Your Excellency, Monsieur Didier Reynders, Deputy Prime Minister of Belgium and Minister of Foreign Affairs and European Affairs,
Excellency, Mr. Olof Skoog, Permanent Representative of Sweden to the UN
Mr. Gehad Madi, Member of the Committee on the Rights of the Child
Ms. Susana Sottoli, Deputy Director, Programme Division,
UNICEF Ms. Rachel Taylor, Director of Programmes, Child Soldiers International
Dear Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would like to sincerely thank the Governments of Belgium, Canada, Colombia, France and Sierra Leone, as well as Child Soldiers International and UNICEF for organizing this event.
Mr. Deputy Prime Minister, this is not our first event together. I am deeply grateful for your Government’s support and for your personal commitment to the protection of the most vulnerable children.
Your statement today sends a powerful message to the international community.
Dear Rachel, I also want to commend Child Soldiers International. You are an important ally in our work to improve the protection of children. As we ourselves are looking at expanding the availability of best practices, I look forward to using the database you are launching today.
We have come a long way.
In the late nineties, the advocacy of the UN, Member States, and what was then known as the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers – from which Child Soldiers International emerged – was crucial to convince the international community that the standard set by the Additional protocols to the Geneva Conventions needed to be strengthened. That the world should not send 15-year old teenagers to war. That children should no longer be consumed, used and abused by, in and for armed conflict.
Some of you, who were directly involved in getting OPAC adopted, will recall that what we were trying to achieve then involved nothing less than a change in attitudes towards children.
That attitude change did achieve results and today, 18 years later, we should celebrate the quantifiable progress accomplished:
- 167 States Parties have ratified OPAC;
- The issue of children and armed conflict has been squarely placed on the international peace and security agenda, notably through the evolution of the mandate I represent;
- Many countries have criminalized the recruitment and use of children, endorsed the Paris Principles and other instruments such as the Safe Schools declaration and Vancouver Principles among others.
- There is also progress in terms of accountability for child recruitment through international and national justice mechanisms;
- Regional and sub-regional organizations are adopting policies that reinforce OPAC’s objectives by prohibiting the recruitment and use of children. The African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child, for example, clearly defines children as anyone below the age of 18 and mirrors OPAC by asking States to take all necessary measures to ensure that no child takes a direct part in hostilities and refrain in particular, from recruiting any child;
- the campaign “Children, Not Soldiers”, continues to help us generate momentum to engage in action plans with Government forces listed for the recruitment and use of children, and we have notable progress – including delistings- to report in most of these conflict-affected countries;
- This also applies to many non-State armed groups who agree to engage with the UN in Action Plan processes to end and prevent violations;
Measures put in place through these engagements continue to lead to real change for children in places where, not long ago, many thought progress on this issue was unlikely;
- Peace processes are used more and more as entry points to address the protection of children;
OPAC, which enshrined the idea that children do not belong in armed forces in conflict, is in many ways the basis of the work we do today, which leads us:
- to engage with parties to conflict to convince them to release child soldiers in their ranks and to end recruitment;
- to prevent future recruitment;
- and to provide opportunities, as well as avocate for the reintegration of boys and girls whose lives have been profoundly disrupted by conflict.
As you know, OPAC is very close to universal ratification. We urge those 12 countries who have signed the protocol to ratify as soon as possible. And the 18 countries who have not signed it to do so now. This would be a fitting present to the coming of age of OPAC.
Today, I would like to call on all of you to re-energize our advocacy efforts to get these countries to join the rest of the world and help us truly make OPAC the universal standard it is meant to be. I also call on you to re-energize the Paris Principles and to work towards additional endorsements.
Since 2000, at least 130,000 child soldiers were released due to the collective efforts of child protection actors. Thousands more were spared the ordeal or recruitment and use because their country has joined OPAC and put in place measures to protect them. Sierra Leone, a co-sponsor of today’s event, is an example, and I am sure the Representative will describe the work undertaken by his country to turn the page once and for all on the recruitment and use of children.
We need universal ratification because this will greatly assist to reach our next objective: universal implementation.
Meanwhile, we must put in place measures that can assist in the progress achieved so far on the ground.
I would like to focus on one of these strategic issues, closely linked to OPAC and to all our efforts. Just a few days ago, we welcomed the news that over 300 children were released in South Sudan. Making sure all boys and girls released- and their communities – have access to meaningful reintegration to help them overcome the harrowing experiences they have been through is essential, but remains a huge challenge.
There is very little disagreement on the importance of reintegration. And yet, we are still struggling to rally the appropriate expertise and find sufficient resources to support children recovering from the trauma of war. Reintegration and psycho-social support should truly be included not only in emergency and recovery humanitarian packages, but also in peacebuilding efforts and conflict prevention. We should make reintegration a priority by establishing a long-term multi-year funding mechanism for the reintegration of children, including on psychosocial, education programmes as well as vocational training and reinsertion assistance to children and communities.
We also need to redouble our child protection advisors force to assist in, implement and oversee the efforts. This is critical to break the cycle of violence against children affected by conflict. Without this, we all know that the promise of OPAC -to protect children from the ordeal of recruitment and use, and other grave violations – will never be fully realized.
Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,
Stopping the physical and mental use and abuse of children consumed in the fires of armed conflict is possible. We must show our will, agree on universal standards and provide for the child survivors of this dynamic of violence, We must cherish OPAC and render it operational. This is our duty. This is our time. Let us not regret later not having seized the day and taken the action needed to protect our children.