While warring parties agreed to more than 30 action plans, road maps, command orders and other measures to better protect children in 2019 — the highest number in any one year — cases of grave violations committed against minors remain unacceptably high, two United Nations experts on the matter told the Security Council in a 23 June videoconference meeting*.
Virginia Gamba, Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, commended parties in the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen for adopting these child protection measures. Other parties, notably in Somalia and Sudan, recommitted to action plans. “This is the highest number of measures mutually agreed in any one year,” she stressed.
While accountability remains slow, she said perpetrators nonetheless have been prosecuted in Myanmar, Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic. The search for peace in 2019 also yielded seven peace dialogues in children and armed conflict situations, including in the Central African Republic. Guidelines developed by her Office on how to include child protection language in peace processes — presented to the Council in February — are beginning to be applied. And, following United Nations advocacy, 13,000 children were released from parties to conflict.
Presenting the Secretary-General’s annual report (document A/74/845-S/2020/525), she said the number of grave violations verified by the United Nations, although less than in 2018, remains high. “Much more needs to be done to bring these figures down,” she insisted. Actual violations reached 24,422 in 2019, but the monitoring teams later verified an additional 1,241 committed prior to that date. As a result, the overall verification in 2019 amounted to more than 25,000 grave violations. “This represents 70 grave violations against children per day,” she said.
Also in 2019, 7,747 children were verified as having been recruited and used by parties to conflict, she said, including 668 late verifications, the vast majority of them attributable to non-State actors. Meanwhile, the erosion of respect for international humanitarian law led to high numbers of children killed and maimed. At least 10,173 child casualties were verified in 2019, including 534 late verifications. While this represents a decrease of nearly 2,000 casualties from previous years, killing and maiming remains the highest verified violation in the report. More than 1,600 children were verified as having been abducted, mostly by armed groups, also a considerable decrease. She encouraged countries to work to better understand and address this issue.
While peace dialogues and other measures have led to decreases in some violations, this has not been the case for all, with more than 730 cases of sexual violence, including rape, verified in 2019. “This violation continues to be disturbingly under-reported,” she said, including against boys. She blamed fear of stigma and retaliation, involvement of powerful perpetrators and lack of services for survivors, all of which discourage children and their families from reporting abuse and seeking justice.
More disturbing, she said the number of cases attributed to State and non-State actors are similar — despite an increasing number of parties having signed commitments with the United Nations to end this violation. “Numbers seem not to be dropping.” She called for stronger accountability mechanisms, systematic care services for survivors, better training for armed forces, and the reflection of prevention efforts in legislation that criminalizes sexual violence.
She was equally troubled by the high number of attacks on schools, hospitals and protected personnel, citing 930 verified attacks and a doubling in verified attributions to State forces. There were also 4,400 verified denials of humanitarian access to children — an increase of more than 400 per cent from 2018. Overwhelmingly, this violation shows the greatest increase, with most denials attributed to non-State actors. “I plead for States and armed groups to facilitate the access of humanitarian workers to deliver much-needed assistance to children,” she said.
She said the detention of 2,500 children for their actual or alleged association with armed groups — including those designated as terrorist by the United Nations — is another serious concern. Stressing that the Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism is only as strong as the resources available for its functioning, she urged the Council and the General Assembly’s Fifth Committee (Administrative and Budgetary) to ensure that enough child protection capacity is mandated and retained when a new peacekeeping or political mission is set up or the budget of existing missions is being negotiated. “Behind these figures are boys and girls with stolen childhoods and shattered dreams,” she said.
Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said there are few children as vulnerable as those living through armed conflict situations. Whether trapped by fighting, on the move, part of the fighting itself or detained because of perceived or actual links to armed groups — these children are victims of circumstances beyond their control. “They are, first and foremost, children,” she pointed out.
She recalled that 15 years ago, resolution 1612 (2005) — and the establishment of the children and armed conflict agenda, with its Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism — represented a milestone in honouring the commitment to protect all children. Since then, tens of thousands of children have been released from armed forces and armed groups. In the past three years alone, UNICEF has helped release nearly 37,000 of them and supported reintegration programming in 19 countries. Through such work, the global community has sent a message that violation of children’s rights is illegal. “The culture of impunity must end,” she emphasized.
