Statement at the Arria Formula Meeting on the Repatriation of Children by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, Ms. Virginia Gamba
29 January 2021
Distinguished members of the Security Council,
I am delighted to be here with you today and I would like to thank the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation and the Permanent Mission of the Republic of Kazakhstan for co-hosting this meeting on such an important topic. As you are aware, the work of my office revolves around four pillars of action in support of ending and preventing violations against children in armed conflict. The four pillars are: protection of children from being used and abused in, for, and by armed conflict; prevention of violations committed against children from occurring in the first place; raising awareness and strengthening partnerships for the protection of children; and promoting lessons learned and best practices for enhanced prevention and protection of children against the six grave violations identified by the Security Council.
The tools of action at our disposal are simple: continued monitoring, improved and enhanced engagement, analysis, best practices and advocacy. Enhancing the engagement with parties to conflict on both protection and prevention, and the strengthening of analysis, public outreach and advocacy has yielded positive results for children. With these tools, we have doubled the number of children released and freed from conflict and multiplied the number of signed commitments and plans with parties to conflict over the last three years. Despite progress in defending children from being used and abused by, in and for armed conflict, much more needs to be done to sustain these gains and to ensure the protection of children and the prevention of violations against them.
In particular, the need to stop the recruitment of child soldiers remains the top priority in the CAAC agenda. The prevention of recruitment of children is a complex set of actions: it requires norms and rules, oversight, training and age-screening to be in place. Equally difficult is the task of ensuring that children already recruited, forcefully or not, are released from conflict and safely reintegrated to society. Ultimately, the most complex action of all remains the sustainable prevention of child recruitment particularly if one considers that children are recruited into conflict by different push and pull factors raging from impotence, forceful abduction or poverty.
The need to release children from armed conflict and facilitate their expedited and sustainable reintegration, avoiding their re-recruitment, remains paramount. This implies age screening methodologies at recruitment centers to stop under-age recruitment, the need to strengthen standard operating procedures on handover and release of children, and effective sustainable reintegration programs that place the needs of the child first.
The universe of children used and abused in, for and by armed conflict is immense. It includes children caught in armed conflict, forcefully made to fight conflicts that they neither wanted nor created and/or violently exploited and abused by those around them. These children are deprived not only of their childhood but also of their future as access to education and health has often also been denied to them. Perhaps there is no sadder group of victims than those children who have been catalogued as associated, in one way or another, to armed groups, including those groups listed as terrorists by the United Nations. These are the children who have been left adrift by conflict like flotsam in the sea.
In this regard, I want to emphasize the importance of identifying and ensuring that children held for actual or alleged association with armed groups, including UN-listed terrorist groups, are treated primarily as victims, not as security threats, and that detention should be used as a measure of last resort and for the shortest possible period. This of course applies also to foreign children who have been held for a prolonged time in dramatic conditions in camps in North East Syria and in Iraq where their mental health, safety, and overall development are at stake. They are exposed to further trauma and stigmatization and are at risk because of their proximity to members of designated terrorist groups.
Some of these children travelled on their own, from their country of residence to areas controlled by armed groups, while others were abducted by those groups and forced to cross borders during their association. Children also crossed borders with their families or were born to foreign parents who had travelled to those areas. Children born in or having travelled to conflict zones must not be stateless. Their rights to a nationality and an identity must be respected and fulfilled.
The repatriation of foreign children to their country of origin should be facilitated and prioritized, in line with the best interest of the child and not in violation of the principle of non-refoulement. These children must be provided with assistance in reintegration, education, access to health and to livelihoods. They must be given their childhood back in a safe environment where they can build a future away from violence. They deserve a chance at life, like any other child. This is one reason why the discussion today is of such importance.
I take this opportunity to reaffirm that all children must be freed from the impact of armed conflicts and we need to continue working towards this objective. We must ensure effective monitoring and reporting of violations against children in situations of armed conflict, including through the reinforcement of existing child protection capacities on the ground, facilitating information exchange to identify and mitigate trends in the use and abuse of children in, for and by armed conflict and prevent grave violations against them.
As the vulnerability of boys and girls living amidst hostilities continues and is further exacerbated by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, securing a peaceful resolution to conflict that has the protection of children at its center is imperative. Since 1999, this Security Council has highlighted in multiple occasions the importance to ensure that the protection, welfare and rights of children are considered during peace negotiations and throughout the process of consolidating peace in the aftermath of conflict. In its resolution 2427 (2018) the Security Council stressed the importance of integrating child protection provisions at the early stages of all peace processes emphasizing on the best interest of the child, the treatment of children separated from armed groups as victims and focus on family and community-based reintegration.
States hold the primary responsibility for protecting children’s rights and there can be no security without the respect of human rights. Now more than ever it is important to identify good practices and develop concrete procedures for the repatriation of foreign children trapped in situations of armed conflict and prioritize their full reintegration through programs designed to address their needs.
I commend the action of States who are already facilitating the return of their citizens. The United Nations, including my Office, stands ready to support Member States in addressing this complex challenge with the aim to ensure children are protected from any form of violence and abuse and their rights are fulfilled.
A happy, healthy child is not a security threat, but a contributor to society, to development and to peacebuilding. It is that child who will be the cornerstone of our common future. Let us not fail our children for in so doing we are failing ourselves.
I Thank you, Mr. President.