Statement by Ms. Leila Zerrougui
Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict
Geneva, 7 March 2017
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Mr. Chairman, Distinguished delegates,
Dear colleagues, Ladies and gentlemen,
It is a pleasure to be here with Ms. Santos Pais for my sixth interactive dialogue. This will be the final time I address the Council. I would like to take this opportunity to say that it has been a pleasure working with you all.
Turning to the matter at hand, you can see from the report in front of you that the impact of conflict on children was once again deeply troubling in 2016. In Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen thousands of children were killed and maimed as result of intense conflict. Recruitment and use continued at high levels in those situations, as well as in CAR, the DRC, and Nigeria. Children’s education and health was also impacted with attacks on schools and hospitals reported in almost all situations on the agenda.
The upsurge in denial of humanitarian assistance for children, and even besiegement, was a concern highlighted in the report. This trend has unfortunately not relented in recent months.
The latest figures from South Sudan indicate that the United Nations documented 104 incidents in the last quarter of 2016 alone. This figure accounted for 50 per cent of all incidents of grave violations documented in a conflict where the level of cruelty is unspeakable. In Syria, you are well aware of what happened in Aleppo; but I would like to highlight that in late December, attacks on civilian infrastructure also left two million children in Damascus and surrounding areas without regular access to drinking water.
This is a deeply concerning issue for boys and girls. Children are in their formative stages and need access to food, water and basic medical care to survive and grow in a healthy manner. I urge all parties to conflict to end restrictions on aid for children.
We must also use all possible fora to persuade them that besiegement is not a legitimate tactic of war. The Human Rights Council has an important role in strongly promoting these messages.
I would like to speak briefly about the deprivation of liberty of children for association with a party to conflict. This is a topic that I have brought to the Council’s attention every year that I have held this position. Emerging practices and trends have meant that my concerns have only grown in recent years.
While I am cognizant of the serious security challenges that confront some Governments, they must avoid shortsighted strategies. In every meeting with concerned Member States I emphasize that they cannot lock up a child for his or her entire life and that prolonged detention will only create and feed grievances.
I urge the Human Rights Council to support this message and ensure that children allegedly associated with armed groups are primarily treated as victims; reintegration should be the principal response. I encourage this body to help convince Member States to adopt protocols for the handover of children encountered in military and security operations to child protection actors. In this regard, I would like to take this opportunity to welcome the recent adoption of such a protocol by the Government of Niger.
The impact of conflict on girls was also emphasized in the report. Girls continue to be at high risk of violations during armed conflict and displacement, in particular sexual violence, trafficking and their right to education is denied. While the report notes that progress has been made in the last 20 years, there is still significant work to be done.
I call upon Member States to ensure that, whenever possible, services are provided to reintegrate girls associated with parties to conflict as well as for victims of sexual violence. These children are victims, but often suffer stigmatization and rejection following violations. Priority should be given to preparing and sensitizing communities to their plight.
While I have just outlined some of the most pressing protection concerns for children during armed conflict, many years working on this issue have taught me that progress is often a question of ebb and flow.
In New York, we just marked the 20th anniversary of the creation of the children and armed conflict mandate. It was an opportunity to take stock of where we stand on child protection today. I must say I am heartened by the advances that have been achieved in those two decades, when the political climate allowed.
During my tenure as Special Representative, I have prioritized developing partnerships with Member States to allow the United Nations to grasp opportunities for progress. Three years ago yesterday, I launched the “Children, Not Soldiers” campaign. This initiative has provided an important platform to catalyze this collaboration. In Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Myanmar and Sudan, cooperation has developed between the United Nations, civil society and Governments to benefit the youngest citizens. This work has also had a broader influence and more non-State armed groups have willingly engaged.
In the context of peace processes, the recent collaboration between my Office and parties in Colombia illustrated how progress on the protection of children can build confidence and help to address more contentious issues.
In Geneva, States Parties have been increasingly willing to include information regarding the impact of armed conflict on children in their own reports to the Committee on the Rights of the Child and the Human Rights Committee. I consider that this is due to the fact that Member States are now ready to address this issue. I believe it is also due, at least in part, to the collaborative way that the United Nations and civil society has engaged with them on children and armed conflict concerns. I would like to take this opportunity to encourage all conflict-affected Member States to include information on grave violations and action taken in response in their submissions.
The partnerships are not just with Member States, but also with international bodies and regional organizations. Working with the Human Rights Council has proven central to protecting children. In this regard, I strongly encourage you to maintain the practice of including recommendations on the protection of children affected by armed conflict when considering or adopting relevant resolutions. I believe one area where we can improve our partnership is to enhance our work to ensure that action is taken on recommendations.
Lastly, the African Union, the League of Arab States, NATO, and the European Union have been key partners. Together, we have cooperated to establish policy frameworks to address children and armed conflict, to develop training, and to support operational engagement.
Looking ahead, I would like to contribute some thoughts on what should be future priorities.
First and foremost, the Human Rights Council and the international community can enhance their efforts to open up political space to address violations. We all have to be better at persuading Member States that we can truly work with them to help protect their children; and also persuading them that it is in their best interests. Other Geneva based entities, including civil society, can continue to build partnerships to demonstrate that addressing violations against children is a common priority.
Stronger accountability processes are another core element. Once political space is opened, this body can deepen its support to Member States to enhance the capacity of national justice systems to investigate and prosecute crimes against children in situations of conflict. When parties to conflict are not ready to cooperate, this body can use all tools available to it to help end impunity.
Lastly, the rights of children must also be a cornerstone of conflict prevention, peace making and peace building efforts. They are too often overlooked in these endeavours.
By prioritizing working with Governments on child protection and accountability, as well as conflict prevention and resolution efforts, I believe we can bring about a sea change in the impact of armed conflict on children.
I look forward to your comments and questions.