12 Oct 2011 – General Assembly Statement

Mr President

The last year has been a terrible, shocking year for children living in situations of armed conflict. We have been alarmed by the sacrifices of child suicide bombers, the use of children’s bodies as bombs being remotely detonated by heartless killers, child casualties from aerial bombardment, targeted attacks on schools, students and parents and sexual violence against girls and boys in some of the remotest areas of the world.

New forms of violence and conflict are negating some of the gains achieved from dealing with child victims of traditional wars and we are seeing the emergence of ruthless perpetrators who have scant respect for international humanitarian law or the dignity of the human person.

Despite this terrible environment in the theatres of war, some progress has also been achieved Among the successes was the action taken by the Security Council in July 2011 to make attacks on schools and hospitals a trigger for listing of Parties to conflict in the annexes of the Secretary-General’s Annual Report on Children and Armed Conflict.

By calling on the Secretary-General to name parties that attack schools and hospitals and put children at risk, the Council recognized the importance of these institutions, essential for children, and the need to make them areas of safety during armed conflict. Schools in particular must be zones of peace where children receive protection and are allowed to continue with their education regardless of the conflict. Child protection partners around the world have insisted that the right to education be an important part of emergency response and that schooling must continue even in emergency situations.

Some important successes were also achieved in the field, where the United Nations facilitated, since  my previous report to the General Assembly the release of over 10,000 children associated with armed forces and armed groups. Commitments made by the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Philippines, and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army have been translated into concrete actions by these parties. Efforts on the ground also ensured the release of children in the Central African Republic, DRC, Myanmar and Sri Lanka.

New Action Plans to cease the recruitment of children as well as to secure their release were signed by the United Nations and the Government of Afghanistan on 30 January 2011; and the Chadian National Forces on 16 June 2011. I personally witnessed these agreements.

Other progressive developments involve the co-ordination between my office, the Office of the Special Representative on Violence Against Children, UNICEF and the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in working toward the universal ratification of the Optional protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict and the Optional Protocol on the Sale of Children, Child Prostitution and Child Pornography.

142 countries have ratified the first and 149 have ratified the second.

Last month I also attended the closing statements in the Lubanga case before the International Criminal Court. Thomas Lubanga is a former warlord from eastern DRC who is accused of recruiting and using child soldiers in the Ituri conflict from 2002 to 2003. This is the ICC’s first trial and will likely be the first to be completed by the world’s only permanent court mandated to try war crimes. It will also be the first case that sets out international jurisprudence on the crime of recruiting child soldiers.

This case is a crucial step in ending impunity for violations against children during armed conflict. It sends a clear message to commanders that child recruitment is a war crime under the Rome Statute and will be prosecuted. It is also creating attitudinal change in national courts, which are now increasingly prosecuting such crimes and thus preventing and deterring violations against children. In many of my negotiations with non-state armed groups for the release of children, my interlocutors have questioned me in detail about the ICC’s work.

There is some fear about the ICC and this fear is healthy. Hopefully, the possibility of appearing before the ICC will serve as a deterrent against child recruitment in places where an armed conflict is occurring. To be truly effective, however, action must be taken at the national level. Now that we have the ICC, building capacity for justice at the national level must be our next big campaign. 

Many member states interacting with our office have pointed out that procedures for accountability must be supplemented by an understanding of the root causes for violations against children.

Addressing the root causes allows for intervention that will prevent violations and therefore protect children from violence and exploitation. Community planning and development efforts must fully comprehend the dangers that children face and appropriate policies at an earlier date may prevent calamity in the future.

Research and analysis into root causes for violations against children have pointed to the strong correlation between poverty, poor human development indicators and the kind of violent conflict that results in terrible abuses against children.

Millenium Development Goals indicators revel that countries in situations of armed conflict account for one third of those living in extreme poverty, half of the children with no access to primary education and half of the children who die before their fifth birthday. We must note that the majority of poor children do not become soldiers but poverty along with ruthless commanders ensure that children are trapped in that reality. We must therefore address issues of poverty through targeted development programmes, youth employment schemes, and livelihood training- all this while holding commanders who commit these crimes accountable for their actions.

