Watch Leila Zerrougui’s remarks at the UN Security Council

Statement by Ms. Leila Zerrougui,
SRSG for Children and Armed Conflict

Open Debate of the Security Council on Children and Armed Conflict
2 August 2016 – Security Council Chamber

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Mr. President, Secretary-General, Mr. Lake

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to start by expressing my gratitude to Malaysia for organizing this open debate and thanking you all for attending.

The Secretary-General has just outlined how children continue to be the primary victims of armed conflict. This was Graça Machel’s most troubling conclusion in her report twenty years ago.

Click to read a summary of the Annual Report of the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict

Click to read a summary of the Annual Report of the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict

Unfortunately, despite concerted effort and significant progress, we have not yet changed this fact. The report before you notes that a multitude of prolonged and increasingly complex conflicts are having a devastating impact on children. In a number of situations, a shocking disregard for international law is in evidence and impunity prevails.

In 2015, armed groups and government forces killed, maimed, recruited and used, and inflicted sexual violence upon tens of thousands of boys and girls. There were over two thousand attacks on schools and hospitals documented in 19 out of 20 situations in the report. Abduction remained a widespread concern with over four thousand incidents in 2015. Conflict also impacts children in ways that are not captured by the report’s statistics. Children lose their parents, they are disabled due to easily curable illnesses and they suffer long-term psychological trauma.

As the Council is well aware, children have been significantly affected by violent extremism. Many groups operating today defy the norm that attacks must not be directed against civilians and they commit routine and brutal acts. To give an example, this April in Iraq, ISIL publicly executed a 15 year-old boy who they accused of being a “disbeliever”. The boy was tied between two cars that were driven in opposite directions. While the challenges faced by Member States to address these groups and protect civilians are evident, security responses that do not comply with international law inflict further harm. They even risk aiding the very groups Governments seek to combat.

The besiegement of civilians by Government forces is unconscionable. Airstrikes and the use of explosive weapons in populated areas by international coalitions or individual Member States are an acute concern. They have contributed to some of the highest numbers of documented child casualties. Extra judicial killings and torture of civilians has also been reported in territory liberated from armed groups. Governments are increasingly using militias to fight in support of their forces. These groups frequently lack the respect for, or even understanding of, international humanitarian law. The ongoing reports of recruitment and use of children by this group of actors are another concern.

Counter terrorism legislation is being broadly applied in many situations without appropriate check and balances. Children are being apprehended based on alleged links to non-state armed groups or on expansive interpretations of protecting national security. Civilian courts are being marginalised and juvenile justice is inexistent. Children can be held for months or even years by military or intelligence actors. If a child goes before a judge, it is often in a military or special court where due process and fair trial standards are sorely lacking.

Even children have been sentenced to death. Just two weeks ago, in Somalia, I met boys condemned to death for their alleged association with Al-Shabaab. This cannot be an acceptable outcome for children when they are rescued from armed groups. Many have been abducted and forcibly recruited and are primarily victims. Detention is also employed in some situations as a tactic to recruit and use children for intelligence gathering purposes. I cannot emphasize enough the danger they are put in when they are used in this way. Reports of children being executed by armed groups for suspicion of collaboration with Government forces are all too common.

The lack of respect for international humanitarian law is also having ramifications beyond conflict zones. As the Secretary-General noted, children are being displaced in ever increasing numbers. Unfortunately, the response from some Member States has not always been in the best interests of children. We must do more; including supporting the small number of conflict affected Member States which host 90 per cent of the refugee population to provide basic services.

Mr. President, Excellencies,

While the overall picture today is not positive, we cannot forget that progress has been achieved and continues in many places.

I would like to seize the opportunity of briefing the Council in the 20th year since the creation of the mandate to briefly reflect on some key accomplishments. Since the Secretary-General’s first report to this body, more than 115 thousand children associated with parties to conflict have been released as a result of dialogue and Action Plans. To date, 25 Action Plans have been signed with parties to conflict. Nine parties have fully complied and were delisted – in Chad, Côte d’Ivoire, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Uganda.

The Children, Not Soldiers campaign has also helped to consolidate the emerging global consensus that child soldiers should not be used in conflict. With the Government of Sudan signing an action plan earlier this year, the United Nations is now engaged in implementing a written commitment with all Member States listed for recruitment and use of children. Since the launch of the campaign, there has been a significant reduction in verified cases of recruitment and use of children by national security forces, especially in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Myanmar. I call on all concerned Governments, and on all those who can provide support, to do their utmost to fully implement these Action Plans.

Peace processes continue to represent a vital opportunity to engage with parties to conflict on child protection. Most recently, in Colombia, the Government and the FARC-EP concluded an historic agreement to separate and reintegrate all children associated with the armed group. The agreement’s successful implementation will be an important signal to parties in other protracted conflicts that committed dialogue can lead to results.

The United Nations is also engaged in dialogue with listed armed groups in the Central African Republic, Mali, Myanmar, the Philippines, Sudan and South Sudan. Years of work with Governments to improve legislative frameworks, to build institutional capacity, and to address challenges such as birth registrations are bearing fruit. I am pleased to say that this engagement has helped thousands of children in the last 18 months alone. I urge national authorities to support ongoing and future discussions with armed groups on action plans so that many more can benefit.

The coordinated action generated by this mandate is at the heart of these achievements. The dedication and tireless efforts of Member States, UN colleagues, civil society and many more have and continue to bring about positive change for boys and girls living in communities ravaged by war. This shows that when parties to conflict faithfully engage, where there is political space to act on behalf of children, we are able to achieve results.

Mr. President, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

We are mandated to work and to achieve results with Governments and non-State armed groups, operating in the world’s most difficult environments.

As the Secretary-General noted, the goal of the report before you today is not to cause discomfort, but rather to bring about change for boys and girls confronted by violations the international community considers abhorrent. Our work often involves a difficult balancing act, but the tools developed by this Council to address grave violations against children are invaluable. The progress I have just outlined demonstrates that they are pragmatic, constructive, and powerful enough to convince parties to conflict of the urgency to protect children.

Our success depends on our impartiality, on the credibility of the tools at our disposal, and on the international community’s support for our work. I want to reiterate my support for our dedicated colleagues on the ground who work tirelessly to achieve results.

Despite successes over the years, there is no denying that the overall picture of violations in situations of armed conflict is extremely worrisome. Concerned Governments bear the primary responsibility for the protection of civilians. The United Nations stands ready to support Governments in their efforts to protect children and help address violations outlined in the report, but we cannot make up for the lack of political will.

Others in this Chamber have a critical role to support these efforts. As members of the Security Council and the international community, you can and must do more to address the root causes of the suffering of children. Greater efforts must be made to prioritize conflict prevention and support peace processes, to ensure respect for international humanitarian, human rights and refugee law, but also to seek accountability when violations are committed. Impunity remains in times of war. This body has a crucial role in ending it.

The number of crises we are faced with today will test our capacity in 2016 and for many years into the future. We face a considerable challenge and we need creative ways to support initiatives and programs to protect children. I call on Member States to ensure adequate resources for education and health services in emergencies, and to provide financial and technical support to effective reintegration programs for former child soldiers. These initiatives are vital if we are to build long term sustainable peace and security.

This mandate, and the action it continues to generate, represents a beacon of hope for millions of children affected by war. Our capacity to work together, to generate will to untangle the most difficult situations, will have a decisive impact on the present and future of millions of children.