Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict

Virginia Gamba, of Argentina, is the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict. She was named by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in April 2017 and is the fourth person to hold this position.

Read her biography.

Virginia Gamba speaks during an event at the United Nations. Photo: UN Photo

Looking back at the creation and evolution of the children and armed conflict mandate

In the early 1990s, the United Nations sought to bring more international attention to the plight of children affected by armed conflict.

In December 1993, following a recommendation by the Committee on the Rights of the Child, the UN General Assembly expressed its concern “about the grievous deterioration in the situation of children in many parts of the world as a result of armed conflicts”, and asked the Secretary-General to name an expert to conduct a thorough study on the impact of conflict on children, including their participation in wars as child soldiers.

Graça Machel, Mozambique’s first post-independence Minister for Education, and an advocate for children’s rights, was named to undertake this massive project.

Graça Machel Report

Graca Machel speaks with a former child soldier during a visit to a UNICEF-assisted camp for demobilized child soldiers near Freetown, the capital. The boy is 1 of approximatley 25 former child soldiers who had been forcibly conscripted by rebel forces.<br /> From 2-5 November 1995, Ms. Graca Machel visited demobilization centres for child soldiers, displaced persons' camps, and health and feeding centres set up in and near Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, part of her global work, appointed by United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, to carry out a two year Study on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children. The Study will be presented to the Secretary-General in the fall of 1996. The civil conflict in Sierra Leone, which began in 1991, has displaced over 40% of the country's 4.5 million inhabitants, already among the poorest in the world. Only 25% of eligible children attend school and 13% of children suffer from moderate to severe wasting. Up to 2,500 children have been combatants in the current conflict, many having been forcibly abducted from their homes. In addition to assisting with basic health, education and water services, UNICEF is also supporting a programme, together with NGO's and other partners, to demobilize and rehabilitate former child soldiers.

Graca Machel speaks with a former child soldier during a visit to a UNICEF-assisted camp for demobilized child soldiers near Freetown, Sierra Leone. ©UNICEF/UNI29698/Grossman


Over two years, Graça Machel traveled to several countries affected by conflict and met children, families, humanitarian workers, Government officials and anyone who could help her gain a better understanding of what boys and girls were experiencing.

Her report, “Impact of armed conflict on children”, presented in 1996 to the General Assembly, described the brutality millions of children caught up in conflicts were exposed to and demonstrated the centrality of this issue to the international human rights, development and peace and security agendas.

A new UN mandate is born
On 12 December 1996, four months after the publication of Machel’s report, with the adoption of resolution 51/77, the General Assembly recommended the appointment of a Special Representative of the Secretary-General for children and armed conflict. The mandate was born. The international community had worked to bring the protection of children affected by war the attention it deserved and had now created a focal point for action to reinforce global child protection.

Excerpts from UN General Assembly Resolution 51/77
Recommends that the Secretary-General appoint for a period of three years a Special Representative on the impact of armed conflict on children.

Recommends that the Special Representative:
(a) Assess progress achieved, steps taken and difficulties encountered in strengthening the protection of children in situations of armed conflict;
(b) Raise awareness and promote the collection of information about the plight of children affected by armed conflict and encourage the development of networking;
(c) Work closely with the Committee on the Rights of the Child,
relevant United Nations bodies, the specialized agencies and other competent bodies, as well as non-governmental organizations;
(d) Foster international cooperation to ensure respect for children’s rights in these situations and contribute to the coordination of efforts by Governments, relevant United Nations bodies, notably the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights/Centre for Human Rights, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the specialized agencies and the Committee on the Rights of the Child, relevant special rapporteurs and working groups, as well as United Nations field operations, regional and subregional organizations, other
competent bodies and non-governmental organizations;

Requests the Special Representative to submit to the General Assembly and the Commission on Human Rights an annual report containing relevant information on the situation of children affected by armed conflict, bearing in mind existing mandates and reports of relevant bodies;

Former Special Representatives of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict

Olara Otunnu, first Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict. Photo: UN Photo

Olara Otunnu, of Uganda, 1997 to 2005

Read his biography

In August 1997, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed Olara Otunnu, from Uganda, as his first Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict.

