Statement by SRSG Radhika Coomaraswamy

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

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

The engagement of the General Assembly and its commitment to put the protection of children affected by armed conflict above partisan politics has been key to the work of my office and the work of all child protection partners. Since Graça Machel's report on the Impact of Conflict on Children, the General Assembly has served as the ‘enabler' of a strategic agenda to protect children. This year, Member States have once again ensured important advances for children.

In August this year, in resolution 1882 on children and armed conflict, the Security Council reiterated that sexual violence against children and the killing and maiming of children during conflict will not longer be tolerated, and parties that have a pattern of such behaviour shall be named and shamed by the Secretary-General in his annual report to the Security Council. The Council in passing this landmark resolution also held out the possibility of targeted measures against repeat offenders. In September, the Council also passed resolution 1888, calling for a Special Representative on Sexual Violence and the provision of information regarding  parties that commit sexual violence. The Council also calls upon the Secretary-General to deploy a team of experts to situations of particular concern. These developments stem from resolutions in the General Assembly through which Member States have collectively expressed their commitment to fight sexual violence in wartime, paving the way also for the Security Council to take decisive action.

Sexual violence against children shocks the conscience of the world. I have met girls in my recent trips who have described to me the terrible repercussions of sexual violence. Though there has been much coverage of this particular problem in places such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, this horrific violence against women, girls and even boys seems to be a pervasive and global phenomenon. Sexual violence may be a direct tactic of war but it also takes place because war often creates a climate of impunity where perpetrators take the opportunity to commit the most heinous acts of violence. I have met girls as young as thirteen years, carrying their babies born of rape. These are children bearing children, completely vulnerable, stigmatized and ostracized from their communities and some are even shunned by their families. These abominable acts of violence can no longer be tolerated, and all those with the power to stop such violations must re-enforce their will. This is an absolute obligation and moral imperative like no other. It is a litmus test for humanity.

Though there has been a great deal of attention on sexual violence against girls, boys too are often subject to abuse. In this context, I would like to highlight the practice of Bacha Bazi which takes place in many parts of Central and South Asia. Here, young boys are often taken by military leaders and war lords and made into male sexual slaves. They are often made to dance and provide entertainment for older men. This practice has been present in these societies since ancient times. Even the ancient Greek commanders were known for such excesses. It is time to openly confront this practice and to put an end to it. Religious leaders in Afghanistan appealed to me to assist them in combating these activities. Laws should be passed, campaigns must be waged and perpetrators should be held accountable and punished. Boys, as well as girls, should be protected so that they are allowed the full benefits of a childhood without exploitation.   

Killing and maiming of children, contrary to international law, has also been recognized as a trigger for international scrutiny. My report to you today also recognizes the need for international action on arms transfer, cluster munitions and land mines as measures that would help prevent unnecessary killing and maiming. We are also happy to note that in reviewing procedures in different war time contexts, commanders are now focusing on the need to protect civilians, thus making the protection of children an essential part of military planning. This is a welcome development. In the last decade, civilians have endured terrible suffering, either being used as human shields or as victims of what is euphemistically termed “collateral damage”. The changing nature of conflict in many theatres of war has posed major challenges for protecting civilians. Nevertheless, especially in this context, it is important that we reiterate our commitment to the Geneva Conventions and international humanitarian law which highlight the importance of separating civilians from combatants. Measures to protect civilians are essential and should be the centerpiece of any military strategy. I am also encouraged that that Member States are increasingly stipulating the protection of civilians as a tactical priority for UN peacekeeping operations, with the recent innovations of MONUC as a case in point. 

The recruitment and use of children as child soldiers continues to be an important part of the agenda relating to children and armed conflict. For five years, the Secretary-General has listed parties that recruit and use children. This naming has led to many groups entering into action plans with the United Nations and releasing children to UN reintegration processes. Recently, this took place in the Philippines, Uganda, Sri Lanka and Burundi. We also have high hopes for children who have started to be released in the Central African Republic, and things are also moving slowly but steadily in Myanmar. However there are still too many parties to conflict that have not entered into action plans. The UN country teams and my Office hope to focus on this protection challenge over the coming year. To do this we need the support of Member States and for the facilitation of access so that these action plans with non-state actors may be negotiated. We also need to take action against recalcitrant perpetrators. In this context, resolution 1882 establishes a procedure for communication between the Working Group on children and armed conflict and the sanctions committees. This is a first step in the process of taking action against those who still continue to recruit and use children, in violation of General Assembly and Security Council resolutions. To not take action against repeat offenders, those who have flagrantly disregarded the collective will of Member States, is rapidly becoming a fundamental issue of credibility.   

