Statement by Leila Zerrougui, Informal Meeting of the General Assembly on Children and Armed Conflict

Statement by Ms. Leila Zerrougui,
Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict

Informal Meeting of the General Assembly on Children and Armed Conflict
8 February 2017 – Trusteeship Council Chamber

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Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

It is truly a pleasure and an honour to be with you all today, to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the children and armed conflict mandate. As I look around the room, I am delighted to see so many colleagues and partners – from UNICEF, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, the Department of Political Affairs, Member States and civil society – who have been instrumental in our quest to strengthen the protection of children in situations of conflict.

In the course of my work as Special Representative, and previously with the United Nations mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I have visited many conflict zones across the globe, and spoken with children and their families. Today, I would like to bring their voices and perspectives into this room. Children are at the heart of the suffering caused by armed conflict – they are recruited and used, left disabled, raped, orphaned, driven from their homes, deprived of their right to education, and their hopes for the future are compromised. But children are not just victims. With our concerted action and support, they can overcome these hurdles and become actors for change in their communities and beyond.

Over the past two decades, we have, collectively, achieved significant progress to improve the protection of children affected by armed conflict. This event today is an opportunity to celebrate these achievements, and to reflect upon the road that lies ahead to better protect children – our future generation – from the horrors of war.

Firstly, I would like to thank the General Assembly for heeding the call to action made by Graça Machel and establishing the mandate of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict. You stated clearly that the devastating impact of armed conflict on millions of innocent children was unacceptable, and that we must take action to end the suffering of children in wars in which they have no part.

The United Nations system and the international community have rallied around the mandate. The Security Council was instrumental in establishing a clear framework and set of tools to address violations against children. There is also regular engagement with the General Assembly and Human Rights Council on progress made and challenges faced in the implementation of the mandate. Further, the Sustainable Development Goals include concrete indicators to strengthen the protection of children.

The impact on the lives of tens of thousands of boys and girls is evident. The United Nations has signed 27 action plans with parties to conflict to stop and prevent grave violations. Over 115,000 children have been released from armed forces and armed groups as a result of these action plans, as well as sustained dialogue with parties to conflict. Reintegration programmes have been put in place to help many of these children rebuild their lives. Efforts to establish accountability and prevent violations have also been stepped up. Our advocacy and engagement have resulted in concrete efforts to end impunity for sexual violence against children, actions to reduce child casualties, commitments to protect schools from military use, and recognition of the urgent need for education in emergencies.

There is now a global consensus that children have no place as combatants, and should not be recruited and used in armed conflict. As evidence of this consensus, the vast majority of Member States have ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, a key tool for the prevention of child recruitment and use. Your support for the “Children, Not Soldiers” campaign, aiming to end and prevent the recruitment and use of children by Government security forces, has also been indispensable.  In just two years, hundreds of children were released, and thousands more were prevented from joining security forces.

However, despite this progress and our collective efforts, children continue to be disproportionately affected by armed conflicts around the world, which reminds us of the continued importance of this mandate. We are faced with serious challenges for the protection of children, such as protracted wars, increasingly complex conflicts involving a proliferation of actors, violent extremism and the ramifications of counter-terrorism initiatives.

Given this bleak context, how can we build upon the achievements of the past twenty years, and reinvigorate our efforts to tackle the challenges we face today?

Ultimately, the only way to stop the suffering of children is to end conflicts and address their root causes. To achieve sustainable peace, the protection of children must be a priority in peace processes and conflict resolution. The example of Colombia illustrates how addressing concerns related to the protection of children can build confidence between parties, and pave the way for progress on broader issues.

The Secretary-General has highlighted the importance of conflict prevention. Establishing frameworks at the national level to protect the rights of children, to prevent their involvement in conflict, and to ensure their access to education and essential services is a core element of preventing conflict and its detrimental impacts on children. This is also critical to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

Furthermore, effective prevention must prioritize ending impunity and strengthening respect for international humanitarian and human rights law. Accountability is also a vital element for individual victims. During one of my field visits, a boy who was repeatedly raped whilst in detention told me, “I can heal if I know they are no longer doing this to others; but I know they are”.

For peace to be sustainable, we must also address the long-term impacts of conflict on children. A key priority is the release and reintegration of children who have been recruited and used by armed forces or armed groups. Reintegration programmes are vital to support children to overcome trauma, reclaim their futures and gain the necessary skills to play an active role in their communities and societies. I am so pleased that Ilwad is here with us today, to share her experiences. Having personally suffered from the horrors of war as a child, she has dedicated her life to helping conflict-affected children in Somalia, and I can attest to the remarkable work that the Elman Peace and Human Rights Centre is doing in the reintegration of former child soldiers. When children are given such opportunities and support, even though they have suffered unspeakable violations, they are able to turn the page and achieve so much. Former child soldiers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sierra Leone, Uganda and South Sudan have gone on to become advocates for change, child protection officers and community leaders. Their potential is immense – they just need our action and support.

We all have a role to play in pursuing the goal of strengthening the protection of children in armed conflict. This is not a quest that any of us can achieve alone.

Today, I am renewing the call to action made in 1996 when the mandate was created. Our children are our future, and they need our collective action. I count on your continued commitment and support for our common goal to protect children from the scourge of war.