9 Sept 2008 – Human Rights Council

Statement by Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy,

SRSG for Children and Armed Conflict

 Human Rights Council

Geneva, September 2008

Mr President,

It is a great privilege for me to speak today and to welcome Ms Navathenam Pillay as the new High Commissioner for Human Rights. With her roots in the anti-apartheid struggle, her trade union activism, her struggle for gender equality and her role as one of the most innovative justices in different international tribunals, her life experience is a reminder that human rights truly represents global values. I wish her every success in the years ahead in consolidating and strengthening the work of the United Nations on human rights.

Mr President,

Since I last reported to the Council on the situation of children and armed conflict, there has been an increase in the intensity of armed conflict around the world and a growing sense of despair in many countries where conflict has become protracted and more confused and where the toll on civilian life is increasingly immeasurable. However, there have also been some successes- Cote D'Ivoire has been delisted from the annexes of the Secretary General's report as all parties to the conflict have entered into action plans with the UN country team and released all their children. Sierra Leone and Liberia, where there have been terrible excesses in the past, have become beacons of hope in Africa with the United Nations playing an important role in assisting these countries to return to normalcy.

Mr President,

My visits recently to Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory has increasingly convinced me that the main challenge we face for children and armed conflict lies in the changing nature of warfare where civilian life is far less protected. This is true not only in these countries but in many others facing what is termed a terrorist problem.  In the battle between terrorism and counter terrorism, many insurgent groups are not only mobilizing children in their political and military activities but are using them as child suicide bombers. Some groups attack schools where children study regardless of the casualties and are particularly brutal with regard to girl students.

In response to the above developments we see children in military detention without adequate judicial process, and we see the use of aerial bombardment and precision bombing where collateral damage is an increasing consequence.  Children are often the victims of these incidents.  Security checkpoints, the building of walls and humanitarian access also become issues of contention. Humanitarian space is increasingly politicized and the lines between military and humanitarian work are being blurred, endangering the lives of aid workers.

The fundamental principles of international humanitarian law which was the separation of civilian from combatant and the rule of proportionality are often observed in the breach. This Council must make it clear that the rules of engagement as defined by international law must be implemented and civilians, especially children, must remain a protected category.

Mr President,

Human rights and humanitarian law often focus on States as the primary actors in conflict. Increasingly, however, in our work it is the non-state actor that also engages in grave violations against children. We see the gradual blurring of lines between criminal activity and political activity. Many groups involved in political campaigns and armed struggle are also involved in criminal activity, including human trafficking, the drug trade, arms smuggling and mineral exploitation. Profits from these enterprises alienate armed groups from their political base, fuelling conflict as an end in itself.

Unfortunately, many states are also closely associated with non state actors or paramilitaries who engage in criminal activities as well as grave abuses. By tolerating their actions, including the recruitment and mobilization of children, a climate of impunity prevails and grave violations against children and the general population continue unabated, making life less secure for everyone. Paramilitaries can be owned and disowned at will, thus confusing the lines of accountability and liability. It is important that this Council deal comprehensively with the issue of all non state actors, how to make them accountable for human rights violations and how to deal with state tolerances of their activities. It is also important that states facilitate dialogue with such actors so that UN agencies may bring them into compliance with their international obligations.

Mr. President,

Since my office was set up ten years ago, its main focus has been to end impunity for the grave violations against children. To this end, my predecessor engaged the Security Council and assisted in securing resolution 1612 where the possibility of targeted measures against parties that violate the rights of children is envisioned. In addition, a Working Group of the Council was established along with a monitoring and reporting mechanism in countries coming under its scrutiny. In this regard, we have noted that there are sixteen persistent violators who have continued to defy the Council and have been listed in the annexes of the Secretary General's report for recruiting and using child soldiers. During the last debate of the Council on this topic, I urged the members to move forward and to set up a mechanism for determining targeted measures against these violators.

The fight against impunity has also led to my office filing an amicus curaie in the case of Thomas Lubanga before the International Criminal Court. We argued for a broad interpretation of the definition of recruiting and using children so that all children associated with armed groups would get the benefit of the protection of the law. Girl children who play multiple roles from combatant to wife to domestic aide are particularly in need of this protection.

Although the processes before the International Criminal Court and the Security Council are long, tedious and time consuming, I cannot underscore their importance in terms of achieving deterrence and compliance. Recently I made a visit to the Central African Republic and with the permission of the Government, met with  Commandant Laurent of the Armée populaire pour la restauration de la Republique et de la démocratie (APRD). At first he was unaware of being listed on the annexes of the Secretary General's report but after the implications of Security Council resolution 1612 were explained to him, he agreed in principle to release the children. Just last week, UNICEF informed me that he has implemented his commitment, identified over 250 children in his armed group and was now ready to release them into programmes set up by UNICEF. The same was undertaken in Cote D'Ivoire where all the groups entered into action plans and released children in their ranks pursuant to the passing of Security Council resolution 1612. In Sudan, many non state actors, inquired at length about the Lubanga case and its implications, and some have entered into agreements to release children under action plans required by resolution 1612. 