One of the consequences of children being used as child soldiers is that they are often made to commit terrible crimes. It is therefore very important that juvenile justice protections are in place for children who are being prosecuted. The International Criminal Court has made it clear that no person under 18 years of age will be prosecuted for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Even in Sierra Leone, the prosecutor, using his discretion, did not allow children to be prosecuted. It is for this reason that we are glad to note the release of Mohammed Jawad from Guantanamo, and we look forward to similar action being taken with regard to Omar Khadr. Children should be made aware of the gravity of their acts but not in the context of a war crime prosecution. Children may be required to undergo procedures related to truth and reconciliation commissions or other restorative justice measures that are relevant to their societies, so that they understand that certain types of behaviour will not be tolerated. But we must not forget that they are primarily victims of adult cunning and cruelty, and therefore should be rehabilitated and assisted to find a constructive role in society.

May 2010 marks the tenth anniversary of the adoption of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child relating to the recruitment and use of children. In February, on the eight anniversary of its entry into force, my Office plans to launch a world-wide campaign for universal ratification of the Protocol. We will do so in collaboration with our partners and we urge all Member States who have not ratified the Optional Protocol to do so as soon as possible.

Another group of children that need our increasing attention are children who are internally displaced due to conflict. In my present report, I have added an annex that lists what we feel are the Rights and Guarantees of IDP children. These Rights and Guarantees are based on the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement formulated by Francis Deng, and have been finalized in discussion with our partners. IDP children should not be discriminated against and should enjoy their rights under the CRC. Though we recognize the many concerns of IDP children, it is important to highlight the importance of education. Education should be an important part of emergency planning and should be one of the first services to be delivered. It is crucial that IDP children settle into a life of normalcy as soon as possible and a secure environment where they can learn and play, which is essential for their development.

This year gives special place to the promotion of child participation. It is important that children are consulted and participate especially in post-conflict settings. We welcome General Comment 12 of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, which sets out the framework for the participation of children.  In interviewing children through focus groups for the Ten Year Machel Review on Children and Armed Conflict, we found that children had clear insights into the causes and consequences of war and significant ideas on how they want to move forward. All this creative energy should be tapped and children should be allowed to participate, as appropriate, in making peace agreements and rebuilding their societies. In promoting child's participation we must also be wary of situations where children are forced to participate in political action by interested political groups pursuing their own agenda. In Nepal, we witnessed the devastating consequence for children and youth, when they are used as political footballs in a very tense political environment. Children should be allowed to enjoy their childhood and any participation must be free, voluntary and in the best interest of the child.

Mr. President, my report outlines the many positive developments with regard to mainstreaming the issue of children and armed conflict throughout the UN system from peacemaking, peacekeeping and peacebuilding. The most important development has been the formulation of a child protection policy by DPKO, which sets out a framework for DPKO participation in the monitoring of grave violations against children, training peacekeepers and advocating for child protection within and outside the mission. We feel that this policy should also apply to political missions with strong support from the membership.  With this policy in hand we can ensure that UN operations in these missions are particularly sensitive to child protection issues.

UNICEF, the lead agency for the protection of children continues to do tremendous work and is an indispensable partner. Other UN organisations such as ILO, OHCHR and UNHCR are also beginning to step up to the plate and important initiatives in the field have resulted in better protection for children. Additionally, the role of civil society and the efforts of national governments themselves must be acknowledged and supported. The Peacebuilding Commission has also taken up the issue of the longer term reintegration needs of children. Their efforts in the Central African Republic, led by Ambassador Jan Grauls of Belgium, are now beginning to bear fruit.

Finally, Mr. President, we must not forget the children. Aziz was a young boy I met in Erbil in Iraq. His family had fled to the Kurdish area from Anbar province. His father had been Sunni and his mother was Shia. His father and uncle had been brutally killed in Anbar in front of their families. His mother, afraid that her son would be recruited, and being Shia herself, fled the province. Aziz described a life of extreme hardship back home where children played with grenades and everyone was armed; where tribal assaults went hand in hand with modern political vendettas; where there was no peace and no security. In Erbil he had begun school again but found it difficult to concentrate. His voice trembled and his hands continued to shake while he spoke with us. The data on the psychosocial impact of war on children in Iraq has been devastating. It is estimated that half the children of Iraq have witnessed a major traumatic incident involving death or extreme violence, and that two out of five were experiencing some form of conflict related mental disorder. As I watched Aziz cling to his mother and speak to me without any light in his eyes, I realized that this sensitive boy had seen and witnessed horrors that were unspeakable and that would plague him for the rest of his life. War affects and destroys the most vulnerable. The primary duty of the United Nations, besides attempting to prevent wars and gross violations, is to help nation states take care of the victims of war and that means, Mr. President, taking care of the children. Everything depends on our uncompromising will and determination to succeed.