Leila Zerrougui: Vital efforts to protect children ‘an entry point’ for wider peace in Colombia

25 October 2016 – The senior United Nations child rights envoy today said she is heartened by the commitment of the Colombian Government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC) to separate and reintegrate children associated with the armed group, despite the negative results of the recent referendum on the Colombian peace accord.

“[The decision on children] is an important humanitarian trust-building measure and I join the Secretary-General in calling upon all those involved to do their utmost to provide adequate support and care to children and their communities who have suffered too much in this conflict,” said the UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Leila Zerrougui. Ms. Zerrougui was commenting on the Secretary-General’s third report on the situation of children affected by the armed conflict in Colombia, which covers the period from September 2011 to June 2016, and highlights the peace talks between the Government and FARC-EP, as well as the agreement on the separation and reintegration of children signed in Havana, Cuba, on 15 May 2016.

The historic peace accord, meant to end the Western hemisphere’s longest running conflict, that emerged from nearly four years of talks hosted in Havana, Cuba, was defeated earlier this month in a public referendum. Both sides have since agreed to keep pressing ahead with efforts to maintain their agreements.

A naked child holds a broom inside the doorway of his home in Moravia, a poor neighbourhood in Medellín, capital of Antioquia Department. In September 2009 in Colombia, the nation’s 44 million inhabitants continue to suffer from one of the highest income gaps between rich and poor in Latin America, more than 40 years of conflict, endemic social violence and rampant drug trafficking that affects all social strata and sustains the conflict. More than half a million Colombians have fled the country and another 3 million are internally displaced 57 per cent of the displaced are children. Since 2005 Colombia has also had the highest number of casualties from landmines and other unexploded ordnance (UXO). In 2008, flooding in different parts of the country affected 1.2 million people and killed 76. Among other negative affects on children, education is frequently disrupted or does not adequately address their special needs and 12 per cent of children aged 5-17 years do not attend school. To respond, UNICEF, supported by more than US $1 million from the Government of the Netherlands, is working with the Ministry of Education, other UN agencies, civil society and private sector partners to implement an integrated ‘Education in Emergencies’ strategy. The programme supports community and local government initiatives and institutions in emergency-affected departments. Initiatives identify vulnerable out-of-school children and help them return support quality primary and secondary education that promotes gender equality, diversity, a culture of peace and respect for human rights improve social and study skills and self-esteem among students, refer victims of abuse and sexual violence for psychosocial assistance and encourage the participation of parents and other community members.

A naked child holds a broom inside the doorway of his home in Moravia, a poor neighbourhood in Medellín, Colombia. Copyrights: UNICEF

Ms. Zerrougui said the report highlighted the importance of pursuing peace and protecting children from the impact of the armed conflict, and to continue the separation of under-18 children associated with the FARC-EP, and assure that their reintegration needs are satisfied.

According to the report, the number of violations against children has decreased and advances were made towards strengthening the legal framework and adapting protection policies.

However, some concerns remain regarding the challenging presence of post-demobilization groups, and the gaps between policy commitments and implementation.

Strengthening of family reunification, gender-sensitive protection and care services, providing socio-economic and psychological support to children were among the efforts that the Secretary-General encouraged the Colombian government to undertake.

The report also welcomed the announcement of a roadmap for the peace talks between the Government and the Ejército de Liberacion Nacional (ELN). With negotiations scheduled to begin this week in Quito, Ecuador, the Secretary-General is inviting the parties to consider including the issue of the protection of children as soon as possible.

According to Ms. Zerrougui, the agreement between the Government and FARC-EP “illustrates how the protection of children, the universal desire to build a better future for our children, can truly serve as an entry point to achieve peace and it is my hope that what has been accomplished will be emulated in future negotiations in Colombia and elsewhere.”

This article was originally published by the UN News Centre