Statement of Ms. Leila Zerrougui, Open Debate of the Security Council on Children and Armed Conflict 18 June 2015

Statement of Ms. Leila Zerrougui, SRSG for Children and Armed Conflict
Open Debate of the Security Council on Children and Armed Conflict
18 June 2015

Mr President, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would first like to take this opportunity to thank the Foreign Minister of Malaysia for organising this debate on children and armed conflict. Today’s debate builds on the important discussion we had on 25 March chaired by France dedicated to child victims of non-State armed groups.

As the Secretary-General has just stated, 2014 was a devastating year for children living in conflict areas. In 2015, a number of conflicts intensified, imposing terrible short- and long-term consequences for many children caught up in the violence. An estimated 230 million children now live in countries and areas affected by conflict. More than five million refugee children have also been forced to flee from countries where the Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism is in place. Appalling impacts on the welfare of children were felt, especially in Afghanistan, Iraq, South Sudan, State of Palestine, Syria and Yemen. The report before you documents sharp increases in the numbers of children killed in 2014 and an equally shocking number of injured. This should not just shock us…this is a call to action for us all. I will use the opportunity today to outline the challenges as I see them, and ways in which we can address obstacles and assist these children.

First, violent extremist groups and their horrific crimes captured much of the world’s attention in 2014. We saw children forced to be suicide bombers and human shields, and many publicly executed. Others were required to witness and actively participate in public acts of brutality. We note that responses to the threat posed by extreme violence have also raised child protection concerns—by both militia groups and in some cases Government forces. I am gratified to see that the Council routinely calls on states to ensure that measures taken to counter these group comply with all their obligations under international law, in particular international human rights, refugee and humanitarian law.
As the Secretary-General mentioned, the abduction of children in large numbers was a growing and prevalent feature of conflict in 2014. The response to abductions needs to be scaled up to address this increasing trend—including through early warning mechanisms. I echo the Secretary-General’s call in his report to expand the tools available to address this important issue, including through adding abduction as a trigger violation to list a party in the annexes of the Secretary-General’s Annual Report. We must also tailor integration programmes for those that undergo the traumatising experience of abduction and associated violations, and ensure that international support is there to fund these programmes.

Mr President, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

As discussed extensively at the Open Debate in March, engagement with non-state armed groups, or ‘NSAs’ in shorthand, is another vital area of focus to improve the situation of children in conflict. The majority of parties in the annexes to the Secretary-General’s report are NSAs and I have been working to engage a wide range of these groups to secure commitments to stop violations and protect children. As the Secretary-General’s report notes, in Central African Republic, I supported efforts of the UN mediation team to include child protection provisions in the Brazzaville Ceasefire Agreement signed in July last year. This progress was further consolidated in the context of the Bangui Forum in May of this year. Following a commitment signed by ten armed groups on the margins of the Forum, more than 300 children have been released from the anti-Balaka and the ex-Seleka, and thousands more are expected to be released in the coming months. This is another reminder of the significant resources needed to appropriately receive and reintegrate such a large number of children.

More recently, at the invitation of the Government of Colombia, I met in Cuba in May with the delegation of the FARC-EP. They were open to discussing international standards and ways in which they could make progress to ensure protection of children. In this regard, I welcome the announcement made earlier this week regarding the release of children under 15 and I look forward to seeing further progress to ensure the separation of all children. Later in May, I met with the leaders of three armed groups from Darfur to stress the importance of child protection. I am pleased to report that following this meeting, they issued a joint statement on the situation of children in Darfur pledging to reinforce efforts to prevent grave violations against children.

This concerted engagement also requires the support of Member States to help facilitate contact with these groups and allow independent access so that discussions can be held. It is in the interest of all involved that these groups be brought into a process that will expedite the end of violations against children and prevent future ones.
As you know, last year we launched the ‘Children, Not Soldiers’ campaign. I am pleased to report that we continue to make progress towards ending and preventing the recruitment and use of children by national security forces by 2016. We have seen important steps forward in 2014 in Afghanistan, Myanmar, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia. You can see in the Secretary-General’s report that just one case of recruitment by government forces in the DRC was documented in 2014 and we have not received reports so far in 2015. This is tangible progress from the situation just a few years ago. I am travelling soon to Myanmar to support the Government and the United Nations Country Team in their efforts to identify and implement priorities in the joint Action Plan. While progress is indeed being made with several Campaign countries, sadly, the crises in South Sudan and Yemen have severely hampered our efforts in those countries. Solid progress had been made, but has now been largely lost.

Mr President, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

From South Sudan I am receiving testimony that children, some as young as four months-old, are being targeted based on their ethnicity in Unity State. Eyewitnesses and survivors are informing the United Nations that boys are being killed; civilians are being thrown into burning houses. In one instance, young boys who did not manage to escape an attack on their village, were reportedly tied together with one rope and their throats were slit. Girls are also being subjected to rape by both individuals and groups. These alarming reports were just received and have occurred within the last six weeks.

These heinous crimes fly in the face of numerous commitments by all parties in South Sudan to stop violations against children. As you know, the Council’s Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict adopted strong conclusions on South Sudan in May this year. Unfortunately, these actions seem to have little or no impact on stopping ongoing violations. More must be done, and I call on the international community, especially the African Union and Security Council members, to take concerted action to protect these children, who have grown up surrounded by violence and insecurity.

Yemen is also in our thoughts daily as we watch the violence in the media and receive reports of children killed in aerial bombings and many being recruited. As UNICEF has reported a few weeks ago, since late March, at least 135 children have been killed and 260 injured. The fighting has destroyed schools and hospitals. Cases of recruitment and use have also dramatically risen with all parties to conflict on the ground recruiting children in large numbers.

Another issue that has recently been a focus in the field is the sexual abuse and exploitation of children by peacekeepers or foreign troops. Sexual abuse by those entrusted to protect a population is particularly egregious. It is our collective responsibility to do our utmost to prevent such behaviour, and ensure that perpetrators are held accountable in all contexts.

The issue of deprivation of liberty is another concern with security forces detaining children for actual or alleged association with armed groups. It is equally worrying that children are being treated primarily as security threats rather than as victims.
My Office has been working with partners to ensure that protocols are in place so that detained children are handed over to child protection actors as soon as possible—and these efforts have borne fruit. In 2014, agreements for the handover of children to child protection actors were reached with the Governments of Chad and Somalia. Child protection provisions have also been included in the concept of operations of the Multi-National Joint Task Force to fight Boko Haram. However, despite this progress, we are still receiving disturbing reports of large numbers of children being detained, particularly in the context of counter-terrorism operations.

Mr President, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The rise in the number and the gravity of recent crises has tested both our resolve and our ability to respond. The most important element of our response will be to redouble our efforts and address new challenges with new tools. I remind concerned Governments that they continue to bear primary responsibility for the protection of the children within their borders and that they must actively address the violations outlined in the Secretary-General’s report. The fight against impunity remains one of the key aspects in our efforts to not only react to—but also prevent—grave violations against children. Without credible accountability, the violations will not stop. I call on all States to comply with their international legal obligations and to review their policies and practices to ensure the protection of children and respect for their rights.

Finally, we must all answer this call to action. The stakes are high: an entire generation of children is depending on us to be their voice, to tell their story. And most of all, to take action. My office stands ready to engage with any party to conflict that appears in the Secretary-General’s report.

Thank you.