I am Alain Angu-andia ONZIGA, citizen of the Democratic Republic of Congo and currently working in Kaga Bandoro as Child Protection Officer (CPO) with the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic since 1 June 2015. I have been involved in the implementation of Children and Armed Conflict (CAAC) mandate since 8 February 2005, when I joined the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo-MONUSCO as a CPO. It is an honour for me to be chosen as one of the Voices for Conflict-Affected Boys and Girls to share my reflections on how CAAC mandate has effectively improved the life and protection of children over the years, as well as my perspectives on the way forward.

As a CPO, my main role comprised in mainstreaming child rights and protection through training and sensitization and providing advice on child protection concerns; monitoring and reporting serious violations against children; initiating advocacy on behalf of children engaging in dialogue with parties to the conflict to enable the set-up of measures to prevent and end violations against children; and coordinating child protection response with external actors. The fascinating part is when those roles help us to create a protected and protective environment where the wellbeing of the child is fulfilled and his rights are respected, promoted, and protected. This usually happens after combining the interlinked above-mentioned roles while meeting and discussing child protection issues and the way forward with children affected by armed conflict, leaders of armed forces and groups, community members and leaders, mission leadership and components, governmental and non-governmental stakeholders, and child protection actors.

Mainstreaming provides CPOs with opportunities to ensure that mission’s components (military, civilian and police) and external partners including governmental and non-governmental stakeholders have incorporated child protection concerns into all aspects of their activities, strategies, policies, and training programs. A vivid example of how mainstreaming strengthens the protection of children is the inclusion of children’s concerns into peace accords and agreements such as the “Accord Politique de Paix et de Reconciliation” (APPR) negotiated in Khartoum and signed in Bangui on 6 February 2019 between the government of the Central African Republic and 14 armed groups and which prohibited all six grave violations against children in one of its provisions. Such inclusion serves to sensitize parties to the conflict to the plight of children during armed conflicts and advocate for an end to violations against children. Joint implementation mechanisms set up, continue to monitor violations of the agreement including the provision on children. Mainstreaming children’s concerns also enabled the promulgation of the Child Protection Act on 15 June 2020 (prohibits all six grave child rights violations, criminalises the recruitment and use of children in armed forces and groups, and considers associated children as victims and not perpetrators). It also enables the involvement of communities in the protection of children through community child protection networks, designation of child protection focal points within the mission military and police components, etc.

The CAAC mandate through resolution 1612 (2005) established that violations perpetrated by the parties to conflicts be monitored, documented and reported, and victims of such violations referred to specialized child protection actors providing required services. Monitoring and documenting grave child rights violations enables to determine perpetrators who are subsequently engaged (resolution 1539 -2004) and measures subsequently set up to prevent and end violations. The CAAC mandate through above mentioned resolutions aims at providing protection to conflict affected children. Meeting affected children and interviewing them is a useful method to gather information as well as to empower and give them a sense of support and control. At the end of interview sessions, I usually see how children become enthusiastic and ready to start a new life. I remember in 2010 when a 14-year-old Ugandan girl previously abducted and used by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) exhibited some dance steps in tears of joy as she was informed by a partner on the way forward towards her family reunification and community integration. This is just one example out of thousands that make me proud of the CAAC mandate. Indeed, not 100% of children affected by armed conflicts will recover from the trauma caused by the armed conflict and enjoy the new life in their respective community, family, or foster family, but it is certain that most of them do with the implication of all stakeholders. I therefore note that children affected by armed conflicts can change their lifestyles and become conscious of their future and useful for their communities when all stakeholders including community members and leaders, parents, children themselves, host governments, parties to conflict and child protection partners decide to play their respective child protection roles. That is why we usually remind stakeholders through sensitization and training sessions the shared responsibility in the protection of children in armed conflict.

The CAAC mandate, by providing for engagement through dialogue with armed forces and groups, allows CPOs to make sure that armed forces and groups set measures to prevent and stop committing grave child rights violations and initiate Action Plans accordingly. To ease the engagement of dialogue, several and continuous advocacy meetings are held to brief and sensitize armed groups’ leaders and elements on the protection of children in armed conflict and to secure the nomination of child protection focal points. This allows them to know the CAAC mandate and act accordingly. I do remember the exclamation of a leader of Front Populaire pour la Renaissance de la Centrafrique (FPRC) in 2017, when he saw the child protection team entering his compound saying: “Alain, je sais que tu viens pour tes six violations graves contre les enfants, tes points focaux et ton plan d’action”, (Alain, I know you are coming for your six serious violations against children, your focal points and action plan). But at the end of the day, he handed over to the Section the FPRC command order signed on 13 May 2017 regarding the identification, separation and handover of children associated to FPRC. It is worth noting that through continuous dialogue with armed forces and groups, thousands of children (boys and girls) have been released from armed groups in the Central African Republic, the occurrence of child rights violations decreased, child protection focal points have been nominated within armed groups, command orders protecting children signed and three Action Plans signed and implementation ongoing by Mouvement Patriotique pour la Centrafrique – MPC (30 May 2018), FPRC (24 June 2019) and Unité pour la Paix en Centrafrique – UPC (21 August 2019). Besides, armed groups’ leaders and elements have become more conscious of the protection of children affected by armed conflict after being informed of the listing of their groups in the annex of the SG reports. Armed groups’ child protection focal points have also been denouncing child rights violations and sensitizing their respective armed elements on child protection.

All hasn’t been rosy as the implementation of the CAAC mandate has encountered several challenges including the structuring of armed groups coupled by the inaccessibility and the level of understanding of armed groups decision-making leaders. The fractioning and multiplicity of armed groups and lack of clear chain of commands renders engagement for dialogue difficult (difficulty to develop and implement action plans with Anti-Balaka armed groups). Though violations decreased, armed forces and groups continue to violate child rights. Lastly, the lack/shortage of and delay in funding child protection partners and short or medium terms child protection programs implemented by partners are challenging for the integration of children affected by armed conflicts and can result in the re-recruitment of children if reintegration programs are not sutainable.

In conclusion, as child protection is a shared responsibility, stakeholders must play their roles as required. The complementarity of roles and mandates of child protection actors must also be well coordinated to avoid overlapping activities as well as gaps of intervention. Being more political than programmatic, CAAC mandate and activities must be accompanied and followed without delay by sustainable child protection programmes and/or projects for children affected by armed conflicts. Delays are more traumatizing for children waiting for assistance.