Statement by Ms. Leila Zerrougui,
Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict

Presentation of the Report of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict to the Human Rights Council

31st Session of the Human Rights Council
Geneva, Tuesday 8 March 2016

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Watch Leila Zerrougui’s presentation at the Human Rights Council

Mr. Chairman,
Distinguished delegates,
Dear colleagues,
Ladies and gentlemen,

I am honoured to be here today with Ms. Santos-Pais to provide an update to the Human Rights Council on the situation of children and armed conflict and participate in this interactive dialogue.

Every year I have reported to this body it has been said that the plight of children in armed conflict has worsened. Unfortunately, this trend has not changed. The report before you notes that increasingly complex, widening and relapsing conflicts showed no signs of abating since the end of 2014. In many situations around the world, a shocking disregard for international law is in evidence and impunity is prevailing.

The conflict in Syria will be five years old next week, the situation in Iraq declined with the intensification of activities against ISIL, and there is rising tensions and violence in the State of Palestine and Israel. In Nigeria and neighbouring countries, Boko Haram conducted frequent suicide attacks, often using young girls. Reports of fighting in South Sudan in the latter part of 2015 painted a picture of horrific violations; despite yet another peace agreement signed in August last year. In Afghanistan, there were nearly 3,000 child casualties in 2015. The highest number recorded since 2009. In each of these situations, but also in many others, children are paying a very high price for the actions of adults.

Yemen is also a conflict of particular concern with intense aerial bombardments and ground combat that has been on going for almost an entire year. The information received by my Office demonstrates an over five-fold increase in child casualties and child recruitment in 2015. These trends continue with more than 90 children killed since the start of 2016. I urge all parties to the conflict to show restraint and act in accordance with international humanitarian law during the conduct of hostilities. I call upon the Human Rights Council to reinforce this message.

As my report notes, these conflicts have led to an increasing number of refugees and internally displaced persons who are fleeing conflict, almost half of whom are children. This is a challenge we have yet to come to terms with; and the discourse surrounding children displaced by armed conflict is concerning. Obligations of States of origin, transit and destination must not be discarded on the basis of national security, or even just due to popular opinion. It is our responsibility to remind States of their obligations to protect children displaced by conflict.

The report also highlighted the prevalence of armed groups that perpetrate extreme violence. These groups have committed unspeakable atrocities against children, and tested the response capacity of national authorities and the international community alike. Whilst recognizing the challenges that States face in addressing the threats posed by such armed groups, responses that do not comply with international law risk inflicting further harm on civilians and aiding the very groups Governments seek to combat.

This body has an important role in ensuring that human rights, including those of children, are respected, even when Member States face what may seem like existential challenges. Holistic approaches are the only way to sustainably address the challenge.

Education is a key factor in countering extremist discourses. Every child, everywhere, has the right to a quality education. However, this right is compromised for millions of children affected by conflict. In conflict settings, thousands of schools have been destroyed and teachers killed. The impact of attacks on education – even after a short period of hostilities – has long-term consequences. Ensuring quality education for all is one of the Sustainable Development Goals. The 2030 Agenda promises to leave no-one behind. We must use all opportunities, such as the upcoming World Humanitarian Summit, to ensure that funding to provide education, and healthcare, for children affected by armed conflict is not forgotten.

Deprivation of liberty of children on national security charges and without due process is another area affecting thousands of children in today’s conflicts. It is worrisome that children allegedly associated with armed groups are increasingly treated as security threats rather than as victims, particularly in the context of counter-terrorism operations. I commend the work being done by human rights bodies and mechanisms to ensure due process for all those deprived of their liberty and I encourage Member States to support these efforts.

I urge those in this room to ensure that the plight of these children is given due attention, particularly in the context of the Universal Periodic Review. We must keep in mind that boys and girls are being recruited and used because we have failed in our duty to protect them. Failing to treat children primarily as victims of recruitment will only create legitimate grievances, prevent reintegration and, ultimately, could lead to further instability.

In light of the increase in grave violations against children, accountability is critical to prevent further violations and provide redress to victims. As the Secretary-General said at the opening of this session a week ago, the Human Rights Council’s special procedures, commissions of inquiry and fact-finding missions are essential tools for accountability. In addition, we must also support national authorities in times of conflict and post conflict to pursue accountability for violations against children. The Democratic Republic of the Congo serves as a clear example where political will, combined with support by the international community, can translate into tangible progress to end impunity for grave violations against children.

Mr. Chairman,
Despite the daunting challenges children have faced over the past year, important progress has been achieved. The “Children, Not Soldiers” campaign is on-going, with strong support from Member States, regional organizations, United Nations partners and civil society. It is two years and two days since the Campaign was launched. Building on the steady progress to date, we must redouble our efforts to catalyse advancements in the coming year.

Some of the Campaign countries have seen an escalation in conflict and increased security challenges, which I have mentioned. While it is unlikely that all Government forces will be delisted by the end of 2016, a number have demonstrated clear commitments and commendable progress. I have asked those Governments to galvanize efforts to finalize the implementation of their Action Plans. I am confident that progress is possible, but this will require Member States’ collective support for Campaign countries.

In this regard, I am very pleased to congratulate Somalia for ratifying the Convention on the Rights of the Child late last year. I also welcome Myanmar’s signature of the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict and hope that they follow Bahamas and Kiribati, who recently ratified OPAC. I hope that these States, and all that sign these crucial international treaties, implement the provisions faithfully.

A number of field visits allowed me to engage in dialogue with Governments, including Campaign countries. I recently travelled to Afghanistan and saw the positive impact of the campaign. The Government has made commendable progress in the implementation of the Action Plan. However, a critical period for the country lies ahead and support from the international community will be crucial to crystalize the gains achieved.

Child protection is of course inextricably linked with peace efforts and we must ensure that we prioritize this element. The recent ceasefire in Syria is an example of peace efforts having a clear impact; it is imperative that we ensure it holds as it is providing vital respite to children. I have also seized the opportunity of peace negotiations to advocate for strengthened protection of children, including in Colombia, Central African Republic and Myanmar. In Colombia, I am very hopeful that the release and reintegration of child soldiers will be a next step in reaching a lasting peace. I have also been in direct contact with non-State armed groups from Sudan and Myanmar, and there is discernible progress.

When discussions with parties to conflict bear fruit, resources need to be mobilized quickly to support the release and reintegration of children, with special attention paid to the needs of girls. I ask that Member States commit to providing technical and financial support to reintegration programmes. Experience has shown that effective reintegration is a strategic intervention, which can benefit long term stability and peace.

Mr. Chairman, distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen,
Despite this progress, the weight of violations from armed conflict is sitting heavily upon our shoulders. The daunting challenges can only be addressed through innovative and broad collaboration. It is clear that the children and armed conflict mandate is only as strong as the support that it receives. I aim to continue to strengthen relationships with the Human Rights Council, human rights mechanisms, Member States, regional organizations, civil society and partners within the United Nations to sustain efforts to protect children. Only with your support will we be able to work together to confront these challenges and improve the situation of children affected by armed conflict.

Thank you.