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Open Debate on Children and Armed Conflict
Presentation of the Report of the Secretary-General
on Children and Armed Conflict (A/76/871-S/2022/493)
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I thank His Excellency, the Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs of Brazil, Ambassador Fernando Simas Magalhães, for convening this debate on the Secretary-General’s Annual Report on Children and Armed Conflict covering grave violations suffered by children during 2021. The Open Debate is an important opportunity for all of us to remind ourselves of the reality faced by children in conflict and of our responsibility to stand by them. The debate also permits us to act on behalf of conflict-affected children by publicly highlighting the current trends and patterns of grave violations against them and allowing Security Council members to hear about existing and emerging challenges, as well as successful measures taken to better protect children. Finally, this open debate is an opportunity to think forward while reaffirming our commitment to the protection of children used and abused by, in and for armed conflict.
The abuses children were subjected to during last year were as grievous as they were many: In South Sudan, for example, children played with what they thought was a toy, but turned out to be an unexploded ordnance. The device detonated, killing 3 children, and wounding another 3. In the Philippines, an 11-year-old boy and a 17-year-old girl were recruited and used by the New People’s Army. During a military operation both were arrested together with other members of the group. Due to a lack of available facilities, they could not immediately be reintegrated. In Somalia, four children travelled to visit family. While on their way back, Al-Shabaab stopped them, accused them of association with Government forces, and abducted them. In Afghanistan, as girls’ classes were dismissed, a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device detonated outside of a Kabul high school. Three boys and 42 girls died that day. Another 20 boys and 106 girls were injured in the blast. In Burkina Faso, two girls were abducted and each raped by two armed men. One of the survivors was too scared to accept medical and psychosocial support out of fear of stigmatization.
The examples are endless.
During 2021, in the 21 country situations and one regional monitoring arrangement covered by my mandate, the United Nations verified a total of 23,982 grave violations, with over 19,165 child victims. 1,600 of these children were victims of two or more violations, illustrating how these violations are often interlinked; to put it in perspective, this represents an average of 65 grave violations committed against children every single day of every week of every month in the year.
Eight thousand children were either killed or maimed during 2021, making this the most prevalent of all grave violations. The use of explosive remnants of war, improvised explosive devices, and landmines had a particularly devastating impact and caused a quarter of these child casualties. The use of explosive weapons in populated areas also critically endangered children.
The recruitment and use of children for, in, and by parties to armed conflict, with over 6,300 children verified recruited and used, was the second most prevalent violation. This was followed by the denial of humanitarian access to children, at over 3,900 incidents.
Worryingly, both abductions and rape and other forms of sexual violence increased by 20 per cent last year in the different situations covered by this report. And we also saw a general rise in attacks on schools and hospitals.
Of particular, is the steady increase in violations against girls, especially the killing and maiming, sexual violence, and abduction girls suffered. In 2021, one out of three child victims was a girl – when barely a year earlier, the proportions were one to four- while 98 per cent of all survivors of rape and other forms of sexual violence were girls.
The high numbers of children deprived of their liberty for alleged association with parties to conflict also remained of concern last year. Two thousand eight hundred and sixty-four children were detained or deprived of their liberty, and, therefore, were doubly punished by those conflicts that they – and I stress this – were and are not responsible for. Also verified was a rise in the military use of schools, denying children the safe spaces they need to learn, receive life-saving assistance and develop and causing thousands of children to experience negative long-term effects to their development and wellbeing.
Further, various peace and security challenges put children at risk during 2021: from the devastating impact of violent extremism in the Central Sahel and Lake Chad basin regions, to the dire security situation in the Horn of Africa, from escalating humanitarian crises and disregard for international humanitarian and human rights law to the climate emergency, and from a series of coups to the continued negative impact of the COVID pandemic on conflict affected children. We must be reminded that the Pandemic is still ongoing, and that the United Nations continues to experience challenges to, and delays in, the monitoring and reporting on grave violations. This has led to higher than usual numbers of late-verified violations in this year’s report compared to previous years. And it has slowed down the implementation of agreed joint action plans and other measures put in place in several situations to improve the protection of children.
Additionally, the severity of the armed violence, conflict, and war in places like Ethiopia, Mozambique, and Ukraine has led the Secretary-General to include these situations in the children and armed conflict agenda prompting the immediate commencement of monitoring to report on these situations by 2023.
Although the tragedy for children that I just described is very serious, it should not discourage us. Hand in hand with tragedy, we also witnessed signs of hope and recovery during 2021.
Here I hope you join me in saluting the unwavering dedication of child protection actors and partners on the ground, who often work in extremely challenging and dangerous circumstances, and whose numbers are constantly depleted. They do this because they know they are sometimes the only champions children have on the ground. Further, we also need to recognize parties to conflict who have paused to reflect on ways in which children can be better protected by working closely with the United Nations to that end. They are also recognized in this year’s report.
