Amid growing crises, UN officials urge protection for war’s youngest victims

The international community must act “collectively and expeditiously” to thwart the growing number of children affected by armed conflicts, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared today, as the Security Council met to discuss the myriad horrors faced by children caught up in wars worldwide.

“We agree that we cannot tolerate a world in which children are killed and maimed, where they are abducted, subject to sexual violence, forced to become soldiers, and where schools and hospitals are attacked,” Mr. Ban said.

Nonetheless, he added, “increasingly, children are snatched from a normal life of school and family, abducted by armed groups and thrown into a life of violence and horror.”

Mr. Ban observed that since he last addressed the Council on the issue in 2014, hundreds of thousands more children had been confronted with the emergence or intensification of conflict, while UN agencies on the ground were verifying more and more cases of child abductions by armed groups.

These children face “some of the worst human rights violations a child can experience,” including death, injury, imprisonment and torture, sexual abuse, forced recruitment and abduction, he added.

Overall, an estimated 230 million children reside in countries and areas where armed groups are fighting and up to 15 million children were impacted by the violence.

“The world’s children are increasingly under threat in theatres of war,” Mr. Ban said. “Last year was considered one of the worst ever for children in areas affected by conflict.”

A report released by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) late last year, in fact, confirmed the “devastating” trend, noting that as violent conflicts proliferate across the globe – in the Central African Republic, Iraq, South Sudan, Syria, Ukraine and in the occupied Palestinian territories – children were being kidnapped from their schools or on their way to school and recruited or used by armed forces and groups in ever greater numbers.

Despite the sobering details, however, the Secretary-General told the Council that there was a glimmer of hope as the UN better engaged with government and non-State actors to end and prevent violations against children.

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Junior Nzita Nsuami, former child soldier, author and President of the NGO “Paix pour l’enfance”, addresses the Security Council open debate on children and armed conflict, which focused in particular on child victims of non-State armed groups. UN Photo/Devra Berkowitz

“We have seen concrete outcomes of our efforts that have translated into thousands of children now going to school instead of battle and playing in fields instead of fighting on them,” he stated. “By protecting children, we contribute to building durable peace and to helping countries reach their full potential.”

Also addressing the Council, Leila Zerrougui, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, lamented the growing challenges facing the international community “despite the consensus and our combined efforts to spare children the horrors of war.”

“In this start to 2015, it is the violence of armed groups and the brutality with which they treat the children which is our main challenge,” Ms. Zerrougui said. “This is the case in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, but also in other countries. Recurring conflicts have intensified and the expansion of armed groups is assuming alarming proportions.”

The Special Representative noted that out of the 59 parties documented as having committed violations against children, 51 were non-State actors. To that point, she continued, it remained necessary to enter into “constructive dialogue” with the armed groups, in order to dissuade them from continuing in their destructive practices.

Echoing her point, Yoka Brandt, UNICEF Deputy Executive Director, emphasized that voicing outrage was “not enough” but that the international community’s words “must be matched by action to prevent violations of child rights.”

Ms. Brandt admitted that there had been some successes as a number of child soldiers in South Sudan were undergoing demobilization. She underscored, however, that being released was “only a first step” as many children faced struggles when they returned home, such as stigmatization and psychological stress.

The Yazidi children who were recently rescued from the clutches of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), for instance, continued to recount stories of abuse from their time in captivity, she said, adding that they had “experienced the worst of humanity.”

“We can rebuild shattered lives and shattered societies,” Ms. Brandt continued. “As we heal these children, we also heal divided societies.”

Among those addressing the meeting was Junior Nzita Nzuami, who was abducted and forced to fight as a child soldier with rebel forces in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

He recounted moments of horror during his three years of fighting, as he and other children “shot at and killed everything that moved.” Nonetheless, the experiences, he said, prompted him to dedicate his life to helping his country rebuild a better future and so that what he went through “would no longer happen.”

Article originally published on UN News Centre