Statement by Ms. Leila Zerrougui, SRSG for Children and Armed Conflict at the Law, Justice and Development Week 2015 World Bank Headquarters, Washington D.C. 18 November 2015

Good morning ladies and gentlemen. It is my pleasure to be here with such an impressive group of international legal professionals and to share my experience of law and justice and their role in our world today.

I would like to thank the World Bank, and in particular Ms. Leroy and Ms. Wetzel, for inviting me here to speak today at the Law, Justice and Development Week. The topic of this week, the role of governance and the law in social and economic development, is of vital importance given the challenges we now face in the Middle East.

The nexus between armed conflict, development and law is clear. As the Deputy Secretary-General stated to the audience at this very this event last year: “there is no peace without development, there is no development without peace; and there is no lasting peace, nor sustainable development without respect of human rights and the rule of law”.
Without minimizing the impact of other external factors such as occupation and foreign military interventions, it is self-evident that the lack of the rule of law in the Middle East in the past contributed to the conflict and security issues we see today. Grievances ferment if judges do not adjudicate them equitably. Criminal activities are allowed to flourish by corruption in law enforcement agencies. Job opportunities for youth will disappear if investors cannot rely on a faithful interpretation of business law, forcing the youth to turn to criminal or armed groups. Law and justice needs to be at the heart of all our efforts to prevent conflict and sustain development.

Peace, justice and strong institutions are at the heart of the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which, if achieved, can have a significant impact on the lives and futures of all children. The SDGs include many other elements related to children, including ending the recruitment and use of child soldiers, ending sexual and physical violence against girls, ending all forms of violence against children and ensuring equality education and healthy lives.

Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished colleagues,

Unfortunately, our efforts to protect children and live up to these goals are being seriously challenged. People often consider that children are at the periphery of violence during conflict. In reality, children are at the centre of violence and are currently being recruited and used, killed and maimed, abducted and raped in thousands. Their schools and
hospitals are being attacked and they are being denied basic humanitarian assistance by parties to conflict. Not only have child’s rights been violated, they have also been forced to commit violations themselves.

Arab countries constitute eight out of the twenty conflicts on my agenda. In many of these situations, we are witnessing an increasing disregard for international human rights and humanitarian law.

The challenges posed by relatively recent escalations in countries such as Iraq, Libya and Yemen have added to those posed by protracted conflicts. The rising tensions and violence in the State of Palestine and Israel show no signs of abating. The conflict in Syria is now approaching its 6th year and the dynamics are frequently changing, particularly with the rise of extremist groups operating across borders.

Although I am trying to make the link between law and development, it is more appropriate to make the link between the vacuum of law and regression in these situations. What we are currently witnessing in Iraq, Syria and Yemen is creating a significant step backwards in terms of human resources, infrastructure and economic progress. It will be many decades before we can talk about development in these situations.

As a consequence of the conflict, we are witnessing the country’s greatest resource, its population, fleeing conflict and violence. Four million three hundred thousand refugees from Syria have been registered by the UN Refugee Agency, almost half of whom are children. This mass exodus has had tragic consequences not only for the society, but also for every man, woman and child. We all recall the image of Aylan, the Syrian boy lying lifeless on a beach, which weighs heavily on our hearts.

Perhaps the clearest example of the nexus between conflict, development and children is related to attacks on education. Every child, everywhere, has the right to a quality education. However, this right is compromised for millions of children affected by conflict in the Middle East. In Syria, over five thousands schools have been destroyed and damaged since 2011. Over 60 per cent of Syrian refugee children do not have access to education. In Yemen, in less than six months over 500 schools have been verified by the United Nations as damaged or destroyed. Thousands of other schools have not re-opened for the recent start of the school year due to insecurity, interrupting access to education for 1.8 million children.

Education must be the core priority for investment in order to allow for social and economic development. First, education to refugees and those internally displaced persons is key. With protracted conflicts, we risk losing entire generations. If we prioritise education for those displaced we can help ensure that post conflict recovery is as swift as possible. Second, we must prioritise rebuilding of schools once we have achieved peace. When a community is recovering from conflict, it can take decades to reinstall skilled teachers and the physical infrastructure required to provide a quality education. Even a short period of hostilities can have a lasting impact. As an example, last summer, 50 days of hostilities in Gaza destroyed three and damaged at least 262 public schools and 83 United Nations schools. More than a year later, the destroyed schools have not been rebuilt and the severely damaged schools are operating at limited capacity. Rebuilding schools must be a priority.