In his first report, presented to the General Assembly in 1998, he laid out his plan to address the plight of children affected by conflict.

He highlighted issues that could make a big difference for children: The “prioritization of child rights within the terms of peace accords and in the mandates of peacekeeping operations, the demobilization of child soldiers and their social reintegration, the return and reintegration of displaced and refugee children, […] psychological recovery, educational and vocational training, and issues of juvenile justice.”

Children affected by armed conflict: A peace and security issue on the agenda of the UN Security Council

On June 29 1998, the UN Security Council held its first Open Debate on children and armed conflict. In his address, Olara Otunnu proposed areas of engagement for the Council to move towards “prevention, protection and recovery”. He then called on the Council to explore concrete initiatives to prevent or mitigate the suffering of children, insisting on humanitarian access to populations affected by conflict, calling for schools and hospitals to be considered “battle-free zones”, and asking for better monitoring and control for the flow of arms, especially light weapons. He also highlighted the importance of healing, because children carry the scars of conflict deep in their hearts and minds. Reintegration is necessary, he said, to help children rebuild their lives, but also to break cycles of violence.

In 1999, the first resolution on children and armed conflict placed the issue of children affected by war on the Security Council’s agenda. The resolution identified and condemned 6 grave violations affecting children the most in times of conflict, and requested the Secretary-General to report on the issue.

Throughout his tenure as Special Representative, Olara Otunnu advocated for the creation of a new set of tools to convince or pressure parties to conflict to protect children and abide by their obligations and international law.

New tools to end the recruitment and use of child soldiers
In 2001, the Security Council sent a powerful message to the world that the recruitment of child soldiers would no longer be tolerated. Resolution 1379 requested the Secretary-General to attach an annex to his report on children and armed conflict, in which he would list parties to conflict who recruit and use children in situations on the Security Council’s agenda. In a significant step, the resolution went further by requesting the Secretary-General to also list parties to conflict in situations that, although not on the Security Council’s agenda, in his opinion may threaten the maintenance of international peace and security in accordance with Article 99 of the United Nations Charter.

The era of application

From the outset, Olara Otunnu pointed out the world had devised a “formidable body of international instruments and local norms”. The biggest challenge we collectively faced, he declared, was to translate “these standards and commitments into action that can make a tangible difference to the fate of children exposed to danger on the ground”.

The adoption of Resolution 1612, in July 2005, was the culmination of years of efforts to accomplish exactly that.

By endorsing the Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism proposed by the UN Secretary-General, Resolution 1612 sought to create an organized, functioning system at country-level to collect and verify information on grave violations committed against children.

“We have now entered the era of application”, Otunnu said in a press statement published on the day of the UN Security Council vote. “For the first time, the UN is establishing a formal, structured and detailed compliance regime of this kind. This brings together all the key elements we have been developing, in the last few years, to ensure accountability and compliance on the ground. This is a turning point of great consequence.”

In April 2006, Radhika Coomaraswamy became the second Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict. Photo: UN Photo

Radhika Coomaraswamy, of Sri Lanka, 2006 to 2012

Read her biography

In April 2006, Radhika Coomaraswamy, a lawyer and internationally known human rights advocate, became the second Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict. Under her tenure, the mandate continued to thrive and touch the lives of even more children around the world.

The implementation of Resolution 1612 began in earnest with the establishment of Country Task Forces on the Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism. A first wave of Action Plans were signed and implemented in Côte d’Ivoire, Uganda, Sri Lanka and Nepal. In total, 18 Action Plans were signed under Coomaraswamy’s tenure and 8 parties delisted, representing a mix of national security forces and non-State armed groups.

The efficacy of the Action Plan, envisioned by the UN Security Council as a constructive, pragmatic tool to bring parties to conflict into compliance with international standards, and to bring positive change in the lives of child soldiers, was demonstrated conclusively during Coomaraswamy’s tenure.

Expansion of the triggers for listing
Radhika Coomaraswamy also presided over a major expansion of the triggers for listing, which are grave violations committed against children by parties to conflict that warrant a listing in the annexes of the annual report of the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict.

