In a new report submitted to the Human Rights Council, Leila Zerrougui, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, describes unprecedented challenges for the protection of tens of millions of children growing up in countries affected by conflict.

Among the events that shocked the world’s conscience were the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and other groups espousing extremist ideologies who used extreme violence that directly or indirectly targeted children. The abduction and/or killing by Boko Haram of hundreds of girls and boys from their schools in north-eastern Nigeria  were examples of the group’s brutal tactics, total disregard for basic human rights and targeted attacks against schools that have had regional repercussions on the education of children. The UN has also received reports indicating that both Boko Haram and ISIL are recruiting children.

The South Sudan Democratic Movement\Army has a large number of children in its ranks. ©SRSG-CAAC

One of the many children observed in the ranks of the South Sudan Democratic Movement\Army in June 2014. ©OSRSG-CAAC

The recruitment and use of children became endemic in the conflicts in South Sudan and the Central African Republic. In both cases, ethnic and/or religious divisions, fueled by power struggles, resulted in the killing and maiming, sexual violence and other grave violations against thousands of children. The right to education and health, already weak in both countries, has been seriously compromised.

There remained no end in sight for the conflict in the Syrian Arab Republic, and children continued to bear the brunt of the violence. In the State of Palestine, at least 539 children were reportedly killed during the Israeli military operations launched in Gaza between 8 July and 26 August 2014. Thousands more were injured and suffered life-long disabilities or lost family members, homes, schools and hospitals in the bombings. The situation in Libya and Yemen is equally alarming and has continued to deteriorate in 2015.

In all of those countries, children were killed, maimed, abducted, sexually abused, and recruited and used by armed forces or groups. Their schools and hospitals came under attack and they were too often denied access to vital humanitarian assistance. We have seen the highest number of displaced persons since the Second World War, including millions of children. Whether displaced within or outside of their home countries, children are particularly vulnerable and face additional challenges to access health care and education. In some cases, Government response to conflict, through their own armed forces or militias, created additional risks for children.

The proliferation of crises, coupled with the imperative to provide adequate assistance to children in countries affected by protracted conflict, has put the United Nations response mechanisms to the test. Responding to the long-term psychological impact and reintegrating children formerly associated with armed forces and groups will require more resources than are available today. The needs of children exposed to the violence carried out by extremist groups will pose even greater challenges to which we must prepare a structured and coordinated response. At the end of the year 2014, the Special Representative concluded that, more than ever, children — often the majority of the population in countries affected by conflict — continue to be the most vulnerable to the impact of war.

To contribute to the system-wide response, the Special Representative strengthened her collaboration with United Nations partners to foster accountability for perpetrators of human rights violations by improving the monitoring and reporting of grave violations against children. She used every opportunity and fora to bring the plight of children to the forefront and to provide information on human rights violations committed against them. In reaction to the increase in attacks against schools and hospitals, she launched a guidance note on the topic to strengthen the United Nations response through effective use of the tools provided by the Security Council.

Addressing grave violations of children’s rights is imperative and all parties to conflict who commit crimes must be held to account. In 2014, progress to ensure that appropriate judicial responses were in place to address grave violations against children during conflicts was observed at national and international levels. However, the wave of violence that has occurred against children, particularly as perpetrated by extremist groups, has compounded the challenge of addressing accountability comprehensively, due to the breakdown of law and order in the areas under their control.

Despite the daunting challenges that lay ahead, years of constructive engagement with parties to conflict to end the recruitment and use of children are starting to bear fruit. The Special Representative welcomes the emergence of a consensus among the governments of the world that children do not belong in armed forces, especially in conflict. The Special Representative seized the opportunity to turn the page on the recruitment and use of children by government forces and launched, jointly with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the campaign “Children, Not Soldiers”. The campaign aims to end and prevent the recruitment of children by government forces by the end of 2016.

Read the Special Representative’s full report here