11 December 2021

Few images generate such strong and universal reactions as those of children who have been forced to take part in hostilities. If the condemnation of the use of children as fuel for wars is unanimous, the solution to ending and preventing this egregious plague is complex and multifaceted.

Twenty-five years ago, in December 1996, the United Nations General Assembly took the unprecedented step of creating a mandate to protect children from armed conflict. The issue wasn’t new: throughout the ages, children have been used and abused in many ways—exploited as cheap labour and subjected to enslavement, maiming, torture, rape and murder. Slow to come at first, international pressure has gradually grown over time, leading to ground-breaking commitments such as the adoption of the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child and the creation of my mandate.

The Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict (OSRSG/CAAC) was born in the post-cold war era, at a time when the nature of conflict was undergoing fundamental changes. Perpetrators, tactics and weapons were changing, as were the victims of modern conflict. Civilians were increasingly at the centre of clashes, and so were children. At the same time, the media landscape was also undergoing a momentous transformation, which resulted in more realistic images, including those of war and its victims, reaching more viewers more quickly than ever before. Children taking part in armed conflict were becoming increasingly visible.

It was in this context that in August 1996, a report titled The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children by Graça Machel—a prelude to the mandate I represent—was presented to the General Assembly. Seizing the momentum a few months later, the Assembly adopted resolution 51/77, which created the CAAC mandate. Its objectives were ambitious: strengthen the protection of children affected by armed conflict, raise awareness, promote the collection of information about the plight of children affected by war, and foster international cooperation to ensure respect for children’s rights in such circumstances.

Our mandate arose from the realization that despite a strong legal framework and international commitments, the world was failing to effectively protect children from the tragic impact of war. Over the years, thanks to robust engagement from the international community and the highest bodies of the United Nations, the mandate has evolved in ways that allow my office to better address the needs of children affected by war. Furthermore, since 1999, the United Nations Security Council has placed the situation of children affected by armed conflict on its agenda as an issue that can impact peace and security. It identified six grave violations affecting children in times of conflict: the killing and maiming of children; the recruitment or use of children as soldiers; sexual violence against children; the abduction of children; attacks against schools or hospitals; and denial of humanitarian access for children. Through my office, the United Nations monitors these violations, identifies perpetrators, and engages with parties to conflicts to develop commitments and action plans aimed at ending and preventing such crimes.

The CAAC mandate is one of concrete and practical engagement between the United Nations and listed parties. While many violations against children occur each year, even more children escape tragedy thanks to United Nations action.

I once had the opportunity to speak with a young girl who had been raped by an armed group in the Central African Republic. She managed to escape but her community rejected her and her baby born of war. Our United Nations partners in the field assisted her at a reintegration centre, where she was taught baking as a livelihood skill. I asked her, “What else can we do for you? What do you need?” She replied, “I need someone to buy my bread”.

Looking back at our 25 years of work brings to mind some of the most important milestones in the protection of conflict-affected children. More than 170,000 children have been released from armed groups and armed forces as a result of United Nations advocacy—including 12,300 in 2020 alone. Thirteen resolutions on children and armed conflict have been adopted by the Security Council. The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, adopted in 2000, has been ratified by 171 States parties. Hundreds of commitments have been made by parties to conflict to end and prevent grave violations against children, including 37 Action Plans, of which 20 are currently under implementation. Fifteen parties to conflict have fully complied with their commitments and have been subsequently delisted. The international community has supported the mandate through a series of initiatives that act as powerful preventive tools: the Paris Principles, the Vancouver Principles, and the Safe Schools Declaration among them.

Looking ahead, the next decade will be instrumental in translating commitments into action, into real and sustainable changes for children. In doing so, we should make sure that our efforts on behalf of conflict-affected children are part of the wider United Nations global vision and focus on prevention, collaboration and recovery, which, as part of the CAAC mandate, we refer to as reintegration.

Since I began my work in 2017 under the leadership of United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, the centrality of prevention in the work of the United Nations has enabled OSRSG/CAAC to expand its engagement with parties to conflict, bringing sustainable solutions to better protect children in armed conflict into closer reach. Involving regional and subregional partners in prevention efforts is also critical, as the nature of conflict and the influence of some transnational armed groups keeps evolving.

