various peace agreements signed over the last few years including in Côte d’Ivoire, Burundi and Sudan have included child protection provisions and a framework for child demobilization. Such provisions are gradually being incorporated in more agreements and we hope will be standard paragraphs in all peace agreements where children have been combatants.

The guidelines before us emphasize that the reintegration of children formerly associated with armed groups requires a sustained approach. On the one hand, there is the need to be able to respond immediately to commitments for the release of children, while on the other hand, evidence suggests that reintegration into communities is a process that takes time, and requires sustained support. This needs to be reflected in humanitarian, peace building and national development efforts. Too often the sustained support for child reintegration efforts drops from the radar of donor aid policies in the transition from emergencies to development assistance. Longer term reintegration efforts including, specific measures for youth employment, need further attention.

Finally, I would like to share with you the lesson I have learned from my field visits: Terrible things have happened to children, but children are also resilient. They need encouragement, guidance and support; and with the proper care they can become outstanding members of society. Ishmael Beah, who is with us today, is a perfect example of this. This young man, a former child soldier from Sierra Leone, adopted by an American mother, went to school and university in the United States, graduating with honors. He has just written a book about his experiences as a child soldier. His moving piece, painful in parts, is full of wisdom and understanding, pointing to the fact that children can heal, and when they do they can become a beacon of light for all of us. It is our duty to assist them and learn from them.

Thank you