Countries now have a number of tools to guide their work, she said. The Convention on the Rights of the Child is joined by the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict — ratified by 170 countries — the Paris Principles on Children Associated with Armed Forces or Armed Groups, the Vancouver Principles and the Safe Schools Declaration, endorsed by 104 States.
Many countries have brought these commitments to life in their laws, she said, noting that just last week, the Central African Republic adopted the new Child Protection Code, which also criminalizes recruitment and use. In the Philippines, the Children in Situations of Armed Conflict Law criminalizes the six grave violations. And in five countries — among them Denmark, the United Kingdom and New Zealand — military manuals and directives now reflect the Safe Schools Declaration and Guidelines.
Yet, the numbers of verified violations against children remain “appallingly high”. Over the last 15 years, the Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism documented a shocking 250,000 grave violations against children in armed conflict, including the recruitment and use of 77,000 children, and the killing and maiming of more than 100,000. Upwards of 15,000 children suffered rape and sexual violence. Some 25,000 minors were abducted, and 17,000 attacks were committed on schools and hospitals. There were also 11,000 incidents of denial of humanitarian access. “And these are just the verified cases,” she said. “The actual numbers are certainly much higher.”
COVID-19 adds urgency to this work, she said. Children are missing out on basic medical care. Water and sanitation systems have been destroyed — making it impossible for children to wash their hands. Some 1.5 billion children are out of school, putting those in conflict at a double disadvantage of missing out on education and at increased risk of violence. Far too often, parties use the pandemic for political advantage. “Children are not pawns or bargaining chips,” she said. “This must stop.”
She pressed the Council to urge the 50 parties to conflict who have not yet signed actions plans to do so. She also called for the immediate release of all children detained for their recruitment and use, or alleged association with parties to conflict, and likewise, on States to bring their nationals home. “These children have a right to access protection,” she stressed, including the thousands of minors stranded in north-east Syria. States must invest in education and vocational training for reintegrated children and take urgent action to protect water and sanitation infrastructure. If the United Nations fails children, “we fail the future”, she warned.
Mariam, a 15-year-old member of the National Children’s Parliament of Mali, told the story of a 10-year-old boy named Mohamed who lived in Mopti. In 2014, he was abducted by an armed group, forced to witness atrocities and fled to safety four years later. “He does not know what the future holds for him, his future in a world where leaders seem deaf to the most poignant evils,” she said. “Dear leaders, make decisions, take actions to prevent other children from finding themselves in the same situation as Mohamed.”
Indeed, the consequences of war and conflicts on children are enormous, she continued. Some have become gangsters and thieves, while others have “capsized” with alcohol and drugs. Thousands are out of school, with 1,251 school closures in Mali alone depriving youngsters of their fundamental right to education. She recounted the stories of some of these children, like Aminata, age 12, who lives in an internally displaced persons camp and described happy past days with classmates before asking how she could pursue her dream of teaching. Bakary, age 14, was on vacation in Mopti in 2017 when an armed group kidnapped him. He remains missing, Mariam said. His mother, because of this, “has gone mad and can no longer take care of Bakary’s little brothers and sisters”. She implored Council members: “What are you doing to have Bakary and other abducted children find and join their families?”
Emphasizing that many girls and boys are victims of rape, she told the Council about Fatou, age 12, who lived in the Gao region when an armed group burst into her home, murdered her father in front of her, then raped her in the presence of her mother, who did not survive. Traumatized and fearful of people, Fatou was supported by neighbours, who helped her to go to a youth reception centre for psychological care. “I speak with a tearful heart because I know that children suffer and that children simply should never suffer,” she said, stressing that thousands of children in Mali lose their enthusiasm for life and their dreams. This demonstrates an urgent need for justice so that victims do not grow into adults wanting to take justice into their own hands.
