High-level Side Event on rehabilitation and reintegration of children affected by armed conflict:

“Sharing best practices on psychosocial rehabilitation and social reintegration in the field”

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

11 July 2016

Your Majesty,
Your Excellency, Mr. Didier Reynders, Deputy Prime Minister of Belgium and Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Affairs,
Mr. Anthony Lake, Executive Director of UNICEF,
Mr. Gilbert Houngbo, Deputy Director-General of ILO,
Ms. Ilse Derluyn, Coordinator of the Centre for Children in Vulnerable Situations
Mr. Kabba Williams [former child soldier from Sierra Leone],

Your Majesty,
I wanted to sincerely thank you for dedicating your time and interest to this crucial issue of reintegration of children affected by armed conflict. This topic is not receiving the attention it deserves, especially given the multiple and complex crises we are facing today. Your presence sends a powerful message to the international community and Member States and is a great source of encouragement.

I also want to thank you at the outset for the support that your Government and your team in Brussels and in New York have provided not only for this event but continuously for my mandate over the years.

Excellencies, dear Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am extremely grateful that the distinguished panelists are here to share their views and experiences on the reintegration of children.

As we gather here today, we have legitimate reasons to celebrate progress but also great cause for concern.

Exactly 20 years ago, Graça Machel presented a groundbreaking report to the General Assembly illustrating the appalling conditions of children in situations of armed conflict. She explained how boys and girls caught in war were not only victims but also direct targets of violence and made recommendations on how to better protect them. The position I hold today is a result of her proposals. My mandate, created by the General Assembly two decades ago, aims to strengthen child protection mechanisms and give children affected by war a voice.

In twenty years, we have achieved important advances: The issue of children and armed conflict has been placed clearly on the international peace and security agenda; we are nearing the universal ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict; progress was evident in terms of accountability for child recruitment through international justice mechanisms; the campaign “Children, Not Soldiers” that we launched with UNICEF has helped consolidate the global consensus that children do not belong in armed forces in conflict. We are now engaged in action plans with all Government security forces listed for the recruitment and use of children and we have notable progress to report in most of these countries. This consensus –unthinkable 20 years ago – is an important milestone for the protection of children.

And yet, despite the tremendous progress achieved, we cannot ignore that children continue to bear the brunt of armed conflict.
We must ensure that they receive adequate support to overcome the long-term effects of war, particularly if they were involved in hostilities as child soldiers. Providing reintegration opportunities for children affected by conflict is not only a moral and legal obligation incumbent upon us, but also an important pillar to create sustainable peace. The lack of appropriate reintegration for former child soldiers may have negative long-term effects for them and their communities, including broader impacts on economic development and social cohesion.

Every year, thousands of children need support for reintegration. In 2015, about 8,000 children were released in CAR, South Sudan, DRC and Myanmar and providing them with adequate services is a huge task. In 2014, I visited Pibor, in South Sudan, where I met with David Yau Yau, the leader of an armed group. He was surrounded by dozens of child soldiers and he told me he was ready to release them, which he did a few months later.

The United Nations, and particularly UNICEF, had to quickly put in place programs for over 1,600 children, in communities that lacked services and were devastated by conflict.

This example demonstrates that reintegration programs should be included in every phase of humanitarian planning and financing in countries affected by conflict.

Your Majesty, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Having outlined the importance and challenges of reintegration of children affected by war, I would like to speak about solutions and principles of reintegration.

First and foremost, the best interest of the child must be at the heart of any reintegration program. It is very easy to lose sight of this principle when there are competing political or economic interests. Another fundamental principle is that children associated with armed forces or armed groups should be considered primarily as victims. If they are accused of serious crimes allegedly committed while they were associated with armed groups, wherever possible, alternatives to prosecution and detention should be found in order to facilitate reintegration and avoid further stigmatization. This principle is particularly important to keep in mind in the context of violent extremism.

Also, the specific needs of girls have to be taken into consideration. Girls have vulnerabilities unique to their gender and status in society and suffer specific consequences to rape and sexual violence such as pregnancy and pregnancy related complications, stigma and rejection by families and communities.

Also, I cannot stress enough the importance of making educational and vocational programs a priority in all reintegration efforts. Offering former child soldiers an alternative to bearing a weapon, may be the most important aspect of reintegration. We must give these boys and girls hope that they can once again become integral and valued members of their communities. Equally important is the need to engage with and adequately support the communities receiving children separated from armed groups.

Your Majesty, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Reintegration is indeed a challenge, but we can draw on successful examples from the past and adapt them to current needs.

I can mention a positive example from my own experience in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Some of you may have met Junior Nzita, who spoke last year at the Security Council. Every time I speak to him, he tells me how lucky he was to have had the opportunity to go back to school. Education opened doors that allowed him to find his purpose and to acquire the tools to rebuild his life.

And you will hear more from Kabba who travelled to join us and will share with you his testimony.

There are many other children, like Junior and Kabba yearning to regain their stolen childhood. The next opportunity for Member States to support a much-needed reintegration process will be in Colombia where, as part of the peace process, the Government and the FARC-EP have committed to end the recruitment and use of children under 18 and to release all children associated with the groups. After 50 years of conflict, this is a vital step for the future of peace in Colombia that requires our support.

Your Majesty, Excellencies, dear Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Today, we have a unique opportunity to underline the fundamental importance of reintegration. The UN, NGOs and Member States, can make concrete commitments to better support the children who need reintegration by:
– ensuring programs receive appropriate financing through rapid emergency and long-term funds;
– being an active voice in changing the perception of child soldiers, particularly in the debate on violent extremism. These children, more than any other children affected by conflict, are in need of tailored psychosocial support and reintegration processes;
– finally, supporting educational and vocational opportunities for these children.

I very much look forward to today’s discussion and hope this is the beginning of a broader dialogue to give all children affected by war the hope and tools necessary to create their own future. While the cost of reintegration may seem large, it is insignificant compared to the cost of protracted conflict.
Your Majesty,
Three years ago, you decided to dedicate your first official visit abroad to the issue of child rights. I am sure your presence here with us will further strengthen our collective determination to continue with this important task and will hopefully reinforce our appeal to Member States. In the words of Graça Machel ‘The impact of armed conflict on children is everyone’s responsibility. And it must be everyone’s concern.’

Thank you.