23 June 2009 – Symposium on Children and Young People A

Statement by Ms. Radhika CoomaraswamyUnder-Secretary-GeneralSpecial Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict

Symposium on Children and Young People Affected by war:Learn, Understand, ActRome, June 2009

Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Italian Government for hosting today's event to raise awareness about issues related to children and armed conflict.

The Government has been a champion for children affected by war and a strong supporter of my Office over the course of the last ten years and particularly during the period Italy served in the Security Council.  Italy has always fought for the maximum protection of children and is an important partner in current international efforts to strengthen the protection framework.  I would also like to thank the Municipality of Rome for hosting the exhibit on the prestigious Piazza Campidoglio as well as our partners, particularly UNICEF, DPKO, the Innocenti Center, War Child Holland and Save the Children. Organizing the Symposium has been a multi stakeholder effort and points to the complementarities of our work.  As Graça Machel said in her historic report that led to the setting up of my office, “Everyone has a role to play”.

Today we are hearing voices of young people who have been in the midst of armed conflict and who have had to bear the brunt of the worst aspects of war's brutality. Their courage and resilience will be an inspiration to us all.  Their stories only highlight the terrible things that happen to children during armed conflict.  With the changing nature of armed conflict, the impact of war on children and young people has become more brutal than ever.

Children are often direct victims of war, killed and maimed, often caught in the crossfire.  Some perpetrators directly target children to strike fear in the heart of the population.  This intentional targeting is a serious breach of international law that calls for strict separation between civilians and combatants as well for the protection of the most vulnerable in times of war, especially children.  Children can also be subject to indirect violence.  The indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force often results in children becoming victims under the euphemism “collateral damage”.  This has posed special problems in modern wars, which often make use of long-range bombardment.

Children are also recruited into fighting forces, in contravention to international law. Children are sometimes abducted from their homes and made into fighters and sex slaves.  Grace's experience in Uganda is a grim reminder of this reality.  But in other parts of the world, children join armed groups for ideological reasons or are forced due to poverty.  Today we are also witnessing the specter of child suicide bombings in Iraq and Afghanistan.  These are alarming developments which must be challenged and stopped through global advocacy. 

Advocacy must be reinforced by real action.  Perpetrators of grave violations against children have to be held accountable and impunity must end.  Recently, the Special Court for Sierra Leone condemned war lords for the recruitment and use of child soldiers.  The International Criminal Court and the Security Council have moved toward setting milestones as well.  The Security Council adopted the ground breaking resolution 1612 in 2005.  Parties that recruit and use child soldiers are listed by name and can be subject to sanctions.  The resolution also sets up a monitoring and reporting mechanism to follow situations on the ground and a Working Group of the Council that meets on a bimonthly basis to review country specific reports.

The mechanism is unique but a great deal remains to be done to make the promise of 1612, tangible protection for children, a reality.

Sexual violence against children is yet another brutal reality that children endure in the midst of conflict.  Rape is often a tool of war to terrorize and intimidate communities. Sexual violence also flourishes in the context of impunity that often accompanies war, when social and political institutions no longer function and perpetrators are not punished or held accountable.  These crimes have been documented from Bosnia to the Democratic Republic of Congo to Darfur.  The international community is mobilized on this issue.  The Special Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda have created international precedents for the prosecution of sexual violence. 

The Security Council has passed resolution 1820 asking for reporting in this field. 

There is a possibility that sexual violence will also be added as a trigger for listing under the children and armed conflict resolution 1612.  But these developments are only the tip of the iceberg.  In the near future, we hope to have a new resolution on children and armed conflict which addresses theses issues.

During armed conflict, children often find refuge in schools. For this reason schools and hospitals are considered safe zones and must be protected during fighting. 

Attacks on schools are particularly disturbing. Recently, in some wars we have seen girls' schools being attacked and targeted along with girl students and female teachers.  It is important to keep schools as zones of peace and to make education key to children's survival during war. Emergency planning, especially of IDP sites, should include education.  Staff and resources must be mobilized to this effect.

Finally, humanitarian access is crucial for child survival during war.  Denial of that access has a disproportionate impact on children. In this context we must think of IDP children, their right to basic services such as water, sanitation, education and health. IDP children should not be discriminated against and should be given the relevant documentation so that they are fully protected.  IDP camps should be made secure to avoid recruitment and sexual violence in the camps or near their vicinity. Humanitarian partners on the ground struggle with these realities on a daily basis and it is our duty to support them.

All the war crimes that I have outlined above constitute the six grave violations against children that the Security Council monitors.  The violations are based on an analysis of international humanitarian law and give us a framework for understanding the suffering of children and for undertaking actions to stop them, including strengthening national capacities and accountability mechanisms.  In parallel, we and our partners must deliver appropriate responses.  We must ensure that all children, their families and communities receive immediate assistance and tailor-made services such as psycho-social support and long term reintegration programs for ex-child combatants and victims of sexual violence.  We must support the children in their healing process for them to be able to resume their lives.  At the same time, we must also support efforts to give children and young people a space for action in longer term peace and reintegration efforts.

Children are resilient.  They can play a major role in building their future and inspiring others.  Grace, Kon and all NYPAW members are deeply committed to make a difference.  They are speaking to you from their heart to inspire you to work toward protecting children in conflict.  We must let the world know children's stories and we must take effective protective, legal and political actions to ensure that as many children as possible are spared the brutalities of war.  Our joint action has, and will, make a difference, if only we make the effort.