“Please take actions to protect children even in times of conflict and war,” she said. “I know that no one would want to see their children or loved ones to be victims of conflicts.” Convinced that all children, regardless of race, color, ethnicity or religion, have the right to enjoy their childhoods and their rights, she urged the Council to take the necessary measures to guarantee their futures — especially in times of conflict or war. She quoted a saying in Bambara: “Djamana ka Sini nyè sigi bé a dewn bolo”, which means that the future of a country is in the hands of its children. “We children want to participate in decision-making concerning us because we also have our words and ideas to propose in order to reduce the impact of armed conflict on children,” she told the Council. “Help us improve our living conditions, help us not to be victims of conflicts.”
In the ensuing dialogue, Viet Nam’s representative said that behind each statistic is an urgency to prevent these horrifying practices. With the release of more than 155,000 children and 60 country-specific recommendations, there is good reason to be encouraged by efforts of the Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict. The crucial factor for its continued success is sincere dialogue and a unanimous spirit. It must uphold the tradition of consensus as the most effective way to safeguard children’s best interests. The international community must strongly condemn attacks on schools. He urged parties to immediately end such violence and encouraged the sharing of good practices to foster continued learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Viet Nam, the Government encourages young people to voluntarily assist with school lessons in remote and mountainous areas. He called for greater cooperation among States and the United Nations system to monitor the impacts of the virus and take timely action to fight it.
Belgium’s representative recalled that 2020 marks the fifteenth anniversary of resolution 1612 (2005) and the twentieth anniversary of the Optional Protocol. “To be frank, there is little to celebrate.” In 2019, more than 25,000 grave violations were verified, the denial of humanitarian access exponentially increased and the incidence of rape and sexual violence stayed the same, despite the adoption of action plans. As the current chair of the Working Group, Belgium aims for it to adopt conclusions on all 14 country situations with listed parties within its two-year term. He agreed on the need to increase the frequency of country reports, shorten their reporting periods and increase their relevance. The Working Group is mainstreaming the topic of children and armed conflict into the Council’s work, notably through virtual meetings with country task forces. The tireless work of child protection teams and country task forces to monitor and report on the ground should be safeguarded. On the Working Group’s listing mechanism, he said evidence-based listing and delisting, accurately reflecting the data collected and verified by the Mechanism according to the formal criteria, is essential. It is a “precious and powerful tool,” he said. Children detained for association with armed groups, including those designated as terrorist by the Council, or on national security-related charges, must be treated as victims, in line with international juvenile justice standards.
The representative of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, speaking also for Niger, South Africa and Tunisia, said improvements to the Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism supported the emergence of evidence-informed, country-specific action plans on child protection, national child-focused legislation and child-centred policies. She cited Afghanistan’s law that prohibits bacha bazi and the child protection code recently adopted in the Central African Republic to criminalize recruitment and use of children among other gains. Children’s protection in armed conflict should be addressed through preventive diplomacy, mediation in peace processes and at all stages of peacekeeping and peacebuilding, she said, underscoring that coordinated leadership among global governance institutions, regional and subregional organizations, Governments and civil society is crucial. She called for full compliance with international juvenile justice standards, stressing that the success envisioned under the “Silencing the Guns in Africa” campaign requires quality education for children, especially girls. More broadly, she advocated for an end to impunity by extremist armed groups and the perpetrators of kidnapping, gendered and sexual violence in schools or along school routes. In the Sahel and the Lake Chad basin, children are most affected by conflict, COVID-19 and climate change. She urged Governments to institute a culture of respect for women and children among their armed forces, stressing more broadly that children are owed a more fruitful inheritance. “Nothing short of global, national, local and individual transformation will deliver the change they deserve,” she insisted.