Let me be clear: grave violations against children are not an inevitable byproduct of war; they are preventable. We must strive to eradicate violence against children in situations of armed conflict and not simply try to alleviate their suffering. To achieve this, we need to be proactive, not solely reactive, and take aim at breaking the cycles of violence that perpetuate these violations. And there is hope: in recent years, a record number of action plans, joint commitments and command orders have been either signed, issued or updated with governments and armed groups—many of them dealing with prevention and not just protection measures.

At the same time, the world we live in is increasingly interconnected, which means that the challenges we face as well as their solutions must emerge from cooperation, on which our work has always relied. Parties to conflict, Member States, international and regional organizations, the United Nations and its agencies and entities, and civil society organizations, but also communities and children affected by conflict, all have a critical role to play in both preventing and addressing child rights violations and in responding to the needs of survivors.

Such continuous, proactive and collaborative work brings results: new legislation criminalizing grave violations against children has been developed and put in place in countries such as the Central African Republic and the Philippines, while governments have launched accountability mechanisms as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Colombia. Similarly, our engagement with parties to conflict promotes dialogue and sustainable change, and in time leads to changes in behaviour and to significant improvement in the protection of children, as we have seen in the past in Côte d’Ivoire and Nepal, and as we are currently witnessing in South Sudan.

Virginia Gamba, the fourth Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, with children during a visit to South Kordofan, the Sudan. Photo: Fabienne Vinet, 2018.

We may at times take different routes and prioritize different tools, but in the end, we are all working towards a single goal: making the protection of conflict-affected children a reality. The opportunity is there, and we must seize the momentum, for the future of conflict-affected children also depends on our capacity to work together.

One of the key objectives for all partners focusing on ending the use and abuse of children in war should be securing not only the release of children from armed forces and groups, but also their sustainable reintegration back into their communities. Currently, only a fraction of children released from parties to conflict are supported in their reintegration process. Former child soldiers have the right to a new life, to a second chance, and it requires that we, the international community, support politically and financially meaningful, long-term and sustainable reintegration programmes combining health care, psychosocial support, education and livelihood activities.

That is why my Office, together with the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), launched the Global Coalition for Reintegration of Child Soldiers in 2018, with the aim of filling the “reintegration gap” through increased awareness and coordinated global action. Not only is reintegration a humanitarian and human rights imperative, but it is also a strategic investment in sustainable peace and in the development of our societies.

We have come a long way in ensuring that all children, including those affected by conflict, are better protected from the ravages of war. But we must do more.

The past months have been a test of our resilience and inventiveness, as we have had to respond to some of the biggest challenges of our time, brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Of all the people suffering the effects of both conflict and the pandemic, children are the most affected. But we have also seen that when humanity faces such a common threat, calls for ceasefires, as expressed by Secretary-General Guterres, can be prioritized.

As we work to build the post-COVID-19 world, we must put the needs of children at the heart of our recovery plans and prioritize them for the next 25 years.

We have failed our children for too long: we have not prevented young girls and boys from being used and abused by those engaged in armed conflict. We must do more than just teach victims how to survive, “how to bake bread.” We must “buy their bread” and promise them that their children will be better protected than they were. We must promise children that they will be treated as children; that they will be spared the horrors of war; and that they will be given every opportunity to receive an education free from violence, where their hopes and aspirations can thrive.

Every child has a right to dream of a bright future. Children in situations of armed conflict should not be doubly victimized by being robbed of their opportunities to attain their dreams.

As the Secretary-General puts it, “the choices we make now will determine our trajectory for decades to come.” For once, let us choose to prioritize children—all children, especially those affected by armed conflict. The trajectory might, for once, lead towards sustainable peace.

The UN Chronicle is not an official record. It is privileged to host senior United Nations officials as well as distinguished contributors from outside the United Nations system whose views are not necessarily those of the United Nations. Similarly, the boundaries and names shown, and the designations used, in maps or articles do not necessarily imply endorsement or acceptance by the United Nations.