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"We want a society where people are more important than things, where children are precious; a world where people can be more human, caring and gentle." Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the meeting of the Eminent Persons Group on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children, Tarrytown, New York, 9 May 1995.

One of the most urgent tasks when conflicts threaten is to find ways to protect children. Protection in this sense means not only defending them against aggression but also ensuring that their full range of rights and needs are respected and fulfilled. Through the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, now ratified by nearly all countries, the world has recognized that the rights of children include the right to have their basic needs met. Yet generations of children are being killed and wounded physically and emotionally by adult conflicts, in defiance of the international community's best legal instruments.


Even though the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Geneva Conventions and other international humanitarian and human rights law have been flouted, these instruments are genuine landmarks and provide a basis for action. Clearly, what is lacking are the mechanisms and the will for enforcement.

Protecting children requires much broader participation in the monitoring and reporting of human rights abuses. In order to enforce humanitarian and human rights law, there must be a determined effort to prosecute offenders. The international community must attach particular importance to responding effectively to every occasion when those involved in armed conflict trample on children's rights. Any purported "mitigating circumstances" through which Governments or their opponents seek to justify infringements of children's rights in times of armed conflict must be seen by the international community for what they are: reprehensible and intolerable.

Within the United Nations, the principal responsibility for monitoring human rights violations rests with the Commission on Human Rights. It can receive information from any source and take an active role in gathering data. When a country ratifies the Convention on the Rights of the Child, it must review its national laws to ensure that they are in line with the provisions of the Convention. The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, composed of ten experts serving in their individual capacities, monitors constantly the implementation of the Convention by communicating with all States Parties on their progress and problems in promoting children's rights.

All international bodies working in conflict zones should establish procedures for prompt, confidential and objective reporting of violations that come to their attention. Civil society organizations should actively disseminate humanitarian and human rights law and engage in advocacy, reporting and monitoring of infringements of children's rights.

It is a basic need of children to be protected when conflicts threaten, and such protection requires the fulfilment of their rights through the implementation of international human rights and humanitarian law. Impact of Armed Conflict on Children, United Nations, 1996.

The protection of children is not just a national issue. It is also a legitimate concern of the international community. This is especially important since many of the most serious violations of children's rights occur in situations of conflict where there is currently no functioning national government. National and international strategies to protect the rights of children must enfranchise, empower and build the capacities of women, families and communities to address the root causes of conflict and strengthen local development.

Training and educating about human rights

Governments must train and educate the judiciary, police, security personnel and armed forces, especially those participating in peace-keeping operations, in humanitarian and human rights law. This should incorporate specific attention to the needs of children. In the process, the advice and experience of the International Committee of the Red Cross and humanitarian organizations should be sought.

Human rights and humanitarian standards reflect fundamental human values that exist in all societies. Children themselves should know about and understand human rights. One effective way to increase awareness at all levels of society for such instruments is to translate them into understandable terms, for example using stories and the language of local traditions and customs. They can be widely disseminated through the media and popular activities, such as music, art and drama.


Children are rarely mentioned in reconstruction plans and peace agreements, or in relief and protection measures, yet children must be at the centre of humanitarian, peacemaking and peace-building efforts. Humanitarian and human rights law should be made widely known; it must be understood and implemented by military and security forces as well as humanitarian organizations.

Peace missions, reconciliation forums and all peace-building efforts should incorporate women as key members of negotiating teams. Efforts to prevent gender-based violence should include training for military personnel, including United Nations peace-keepers. Senior officers have sometimes turned a blind eye to the sexual crimes of those under their command, but they must be held accountable for both their own behaviour and that of the personnel they supervise. All peace-keeping personnel should receive, as part of their training, instruction on their responsibilities towards civilian communities and particularly towards women and children.

When setting out peace-keeping and demobilization mandates, the protection of children should be considered by the United Nations Security Council. This may include monitoring adherence to human rights and the establishment and maintenance of safe areas and humanitarian access.


The international community must do all it can to prevent the outbreak of fighting by addressing the socio-economic roots of conflict and banning arms shipments to conflict zones. All actions to resolve conflicts and implement peace agreements should focus strongly on the needs of women and children, starting with those actions mandated by the United Nations Security Council and the General Assembly or under the responsibilities of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. In the meantime, everything must be done to protect children caught up in armed struggles. Everyone has a responsibility to report violations of the rights of children and to take urgent measures to prevent them.

The success of efforts to protect and promote the rights of children often depends on persuading others of the value of such actions and the need to increase awareness of the critical situation. All individuals, professional practitioners and civil society organizations can take the following steps:

o Encourage Governments to reduce their levels of militarization and to honour the commitments they made at the World Summit for Social Development (Copenhagen, 6-12 March 1995) to support the concept of human security, by taking steps to shift the allocation of resources from arms and military expenditures to human and social development.

o Urge Governments that have not yet become States Parties to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child to do so immediately, and urge Governments that have become States Parties to incorporate the Convention into national legislation and programmes.

o Speak out against the use of children as soldiers and promote the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, aimed at raising the age of recruitment into armed forces from 15 to 18 years.

o Mount a vigorous public information campaign to ensure that parents, schools and policy-makers are familiar with local and international human rights standards and humanitarian law, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Assist in creating an enabling environment for child rights activities.

o Support the global campaign for a worldwide ban on the manufacture, sale and distribution of landmines and other weapons that injure and kill mainly civilians, and boycott companies that profit from the production and sale of such weapons.

o Urge Governments to pass laws that eliminate discrimination against child and female-headed households in relation to custody, inheritance and property rights.

o Advocate among all parties to conflicts the principle of children as "zones of peace", to enable vital relief supplies and vaccines to be delivered.

o Encourage paediatricians and other doctors and health workers to disseminate child rights information and report violations encountered in the course of their work. Health professionals have a special obligation to speak out.

o Discourage the institutionalization of children in conflict and post-conflict situations.

o Lobby for the prosecution of rape as a war crime.

o Strengthen women's organizations and networks as a way to maximize women's contribution to protecting the rights of children. Support the participation of women as key members of negotiating teams in peace missions, reconciliation forums and peace-building efforts.

o Report abuses of children's rights to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights and local ombudsmen.

o Encourage and assist the media in recognizing their responsibility in the promotion of child rights and the protection of children.

o Become involved in conflict resolution and prevention, such as mediation and capacity building activities. Promote community-level peace-building and engage in grass-roots dialogues.

How to report human rights abuses:

Organizations and individuals can report abuses of children's human rights to the Human Rights Hot Line, a 24-hour facsimile line that will allow the United Nations Centre for Human Rights in Geneva to monitor and react rapidly to human rights emergencies. The Hot Line is available to victims of human rights violations, their relatives and non-governmental organizations. The Hot Line fax number in Geneva is +(41-22) 917-0092

For further information, please contact:

United Nations Children's Fund
Division of Communication
3 United Nations Plaza
New York, NY 10017, USA
Tel.: (212) 326-7467
Fax: (212) 326-7768

United Nations Department of Public Information
Development and Human Rights Section, Room S-1040
New York, NY 10017, USA
Tel.: (212) 963-1453
Fax: (212) 963-1186

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
Office of the Senior Coordinator for Refugee Children
Case Postale 2500
CH-1211 Geneva 2 Dépôt
Tel.: 41-22-739-8111
Fax: 41-22-739-7326

United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
United Nations Centre for Human Rights
Palais des Nations
CH-1211 Geneva 10
Tel.: 41-22-917-3359
Fax: 41-22-917-0123