Distinguished Members of the Human Rights Council,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
As I am honored to be here today to update you on the situation of children and armed conflict, schools are about to reopen and millions of children around the world will miss this opportunity because of conflict.
During my recent visit to Syria and neighboring countries I met many children and their families, displaced or refugees, who expressed to me the horrors of the conflict, their fears and their preoccupation for their children’s education.
In one of the many camps I visited, a woman shared with me that her oldest child had not been to school since the beginning of the conflict and that she had enrolled her daughter to begin elementary school, but when the time came, there was no school to go to as it had been destroyed. Since the start of the conflict in Syria, 3 million children have either sought refuge outside the country or are internally displaced, and since the last school year, nearly two millions have dropped out of school.
Syrian children are not alone: in all conflict situations, grave violations have continued unabated. Not only children have been deprived of the right to education but – every day – they are killed and maimed, victims of sexual violence, recruited and used by armed forces and groups. Children are also forced to witness and commit atrocities and they are arrested, detained and ill-treated for their alleged association with parties to conflict.
During the period under review, Somalia has remained the country with the largest number of children associated with armed groups; the relapse into conflict in Central African Republic and eastern DRC has affected the most vulnerable, and children previously separated from armed groups and forces have been re-recruited. Reports on the situation in these countries describe a continuing and alarming trend of grave violations committed against children. Children also bore the brunt of the conflict, which broke out in northern Mali, where armed groups have recruited and used hundreds of children.
Conflict affected children around the world are vulnerable to the use of all means of warfare, especially when they are employed in disregard of universally accepted principles of proportionality, distinction and precaution. Parties to conflict must do more and can do more to minimize killing and maiming of children in the conduct of military operations, and international treaties banning cluster munitions and chemical weapons must be respected.
All places, which are traditional save havens for children, are now too often on the frontline. Attacks on schools and hospitals remain of grave concern in many conflict situations: They have been bombed, used as military barracks and prisons, or closed because of insecurity. Education and medical personnel are targeted and attacked. But children’s rights to education and health are disrupted gravely also by displacement, as well as by acts of indoctrination and interference in school curricula, while girls’ access to education in particular is denied in many conflict situations.
Mr. President, Members of the Council,
Advances in national legislation and policies are underway in many countries, including the DRC, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Colombia and Chad. However, too often they fail to translate into effective protection for children and accountability for child rights violations remains rare.
To advocate for the end of grave violations against children and elicit commitments by parties to the conflict, I undertook field visits to Yemen, Syria and Chad, as well as a regional visit to Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Syria.
In the context of my visit to Yemen, I was able to secure the Government’s commitment to end recruitment and used of children, which resulted in the adoption last week of an action plan elaborated with the support of the United Nations system. Following my visit to Chad, joint efforts by the Government and the United Nations system are ongoing towards reaching full compliance with the Action Plan signed in 2009. In countries neighboring Syria, I witnessed the daunting challenges faced by host governments, the United Nations and child protection partners to alleviate children’s suffering and to mitigate the impact of conflict and displacement.
I have also engaged with non-state armed groups to end and prevent grave violations against children: I opened dialogue with the leadership of the Al-Houthi armed group in Yemen; in Syria, I established contact with commanders of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Dialogue with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in the Philippines is ongoing to accelerate and fully implement the Action Plan signed in 2009.
Furthermore, since the last report to this Council, the Democratic Republic of the Congo signed, in October 2012, an Action Plan to end the recruitment and use, as well as sexual violence against children. Similarly, the Transitional Government of Somalia signed in August 2012 an Action Plan to end killing and maiming of children, the first of this kind to be signed by a Government.
Mr. President, Members of the Council, Ladies and Gentlemen
As a result of these efforts, and of the work of my predecessor Radhika Coomaraswamy, I am pleased to report that, of the eight Government security forces currently listed for recruitment and use of children in the Annex of the Secretary-General’s Annual report on Children and Armed Conflict, seven have already adopted Action Plans, while active dialogue is ongoing with the Government of Sudan.
Building on this momentum, I have decided to launch a global initiative to end the recruitment and use of children by Government security forces in armed conflict by 2016. This initiative aims to deepen cooperation with Governments that have committed to ending under-age recruitment. I have initiated bilateral consultations, which will be complemented by country-specific strategies to expedite the implementation of Action Plans and support concerned Member States in achieving full compliance. These measures will be undertaken in close collaboration with other child protection actors both within and outside the United Nations system.
Mr. President, Members of the Council
I wish to welcome the advances achieved by Member States at the multilateral level in furthering international legal frameworks for the protection of children and achieving greater compliance with existing international legal obligations: the adoption of the Arms Trade Treaty by the General Assembly in April 2013 constitutes an important opportunity for child protection, in that – once entered into force – it will determine a prohibition of arms sales to State Parties that engage in child recruitment, falling in line with the long-standing interpretation of the Committee on the Rights of the Child. I also wish to welcome five additional ratifications of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict (OPAC), bringing the total number of ratifications to 152. I wish to further commend the development of the Lucens Guidelines aimed at setting standards for armed forces and groups in their interactions with schools, school children and teachers.
Mr. President, Members of the Council,
The role of the Human Rights Council, through the panoply of tools at its disposal and its broad mandate encompassing all human rights, is especially important to ensure children’s rights at time of conflict. While a lot has been done in monitoring, responding and preventing grave violations against children, the Human Rights Council, through its thematic and country-specific Special Procedures, can greatly contribute to strengthen protection of children at times of conflict.
I call on the Council to include child protection concerns and violations of child rights in armed conflict, in all new and renewed mandates of its Special Procedures and Commissions of Inquiries. I equally encourage mandate-holders to continue to highlight and address child rights violations in armed conflict in their work, including to foster greater accountability for perpetrators.
Greater focus is needed to ensure that children’s economic, social and cultural rights are protected even at times of conflict. I wish to invite this Council, its Advisory Committee and the United Nations System as a whole to work together to identify practical solutions to ensure that children have access to education and healthcare that responds to their specific needs and circumstances during conflict and displacement.
I further call on Member States who have not yet done so to ratify the Optional Protocol on the involvement of Children in Armed Conflict as well as the Arms Trade Treaty, and to translate these obligations into concrete actions at the national level. I also call on Member States to endorse and incorporate the Lucens Guidelines into their legislation, military doctrine and manuals to better protect schools from military use.
Finally, I wish to call on Member States, the United Nations system and on child protection partners to work together towards achieving the goal of ending recruitment and use of children by armed forces in conflict by 2016.
Mr. President, Members of the Council,
Ladies and Gentlemen
The protracted war in Syria and renewed instability in many parts of the world did not spare children, who continue to bear the brunt of today’s conflict. We must strengthen our collective action to respond to the plight of conflict-affected children; if we fail to protect their rights, their schools and ultimately their future we call into question our common and longstanding commitment to uphold human rights and international humanitarian law. We must do more to translate these commitments into action and to save children from the scourge of conflict. I count on your support in redoubling together our efforts.