Education is expensive, but States and development actors must consider the costs of an uneducated workforce in a post-conflict environment. We cannot realistically expect a society without an education population to develop. Without development there will be little economic opportunity; grievances and instability will remain.

Ladies and gentlemen,

As I mentioned, the SDGs call for the promotion of the rule of law at the national and international levels and ensure equal access to justice for all. Justice and accountability are vitally important to provide protection to children by ensuring that violations are not repeated.

As legal professionals, you will know that ensuring accountability for violations against children is the best way to prevent their recurrence. Accountability comes in many forms, but Governments bear the primary responsibility for protecting civilians and pursuing accountability. States must adopt clear legislation and issue command orders to their security forces to protect civilians, and in particular take precautionary measures to avoid harm to children. All crimes must be investigated promptly and effectively, and prosecutions must be pursued.

Many breakthroughs in the area of children and armed conflict have been in strengthening the legal framework. This has been achieved with additional ratification of treaty instruments as a first step, in particular the Optional Protocol of the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict. Advances have also been made by the way of national and international court judgements and the implementation of specific legislation to protect children in conflict.

In the Middle East, one particular area of cooperation I would like to highlight is with regional organisations. My Office has signed a Cooperation Agreement with the League of Arab States to make child protection a priority in the League’s peace and security agenda. The Agreement, signed in 2014, includes encouraging all its Member States to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict. It is encouraging that the League recognises its role to promote the protection of challenges as a regional actor.

The international community and, in particular the UN Security Council, also have an important role to play in promoting accountability, protection and prevention. Through a number of resolutions, the Security Council gave the United Nations tools to respond to attacks on education. We have been asked to monitor, report and name parties to conflict that commit grave violations against children. The information collated by my office is provided to the Security Council as part of our efforts to stop violations against children and to inform action by the Council. Ultimately, the goal is to prevent these types of attacks altogether.

Despite these gains, we still face challenges. The rise of extremist groups such as ISIL tested the response capacity of national authorities and the international community alike. Whilst recognizing the challenges that States face in addressing the threats posed by such groups, we must work to ensure that responses comply with international law. If they do not, we risk aiding the very groups Governments seek to combat. Holistic approaches that take into account legitimate grievances, political alienation, and protection of human rights of the population are the only way to sustainably address the challenge. Responses that perpetuate grievances will not aid development. Responses that comply with the rule of law will.

As a specific example, across many areas of the Middle East children being imprisoned without due process or judicial oversight for lengthy periods of time. If they are prosecuted, they often appear before military or special courts, which do not assure fair trial or the specific protections that should be afforded to juveniles. We see this, for instance, in Iraq, Israel and Syria. We need to work to ensure that children are viewed primarily as victims by authorities. Prosecuting children for association with armed groups is punishing the primary victims of these groups. This in turn could create legitimate grudges which can lead to conditions conducive to instability.

Instead, experience has shown that effective reintegration of children is a strategic intervention, and inextricably linked with long-term sustainability of peace and security. Leaving children psychologically traumatized and without support is not an option. We must always remember that boys and girls are being recruited and used because Governments have failed in their duty to protect them. There is a moral obligation to provide these children with support.

Resources are always required to support the release and reintegration of former child soldiers, with special attention paid to the needs of girls. If I may add to the provisions in the SDGs, providing financial support to reintegration programmes should be a key part of the development agenda in post-conflict situations.

Ladies and gentlemen,

This is just a short overview of the challenges we face in the Middle East. The challenges require responses that combine good governance, law, justice and development. We must learn our lesson: without these elements, grievance will always ferment and conflict will materialise. History will repeat. The daunting challenges can only be addressed through innovative and broad collaboration from Member States and regional organizations, civil society and development actors to sustain efforts to develop. You, as a legal professional have a duty to support these efforts.

I would welcome your comments and questions if we have time.