Other factors which create an environment that is conducive to children being violated are discrimination or perceptions of discrimination, social injustice, political exclusion or economic disparity. Ethnic, religious or tribal loyalties also propel this sense of grievance and loyalty to the group. Leaders of the group often entice children to join these movements with a romantic sense of their destiny. This is particularly compounded if the children or their family have suffered personal injustice.

In these conflict areas state structures are often weak and because of the conflict, community institutions may have also broken down. As a result children are vulnerable to abuse and are not protected by traditional or modern structures of protection. Normative standards, cultural values are often in abeyance and social cohesion is all but destroyed. To deal with this context, child protection partners have attempted to create new forms that would serve to protect children in endangered communities through child protection networks. Such programmes and plans will assist communities in better protecting children in communities and in alerting national security forces or peacekeepers of potential dangers.

We must also not forget that in conflict areas, the conflict becomes an end in itself, with a political economy that is driven by the needs of the conflict and a general militarisation of society. Children begin to accept war as the norm and their heroes become military commanders with the military ethos firing up their imagination. Joining an armed group may also make children socially mobile and may be a way of ensuring safety and food.

The armed group and its leaders become role models for children who have no other experience. These are also factors that have to be taken to account when we try and understand the violations that children faced during situations of armed conflict. 

Every year our office focuses on a specific theme associated with children and armed conflict to highlight important concerns that do not always receive the attention of the international community. This year we have sought to highlight the issue of children and justice in armed conflict and post conflict situations, particularly when children are not treated as victims but as perpetrators.

States are increasingly arresting and detaining children associated with armed groups, be it because they are a threat to national security or because they have participated in hostilities. Children who are captured and placed in detention are sometimes kept in conditions which do not meet the minimum standards set out in various international legal instruments.

In some situations, States place children in administrative detention, rather than charging them with a criminal offence and bringing them before a Court.

These children are often detained for long periods of time without being granted access to a lawyer or other legal safeguards. Evidence abounds that, when deprived of their liberty, children are particularly vulnerable to human rights abuses.

In other situations, States prosecute children for acts committed while associated with an armed group.

National courts and military tribunals, however, do not generally apply juvenile standards. As a result, these children are frequently tried without legal representation or assistance, are not accompanied by their parents and often do not possess a clear understanding of the charges brought against them.

Given the forced nature of their association with armed groups, and considering their age, children should be treated primarily as victims, not as perpetrators. Emphasis should be placed on prosecuting adult recruiters and commanders based on the concept of command responsibility.

The need for some form of accountability is acknowledged, children must be made to face the consequences of their actions and victims of their violence must feel that justice has been done. Nevertheless diversion away from the judicial system is more suitable for children and the society as a whole. Alternatives that take the best interest of the child into consideration and promote the reintegration of the child into his or her community include non-judicial mechanisms, such as restorative justice measures, truth-telling, traditional healing ceremonies and reintegration programmes. These alternatives will give children, who through no fault of their own had to become combatants, a new chance for a better life.

Finally, Mr President, during a recent trip to Chad I visited a reintegration centre jointly run by UNICEF and CARE.I met  Mara there. He was a young man who had been with the Chadian opposition rebel groups, seen conflict since the age of 13 and now with the peace process had been released to the UN. He had a natural talent for tailoring and after initial training with the assistance of CARE and UNICEF, he had set up a tailoring shop which was thriving, having as its customers the wives of important ministers and Djemena’s leading socialites.. He was all smiles and full of enthusiasm when we met him.

Mara is a UN success story but we would be less than honest if we were not to admit than many other children do fall between the cracks. Many run away, become re-re-recruited or join street children occasionally engaging in criminal acts. For our grand plan to end impunity for crimes against war time children to succeed we must have successful reintegration programmes. For this, UNICEF and our child protection partners need resources and support from the international community. We realise that during times of economic hardship this is a serious concern. Nevertheless, we urge you to make the forgotten children of war one of your urgent priorities. Thank you Mr. President.