In 2009, two additional violations – killing and maiming, rape and sexual violence against children – became triggers for listing with the adoption of resolution 1882.

“This is a major step forward in the fight against impunity for crimes against children and a recognition of the reality of conflict today, where girls and boys are increasingly targeted and victimized, killed and raped, as well as recruited into armed groups,” Coomaraswamy declared in a press statement issued when resolution 1882 was adopted.

Two years later, attacks against schools and hospitals and attacks and or threats of attacks against protected personel also became a trigger for listing.

During her tenure, Radhika Coomaraswamy sought to improve the guidance provided to child protection practitioners through the publication of three working papers on issues related to the implementation of the mandate:

The Six Grave Violations Against Children During Armed Conflict: the Legal Foundations

The Rights and Guarantees of Internally Displaced Children in Armed Conflict

Children and Justice During and in the Aftermath of Armed Conflict

Leila Zerrougui, of Algeria, 2012 to 2017

Leila Zerrougui speaks to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, before the open debate of the Security Council on children and armed conflict, in August 2016. Photo: UN Photo


Read her biography

Leila Zerrougui, a legal expert in human rights and the administration of justice, was appointed in September 2012 as the third Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict. Immediately before this assignment, she was the Deputy Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Deputy Head of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO) where, between 2008 and 2012, she spearheaded the Mission’s efforts in strengthening the rule of law and protection of civilians.

“I believe that the protection of all children from grave violations is within our reach,” Leila Zerrougui told the UN Security Council in September 2012.

Throughout her tenure, the Special Representative has sought to effectively utilize the tools developed since the creation of the mandate and foster relationships to increase national and regional ownership of the protection of children. In order for collective efforts to be as successful as possible, she has prioritized opening up the space for collaborative engagement with Governments in countries affected by armed conflict as well as engaging with a broad range of non-State armed groups. Peace processes have been key fora for this type of engagement. Other priorities have included developing stronger relationships with regional organizations and Member States to support engagement with parties to conflict, while at the same time continuing to work closely with United Nations and civil society partners on these issues.

We are “Children, Not Soldiers”

A decade of work following the first listings of parties to conflict for recruitment and use of child soldiers was starting to yield results.

In 2014, with UNICEF, the Special Representative launched the campaign “Children, Not Soldiers” to bring about a global consensus that child soldiers should not be used in conflict. The campaign was designed to generate momentum, political will and international support to turn the page once and for all on the recruitment of children by national security forces in conflict situations.

The campaign received immediate support from Member States, UN, NGO partners, regional organizations and the general public. The UN Security Council and General Assembly welcomed Children, Not Soldiers and requested regular updates through the Special Representative’s reporting.

At the time of the launch, the countries concerned by the campaign were: Afghanistan, Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Myanmar, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Yemen. Representatives from each of these countries attended the launch event and expressed their full support to reach the objectives of “Children, Not Soldiers”.

Two years on, the consensus envisioned is now a reality and thousands of child soldiers have been released and reintegrated with the assistance of UNICEF, peacekeeping and political missions, and other UN and NGO partners on the ground. All Governments concerned by the Campaign are engaged in an Action Plan process with the United Nations. Chad put in place all necessary measures to end and prevent the recruitment of children in its armed forces and is no longer listed. While crises have hampered progress in Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen, there has been significant progress and a reduction in verified cases of recruitment and use of children by national security forces, especially in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Myanmar and Sudan.

“From now on, our work is based on the global consensus that child soldiers should not be used in conflict. This is a breakthrough of major significance. We are now working alongside States, as partners, with the legitimacy to move forward to end a recognized problem.” –Leila Zerrougui

National campaigns to promote the objectives of “Children, Not Soldiers” have been launched in most countries concerned and beyond.

Abduction: Fifth trigger for listing
Worldwide outrage over the mass abductions of hundreds of children by Boko Haram in Nigeria and other parties to conflict in the Middle East and Africa provided the momentum for another expansion of the “triggers for listing.” With the adoption of resolution 2225 in June 2015, the Security Council requested the Secretary-General to include in the annexes to his annual report on children and armed conflict those parties that engage in patterns of abduction of children in situations of armed conflict.