Hope came in many forms during 2021 and I will only highlight some of these positive actions: For example, there are currently 17 joint action plans with parties to conflict under implementation, including three that were signed in 2021 -two in Mali with Platform groups and one in Yemen with the Houthis. Together, my office and child protection teams on the ground are also successfully engaging with other listed parties to adopt action plans, in situations such as Iraq and Syria. Altogether, 40 new commitments and agreed measures were put in place by parties to conflict last year alone.
In the DRC for example, six commanders signed unilateral commitments to protect children following United Nations advocacy. In Syria, accountability measures against Syrian Democratic Forces personnel for violating commitments under their action plan were adopted. In the Philippines, the Armed Forces signed a Strategic Plan to prevent and respond to grave child rights violations. Iraq has facilitated the repatriation of some 223 children to their countries of origin at their request. And in South Sudan, a National Conference on Children and Armed Conflict was held in May. I attended the event in Juba and was able to engage with Government partners and a diverse group of partners, who all committed to create a push for the protection of children.
The release and reintegration of children is one of the most concrete outcomes of our common work and over 12,200 children were released from armed groups and forces last year, often following United Nations advocacy. This number has remained steady over the past five years, which is a great accomplishment.
In addition, progress has been made regarding analysis, policy development, and partnerships as well as on prevention mechanisms, as highlighted in Security Council resolution 2427. In India, for example, prevention has led to a deepening of our already fruitful cooperation with the government on enhancing child protection systems. We have also enhanced our cooperation with regional organizations, including the African Union, the League of Arab States, and the European Union.
Regarding the pursuit of a better understanding of the problems children face, we also identified the need to further examine the gender dimensions of grave violations against children leading to the publication of a study, by my office, in April of this year, which I invite you to consult. Yesterday, for example, I have also launched a guidance note on the violation of abduction, which is particularly relevant considering the increases in this violation and the needs expressed by monitors on better understanding how to implement their monitoring and reporting obligations. Last year, we also researched and published studies on the impact of the covid-19 pandemic on grave violations against children in armed conflict, as well as a report consolidating the results of the four regional consultations conducted with United Nations country task forces on monitoring and reporting, their equivalents in non-MRR situations and regional offices of UN entities to identify challenges and collect lessons learned to better strengthen the monitoring and reporting mechanism of grave violations against children and the engagement with parties to conflict. Our efforts during 2021 also continued to ensure that child protection remained central to peace processes, and, to this end, we have trained mediators and diplomats, including for the League of Arab States, using the Practical Guidance for Mediators to Protect Children in Situations of Armed Conflict, which the Secretary-General launched in 2020.
The report outlines a series of recommendations by the Secretary General which I encourage all of you to consult in depth. Allow me to highlight a few of them today:
Firstly, it is vital that United Nations operations on the ground are adequately mandated, staffed, and funded to continue carrying out monitoring, reporting, engaging with parties, developing joint action plans, providing technical assistance to signatories for implementation purposes, and the undertaking of many other often life-saving interventions including securing the release of children from conflict. Without child protection advocacy and work undertaken on the ground and by my office, the situation would surely be worse.
Secondly, humanitarian spaces must always be safeguarded, and parties to conflict must allow safe, timely, and unimpeded humanitarian access to all children while also ensuring the safety of humanitarian personnel and assets. Of critical importance, hospitals and schools must always remain safe spaces and these should be always protected.
Thirdly, sustainable financial support and technical assistance for timely, gender-, age- and disability-sensitive, survivor-centred, and inclusive reintegration programmes for children, including for survivors of sexual violence, is critical in the breaking of cycles of violence and in allowing these child-victims a second chance at a constructive life.
In addition, we must continue to promote best practices and develop essential tools to consistently evolve in our work. In this regard, I thank our wide network of partners for their continuous cooperation while seeking to enlarge and deepen our analytical capacity to better serve children.
Children affected by conflict need our support, and they need it now. There is much we can do, for example, when considering the devastating impact of landmines and explosive remnants of war on children, long after conflict ceases, it is critical for the international community to urgently step-up support to mine action, including to increase child-sensitive data collection and assistance programmes.
All parties to conflict must respect their obligations under international humanitarian law, international human rights law, and international refugee law while conducting military and armed operations; and they must further ensure that perpetrators of grave violations will be held accountable.
There are many other actions that member States can undertake to support prevention including signing, ratifying, and implementing relevant international instruments and commitments to protect children from hostilities while preventing violations against them. For these same reasons, it is important to prioritize children’s rights and needs as central to conflict prevention, early warning, mediation and peace processes, disarmament, demobilization and reintegration initiatives, security sector reform and other crucial peace and security tools in the nexus between peace, conflict, and post conflict reconstruction.
In conclusion, as we gear up to strengthening the protection of children so that we can stop their use and abuse in, for and by armed conflict, it is fitting to end this statement with a stark fact: the best way to protect children and to prevent violations against them in situations of armed conflict is to promote and champion peace. Let us strive to do so, for their sake.