Please check against delivery

Keynote Speech

by Ms. Virginia Gamba,

Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict

Workshop on Children and Armed Conflict

Organized by the German Federal Foreign Office and the Peace and Security Center for International Peace Operations

Berlin, 12-13 February 2018

Excellency, ladies and gentlemen, dear colleagues,

I would like to thank the German Federal Foreign Office and the Center for International Peace Operations for organizing this important event.

This gathering has become a must for the protection community and I am thankful for this opportunity to share expertise and explore new avenues to do more, to do better for boys and girls affected by war.

It is also an honour to be with you today, on the International day against the use of child soldiers. Eighteen years ago, the Optional protocol to the convention on the rights of the child on the involvement of children and armed conflict was adopted. Now ratified by 167 States, this protocol has set an important international standard and I count on your support to help us reach our objective of universal ratification.

This day, however, is not an official UN day and I believe the time has come to change that. I call on all of you to join me to gather support at the UN General Assembly to make this the International day for the protection of children affected by conflict.

Dear colleagues,

As the mandate I represent begins its 3rd decade, I feel we are poised to make important advances for boys and girls growing up in countries devastated by war.  We have a strong legal framework and our work is now based on the near universal consensus that children should not be recruited and used by government security forces in conflict and should be protected from all grave violations.  We are now engaged in Action Plans with all Government security forces listed for the recruitment and use of children, except for one party added last year, and we have strong progress to report for most of these countries.  With the delisting of the FARDC for child recruitment and use in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and MILF in the Philippines in 2017, we have proven once again that it is possible for both State and non-State armed actors to fulfill all requirements of an Action Plan, and to put in place measures to prevent violations in the future.

This is progress. And progress that creates new opportunities to work towards the prevention of violations against children.  But it does not mean we do not face daunting challenges:

  • How do we increase our engagement with non-State armed groups?
  • How can we build our interventions not only to stop violations, but to prevent them?
  • How can we work to ensure true reintegration for children?

As relates to engagement with non-State actors. This is obviously one of the greatest challenges we still face. But it is also an area where we see important openings. Recent Action Plans signed indicate a new willingness by Governments to allow the UN to engage with armed groups (SPLM-North in Sudan). The case of the Action Plan with the Coordination des mouvements de l’Azawad in Mali is even more interesting. One of their members – the MNLA, is listed for recruitment and use and sexual violence against children. The Action Plan is meant as a corrective in their case. But as a whole, the coalition has engaged pre-emptively with the UN to protect children from violations.

We are also seeing positive results from the historic agreement between the Government and the FARC-EP in Colombia and are hoping that the protection of children can truly serve as an entry point when parties to conflict negotiate the peace. But we still need to engage with many more parties to conflict. Access is still an issue. So is convincing all Governments that UN interactions with armed groups are strictly based on the best interest of the child and should be allowed to move forward.

In the coming years, we will work to resolve these issues and, where possible, to prevent violations. This is why my Office is currently developing a strategy based on the Secretary-General’s vision of enhanced engagement to stop violations and prevent them from occurring in the first place.

Increasing public awareness and action are at the core of this prevention strategy. The campaign “Children, Not Soldiers”, for example, became a catalyst for the signing and implementation of Action Plans with Governments. Even though it has now officially ended, the campaign continues to be used as an advocacy tool by our colleagues and partners in the majority of the countries on the Children and Armed Conflict agenda.

We are currently developing a new initiative that will build on “Children, Not Soldiers” achievements, while creating additional advocacy tools to better address the other violations included in the mandate, and with a strong focus on our ultimate objective: preventing violations.

Another important aspect of this strategy is to increase our cooperation with regional and sub-regional organizations. Why is it so important? Because these organizations play an increasingly important role in the maintenance of international peace and security and by developing a common approach to the protection of children, we will increase regional ownership and the sharing of best practices, which will also assist our prevention efforts. In short, we want to create a multiplying effect, allowing us to expand the reach and effectiveness of our work to entire regions. One recent example is our involvement with NATO’s child protection policy guidelines and training, which is setting a standard in all their operations.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Finally, let us focus on reintegration. Last year, initial numbers indicate that over 5,000 children were released. This is more or less the number of children released annually in the past ten years and supported through the children and armed conflict response mechanisms. This in itself is great news. Releasing children is essential, but it is only a first step. Each child released needs physical and mental health support to overcome the long-term effects of war. They also need access to education or vocational training to learn the skills they need to adapt to civilian life. Reintegration also involves working with communities to overcome stigma and to help boys and girls reunite with their families.

Now, this is something you have all heard many times. And I am quite certain there is very little disagreement on the importance of reintegration. And yet, over 20 years after the creation of my mandate, we are still struggling to find sufficient resources to support children recovering from the trauma of war.  I believe we need to change the way we talk about reintegration and psycho-social support. These are not services that are strictly part of the emergency or recovery humanitarian package. We should also place them at the heart of peacebuilding efforts, at the heart of conflict prevention. To do so, we should make reintegration a priority by establishing a long-term multi-year funding mechanism for the reintegration of children, including by placing a specific focus on girls, on psychosocial and education programmes as well as vocational training.

While the cost of separation and reintegration may seem large, it is insignificant compared to the hope of a better future. All children used and abused by Armed Conflict should be given a real chance to create their own future. Their communities should also be prepared, and supported, to receive them.

Colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,

The work I have just described for these 3 priority areas depends upon specialized trained professionals: the Child protection advisors. They play a leading role in monitoring and documenting abuses against children, but also in establishing dialogue with governments and armed groups to end violations and in assisting the release of children from armed actors.  Sadly, the lack of resources is affecting them when the need for additional child protection staff is abundantly clear. The strategic asset of CPAs in conflict prevention and resolution is vital and should be more widely recognized – and supported. It should definitely not be reduced, which is the trend today in all cost-saving initiatives in international organizations.

We have come a long way to defend the rights of children. We have the tools to protect them better, and I count on all of you to use this workshop to come up with ideas and solutions to do more and better.  I look forward to working together to ensure children in conflict get the protection and support they desperately need.  I cannot stress enough how important it is to me personally, but for the whole child protection community, to have dedicated partners like Germany and the Centre for International Peace Operations behind us.
Thank you.