Estonia’s representative said the high level of verified violations against children points to the continued failure by parties to comply with international humanitarian and human rights law. He called on countries that have not yet done so to ratify the Optional Protocol on children’s involvement in armed conflict to the Child’s Rights Convention, noting that Estonia joined the more than 100 countries endorsing the Safe Schools Declaration. He expressed concern about the 10,000 children killed or maimed, with the number of attacks climbing in Afghanistan, Mali and Myanmar. He said he was alarmed over the growing denial of humanitarian access to children and unlawful attacks against schools and hospitals in Syria, the Occupied Palestinian Territory, Afghanistan and Somalia. He likewise expressed deep concern about the persistent underreporting of sexual violence, as well as the lack of accountability and access to sexual and reproductive health services, pointing to data collected by the Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism and the consistent application of criteria laid out in the Secretary-General’s report S/2010/181 as essential tools available to the Council to help prevent violations.
The United Kingdom’s representative said that while the Working Group and the Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism have achieved great successes, more must be done to ensure they remain transparent and credible vehicles for accountability. Ensuring that child protection actors are able to monitor, report and respond to grave violations during the COVID-19 pandemic is paramount. The Secretary-General’s annual report provides a valuable tool for strengthening compliance with international law. Its strength, however, depends on a standardized approach to listing and delisting, collected data and reliable application of criteria outlined in his 2010 annual report. The United Nations must review its approach and work with the Council to reinforce the global commitment to support children. For its part, the Council should make greater use of the Working Group to ensure sufficient child protection capacity is embedded in peace operations and political missions. He expressed particular concern that State actors were responsible for more than half of all attacks on schools and strongly urged countries to sign on to the Safe Schools Declaration, as the United Kingdom did in 2018. He also called for improved collection of gender disaggregated data on grave violations.
The representative of the United States said her country supports the critical work of the United Nations-led monitoring and reporting mechanism “because the impact of conflict on children remains all too real”. That the six grave violations persist globally is a tragic fact illustrated on a scale that is hard to imagine. Their perpetrators must be held to account. Children continue to suffer in numerous places, including “Burma”, Mali, Syria and Somalia. Thanking Mariam for her testimony, she said the United States is horrified by reports of terrorists forcibly closing schools and killing teachers in Mali and has launched the Sahel Diplomatic Engagement Framework to focus on State legitimacy. “I hope this Council sees that investing in young people is a primary, cost-effective means of achieving sustainable human, social and economic development,” she said. The United States places a priority on life-saving child protection programming as well as support for longer-term recovery, resilience and healing. It will continue to invest in preventative and responsive programmes.
Indonesia’s delegate said child protection has become even more urgent during the COVID-19 pandemic. For its part, Indonesia’s peacekeepers are contributing to the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO), including by helping children understand how to address the pandemic. Calling for an end to using children in armed conflict, he said sustained actions must also address the causes of conflict. Welcoming the “success story” of 13,200 children released from armed groups in 2019, he emphasized that “we cannot be complacent”. Reintegration efforts should be given greater attention, as they will prevent children’s re-recruitment and exposure to terrorist groups. Positive engagement and commitments by all stakeholders are critical, including United Nations peace operations. It is “the duty of our generation” to give meaning to the Optional Protocol, which marks its twentieth anniversary in 2020. “Our legacy for children is to ensure that their natural constitution is preserved to adulthood,” he said. “Children are neither soldiers nor victims; they are our future.”
The Russian Federation’s delegate said his Government is open to further cooperation with the Special Representative and remains supportive of her important initiatives. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 crisis did not lead to a rejection of unilateral coercive measures, which impact essential health services, social infrastructure, food security and other aspects of life. They affect ordinary people, especially children, despite reassurances about so-called “humanitarian exemptions”. It is regrettable that the Secretary-General did not mentioned this key issue in his report and he called on him to give special attention in future reports to the detrimental effect of illegal political sanctions on children in armed conflict. Terrorists do not shy away from bringing children into their ranks, making children’s rehabilitation and reintegration a crucial aspect of the agenda. Calling on States that have not yet done so to take steps to voluntarily repatriate children stranded in conflict zones, including minors actually or allegedly associated with ISIL/Da’esh, he said that since 2018, the Russian Federation has ensured the return of Russian children from battlegrounds in Iraq and Syria and their ongoing rehabilitation.
* Based on information received from the Security Council Affairs Division.