Twenty years for children

Twentieth anniversary of  the mandate of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict

By Leila Zerrougui

Twenty years ago, on December 12, the UN General Assembly created a mandate dedicated to better protecting children affected by conflict. This followed an era when graphic images of child soldiers, both boys and girls, being killed, injured or displaced by war had become common features in the media. The world was beginning to comprehend the reality that thousands of children were facing on a daily basis.

In the years that followed, few issues have managed to galvanize the international community like the plight of children affected by war.

When I began my work in 2012, I inherited a mandate with a strong legal framework and mechanisms to generate change for these children through the UN’s governing bodies, Member States and parties to conflict. The mandate was delivering concrete results, including promoting heightened collaboration between all who can leverage a positive impact in children’s lives.

Since 2000, more than 115,000 child soldiers have been released. In recent years, the campaign ‘Children, Not Soldiers’, launched with UNICEF to turn the page on the recruitment and use of children by national security forces in situations of conflict, has contributed to this progress by helping the UN work as a true partner with the seven Member States still concerned by this problem. More importantly, the campaign has helped us reach one of the founding objectives of the mandate: a global consensus among Member States that children should not be recruited and used in conflict, a violation at the heart of children’s sufferings in times of war, and that they should be protected from all grave violations.

In the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a country that had become emblematic for its army of “kadogo”(child soldiers), the Government has taken robust action and is well on its way to making its armed forces child-free. The Government has also become a dedicated partner to fight the massive recruitment of child soldiers by the dozens of armed groups active in the restive east of the country.

“We have changed how we look at children. We don’t recruit them anymore, it’s in our blood. The change is irreversible,” an army general recently told a colleague working for the UN peacekeeping mission in DRC.

In the past twenty years, this crucial work to end the use of child soldiers has helped to lay the foundation to address other grave violations. There is substantial engagement and positive developments to curb sexual violence in conflict. There is also a strong international mobilization to protect schools and hospitals, including through preventing their military use. More than ever before, children’s special protection needs are included in peace processes. In Colombia for example, this has led to an agreement between the parties to release all children associated with the FARC-EP and to provide them with specialized services to facilitate their return to a normal life in their communities. This agreement also illustrates how the protection of children, the universal desire to build a better future for boys and girls, can truly serve as an entry point to negotiate peace.

While the progress of the past twenty years is undeniable, we still face daunting challenges in countries like Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia and Iraq. There are twenty country situations on our agenda. In each of them, children face a variety of new threats, such as violent extremism or mass detention, and recurring challenges, like attacks on schools and hospitals or indiscriminate use of explosive weapons in civilian neighborhoods.

As we enter the third decade of this mandate, more than ever, we need broad collaboration and the support of the international community to devise innovative solutions that bring results for boys and girls. I will highlight three areas where our action can have a direct impact on the lives of thousands of children.

Strengthening respect for international law
The international community has long agreed that wars have rules that bind all parties to conflict and serve to protect civilians, including children. However, in today’s wars, the fundamental principles of international humanitarian law are commonly flouted, with devastating consequences for boys and girls. This is probably the most critical issue we face at the moment.

The denial of humanitarian access to civilians trapped in or displaced by conflict has always been a reality, but it is increasingly being used as a tactic of war.

The situation in Syria is dire. Unfortunately, the reality faced by the children of South Sudan, Iraq, Somalia, Nigeria or Yemen, to name only a few, is just as unsettling. Collectively, the international community must strengthen its resolve and action to ensure respect for international humanitarian and human rights law.

Engagement with non-State armed groups
Another key priority is to exploit new opportunities of engagement with non-State actors, who have systematically constituted the vast majority of parties listed for grave violations against children in the annual reports of the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict. Fifty-one out of 59 parties to conflict listed in the 2016 annual report are non-State armed groups.

It is worth noting that 33 of those are active in the countries concerned by the “Children, Not Soldiers” campaign, which concerns just seven countries. The consensus generated by the campaign has led to the development of stronger child protection legal and policy frameworks in most of these countries. Commanders of non-State armed groups are also beginning to realize the legal and political risks associated with the recruitment of boys and girls. Many have reached out to my office and other United Nations entities for assistance to end the practice. The international community should build on this encouraging momentum to help facilitate access and engagement with a greater number of parties to conflict.

Reintegration
Once the release of children is secured, the biggest challenge we face is to provide them with a new life, through meaningful and sustainable reintegration services. Former child soldiers experience trauma and stigma that can make it difficult to go back to their communities, to begin or resume their education.

There is a general agreement that community-based reintegration services, which provide psychosocial assistance to children and help them reclaim their lives through educational and vocational opportunities are vital. Yet, ensuring sufficient resources and expertise for these services remains a challenge in every country.

We must also continue our work to advocate against the detention of former child soldiers. Children allegedly recruited and used in conflict should be treated as victims and not security threats.

In the past two decades, the action generated by this mandate has represented a beacon of hope for millions of children. But we must do more. I call on all of those who can make a difference to keep improving how we work together. This will have a decisive impact for the future of boys and girls who cannot wait any longer for the protection we have promised.