And, we must not forget the victims. In the Central African Republic, I met three generations of women in one family who had been raped by Mr. Bemba's MLC forces when they invaded Bangui. They were now getting ready to go to the Hague before the ICC to testify against him and to achieve justice. Meeting them reaffirmed my faith in the importance of these processes, despite their faults, despite what may, at times, seem to be double standards and despite state reluctance. These are stark events which capture the imagination and give a strong signal that certain actions will not be tolerated. Peace must come with justice- it is only the timing that can be negotiated.

Mr. President,

Although preventing grave violations against children is an important part of my mandate, the humanitarian needs of children in situations of armed conflict cannot be forgotten. Recently, in Berlin, the Secretary-General set out his vision on the responsibility to protect, a doctrine born out of the work of the United Nations, especially that of Mr. Francis Deng as the former Special Representative on the Internally Displaced, and endorsed by three consecutive Secretary-Generals and the World Summit Outcome Document of 2005. The Secretary-General in his speech, emphasized the responsibility to protect as an exercise of sovereignty, with the international community playing a role in assisting nation states meet their obligations. Only in very exceptional circumstances would the doctrine approve forceful measures and this only in the context of war crimes, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing and genocide, and according to procedures outlined in the UN Charter. The responsibility to protect has special meaning when it comes to children because of their vulnerability. My office will assist Mr. Ed Luck, the Special Advisor to the Secretary-General and Mr. Francis Deng who is now the Special Advisor on the Prevention of Genocide, in developing and operationalising this concept after wide ranging discussions with Member States and international civil society. Proposals along these lines will be presented to the General Assembly in January for discussion and debate.

Sexual and gender-based violence continue to be a horrendous part of war's reality, and young girls have often been the targets. We have already seen in the Great Lakes region that this is a major issue prompting a concerted international response. The Panzi hospital in Bukavu, DRC and the work of UNICEF, UNFPA and other actors is part of that response to deal with the victims. What is urgently needed is to deal with the perpetrators and I am proud to say that a resurgent judiciary in the DRC is beginning to address the issue although the scale of the problem requires a monumental effort by all parties. My office is part of this effort and we have been working closely with the Security Council and the Sanctions Committee to ensure that groups that engage in these practices are dealt with appropriately.

Sexual violence is not only limited to girls. In my recent trip to Afghanistan, I was appalled by the scale of sexual violence against boys embedded in the practices of war lords and commanders. The Government of Afghanistan has pledged to eradicate these practices along with the support of the religious leaders and yet they persist. Cultural taboos and fear of reprisal only further the impunity. The vulnerability of boys is an often neglected aspect of war and perhaps the report on Afghanistan that will be published in October will help redress this balance.

Mr President,

The easy availability of small arms in some parts of the world coupled with cultures of impunity, have made children not only lose their childhood but also perverted their ideas of adulthood and masculinity. Recently my office, along with the International Tribunal for Sierra Leone, screened the controversial film Johnnie Mad Dog, where the actors were former child soldiers who reenacted on the screen what they were asked to do in real life during the Liberian war. The sheer horror of this movie will leave you speechless and the perversion of the adults will infuriate you. No-one can see a film like that and say State sovereignty supersedes human rights, or that perversity is a cultural practice.

Finally, Mr President,

In many ways, the Human Rights Council today faces a pivotal moment- whether it recommits itself to the values we have built since the end of World War Two when we still remembered the scourge of war, or whether as warfare changes, we compromise our most humane instincts in a desperate search for security- which, ironically, in the end, to be sustainable, must come from the very people we have the responsibility to protect.

I will end with the story of J. a young Iraqi refugee I met in Jordan. I met him at a youth club, and he described how his family had to flee Iraq because his father and uncles were killed and there were threats to kidnap him for ransom. He was full of rage against his parents, his leaders and the global community. He had particularly rude words about the United Nations. As I tried to calm him down, tears of bitterness formed in his eyes. His anger is a reminder to us that there is a lot of work to be done. There are children and young people all over the world who are deeply affected by armed conflict and the humiliations they and their families have had to suffer. They will only feed the cycle of violence unless we promise them a better tomorrow. And we must do this without ideological blinkers and with a real desire to assist children in their actual lives, so that they and their communities can build a better future for themselves and their loved ones.

Thank you, Mr President.