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Statement by Ms. Virginia Gamba, SRSG for Children and Armed Conflict

Madam President, Excellencies, Dear colleagues, Ladies and gentlemen,

It is with great concern that I address the Human Rights Council this year, at a time when the world is going through an unprecedented global pandemic and human rights are more at risk than ever before. Throughout 2019 children continued to be the primary victims of armed conflicts.

Last year, some 4,400 incidents of denial of humanitarian access to children were verified, as compared to 795 incidents of this nature in 2018: an exponential increase and the highest one for any violation in any one year. This shrinking of the humanitarian space has disastrous repercussions on the rights of conflict-affected children. Humanitarian workers are stopped, threatened, hurt, abducted or robbed depriving the most vulnerable of children of the vital assistance they need to survive. With no protection, medical and psychological care, clean water or adequate food, these children are being doubly victimized: they are victims of conflict and denied the actions that might assist in their recovery. I urge you to call upon all conflict parties to remove impediments to humanitarian access to children and comply with their international commitments to facilitate the access of humanitarian workers and child protection actors, including monitors.

Two other grave violations have worsened during 2019: Rape and other forms of sexual violence against conflict-affected children continued to be significantly underreported, particularly when perpetrated against boys. Certainly stigma, fear, lack of holistic services for survivors, widespread impunity for perpetrators, intimidation, and access constraints to verify incidents contribute to preventing us from seeing the true scope of this violation; most worryingly, the cases we were able to verify showed that armed groups and armed forces engage in this abhorrent behavior to an equal extent. I urge this Council to raise the profile and seriousness of this violation in its work.

Of equal concern is the constant numbers of attacks against schools and hospitals as well as protected personnel. Throughout 2019, schools continued to be attacked or threatened and used for military purposes, harming teachers and students and depriving tenth of thousands of children of access to education. The COVID-19 pandemic has added another grim layer to this reality: with lockdowns and school closures we are at risk of seeing increasing cases of military use of empty buildings and of attacks on health facilities. I remind conflict parties that they have obligations to conduct military operations in compliance with international humanitarian law and call on them to implement concrete measures to prevent the military use of schools and to protect health facilities. In this regard, I urge States to endorse the Safe Schools Declaration and implement its Guidelines.

I remain extremely worried by the impact of COVID-19 on children and I fully support the Secretary General’s policy on the protection of children from its impact as well as his call to all warring parties to engage in immediate ceasefires. Lockdowns can lead to child abuse including of those in detention. They make access to children more difficult for child protection actors, they affect reintegration programmes, complicate the delivery of services and disrupt education. The socioeconomic impact of COVID-19 can also lead to child recruitment and use, sexual abuse and child trafficking. We must ensure that services and child protection actors are protected and have enough resources to do their job despite shrinking economies.

Last year has also seen a high rise in the numbers of children detained for their alleged association with armed groups or on national security related charges. This is particularly the case of children born of foreign fighters and/or actually or allegedly associated with the ISIL and affiliated groups in Iraq and in Syria. These children are highly vulnerable, they are survivors of intense fighting and have witnessed unimaginable atrocities. They must be primarily treated as victims and the best interests of the child should be the primary consideration when dealing with them. I urge member states to engage in the repatriation of children when applicable and to ensure that others are treated as victims and detained only as a measure of last resort, for the shortest time possible and with respect for due process. I welcome the fact that the Human Rights Council reaffirmed juvenile justice principles in its resolution 42/11. In line with this resolution, I further call upon Member States to consider establishing or strengthening existing independent, child-friendly and gender-sensitive national monitoring and complaints mechanisms and to strengthen their justice mechanisms, specifically following international juvenile justice standards.

Madam President,

Not all was bad in 2019. Notwithstanding high levels of grave violations and challenges to protect children, continuous and enhanced engagement by myself and the United Nations on the ground has often led to tangible results benefitting children. Thirty joint Action Plans or other form of commitments such as roadmaps and workplans have been signed between the United Nations and conflict parties. This is the largest number of such actions ever achieved in any one year and benefited children in multiple ways. Nationally, 2019 has seen many governments in conflict affected states drafting and enacting child protection legislation such as in Myanmar, the Central African Republic and the Philippines. Similarly, armed groups have issued command orders that benefit children and have led to their release including in the Central African Republic, Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Such positive developments can only be achieved and sustained through continued engagement with national and international partners, public awareness and the dedication of child protection workers. To this end I travelled to situations of armed conflict as well as to the headquarters of regional organizations; launched a new campaign “Act to Protect Children affected by Armed Conflict” which was rolled out in three regions and six countries;  developed and launched, in New York, the Practical guidance for mediators to protect children in situations of armed conflict and provided briefings, in many countries, to the local Group of Friends of Children and Armed Conflict. I urge and invite you to roll out our campaign, to use the Mediation Guidelines and to join your respective Group of Friends of Children and Armed Conflict. I salute those Member States that have already done so.

Madam President,

This year marks the 20th Anniversary of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict. I want to commend the Gambia and Myanmar for their ratifications, and I take the opportunity to urge those who have not yet done so, to ratify OPAC before the end of the anniversary year. I have equally committed my time and resources in advocating for the ratification OPAC and the endorsement of the Safe Schools Declaration.

Earlier I mentioned that in 2019, 13,200 children were released from conflict parties. However, the release is only the first step and sustainable reintegration programmes must be made available to all separated children. Within the framework of the Global Coalition for Reintegration, launched in 2018 by my Office and UNICEF, consultations were held in 2019 with academia, civil society organizations, financing experts, international organizations and former child soldiers. Three briefing papers were researched and finalized: their main findings were compiled and recently made available in a report entitled “Improving Support to Child Reintegration – Summary of findings from three reports”. The detailed papers will be released by my Office in 2020. I encourage Member States to join the New York based Group of Friends of Reintegration, co-chaired by France, Kazakhstan and Malta.

Madam President,

This is the third time that I address the Human Rights Council since the beginning of my tenure, and it is perhaps the most decisive: the unprecedented crisis generated by the COVID-19 pandemic is putting at risk the work we have accomplished for so many years. In these challenging times, the Human Rights Council and its mechanisms are more relevant than ever, and my Office remains available to support its efforts to promote the protection of conflict affected children. In this regard, I would like to end by reporting that in 2019 I have cooperated closely with the special procedures of this Council including the Special Rapporteur on human rights of IDPs, the rapporteurs mandated by the Council to chair and facilitate the intersessional seminars on the contribution of the Council to the prevention of human rights violations, the Independent Expert on the situation of human rights in the Central African Republic, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar and the Special Rapporteur on the protection and promotion of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, among others. Furthermore, I have issued several joint public statements with human rights and protection colleagues on behalf of children worldwide including with the Special Representatives for Violence Against Children and for Sexual Violence in Conflict, the Special Advisers on the Prevention of Genocide and on the Responsibility to Protect as well as with other departments, funds and programmes of the United Nations such as UNICEF and the ILO. I have found that regular information exchange with relevant partners enriches my agenda and provides me with new approaches to better protect the most vulnerable of all children; those that are used and abused in, for and by armed conflict.

I thank you for your attention.