Children and armed conflict - VTC Open debate, Security Council
In the 25 years since the Security Council placed the protection of children in armed conflict on its agenda, increasingly protracted, complex clashes around the world have led to a growing number of violations committed against children, the Secretary-General told the 15-member organ today, as other international organizations and members of civil society detailed the exacerbating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on this deteriorating situation.
Secretary-General António Guterres emphasized that conflict devastates societies and hits children particularly hard. As such, he called on all parties to conflict to prioritize the prevention of violations against them and to engage in dialogue, ceasefires and peace processes. Summarizing recent developments contained in his most recent report (document S/2021/437), he said that, during 2020, almost 24,000 grave violations were committed against 19,300 children in the 21 situations. This shocking, heart-breaking disregard for children’s rights at times of conflict continues with their recruitment and use, their killing and maiming, and the denial of humanitarian access. Citing new and deeply concerning trends, he pointed to increasing numbers of child abductions and sexual violence. At the same time, schools and hospitals are being attacked, looted, destroyed or used for military purposes, with girls’ educational and health facilities targeted disproportionately.
At the twenty-fifth anniversary of the creation of the children and armed conflict mandate, he said, its continued relevance is sadly clear. However, it remains a proven tool for protecting the world’s children. Highlighting other forward steps, he said his Special Representative and the United Nations on the ground, along with civil society and other partners, are fully mobilized, using all available tools established by the Council’s 13 related resolutions. Actions include monitoring and documenting violations to advocating for the release of abducted children. This annual report, with its accountability and engagement components, is a crucial instrument, with 17 action plans being implemented and at least 35 new commitments made by parties to conflict during 2020. Last year alone, more than 12,300 children were released.
Drawing attention to emerging challenges, he applauded United Nations staff and partners for supporting host countries in combating COIVD-19. He also stressed the need to fund child protection positions in the field. The protection framework must adapt as armed conflicts evolve and as children face multiple threats, and related language must be included in peace processes and to enhance data analysis, early warning and advocacy for early action. The report before the Council is grim, but one can draw hope from the local and international commitments, he said, applauding the young people, who, after enduring so much trauma and pain, still stand up for and help others.
“We need to elevate children’s voices and best interests in peace processes and political decision-making,” he said. Recalling that Member States had asked him in 2020 to develop a vision to better address current and future challenges to advance a common agenda, he said that children, youth and future generations are an important part of this effort. Calling on the Security Council and all Member States to strongly support the protection of children in all ways at all times, he said: “There is no place for children in conflict, and we must not allow conflict to trample on the rights of children.”
Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said the challenges of daily life under COVID-19 are magnified for children living through the 21 conflicts outlined in the Secretary-General’s report, pointing to school closures, the increased risk of violence and abuse under lockdown, the mental health impacts of separation from friends and negative coping mechanisms, such as child marriage and child labour. While UNICEF hoped that parties to conflict would turn their attention from fighting each other to fighting the coronavirus, the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire went unheeded, and children trapped within conflict paid a high price. Thousands of children have been killed, maimed, used in fighting, abducted, sexually abused and exploited and the United Nations has verified, on average, at least 70 children per day who experienced grave rights violations over the last five years. “The actual numbers,” she emphasized, “are much higher.”
Against that backdrop, the Council should give the issue the priority it deserves in its decisions and deliberations, she said. “Surely, if there is one priority around which all States can rally behind, it must be the protection of children.” She also called on States and all parties to conflict to avoid the use of explosive weapons in populated areas, as such weapons were responsible for nearly half of all verified child casualties in 2020. Further, Member States must invest in women and girls and prevent gender-based violence in conflict, and she pointed out that girls were not only the victims of one quarter of all violations outlined in the Secretary-General’s report, they also represented 98 per cent of the victims of rape and sexual violence. Highlighting the increasing length and complexity of conflicts around the world and the devastating effects they have on children’s futures, she called on Member States to help UNICEF increase its overall capacity to protect children. “Children and young people bear no responsibility for conflict,” she added, “and yet they bear the deepest scars.”
Forest Whitaker, Advocate for Children Affected by War with the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, said he is encouraged to observe that the momentum behind the issue has grown stronger. Indeed, lasting peace, which constitutes the core mission of the Organization, is at stake when children are subject to the six grave violations that the Secretary‑General detailed in his report. However, invisible effects last longer than the chilling violations, he stressed. From stigma to lost education, former child combatants that have joined the Whitaker Peace and Development Initiative have explained that their families and communities often refuse to take them back.
Mr. Whitaker, also the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Goodwill Ambassador for Peace and Reconciliation, said 24‑year-old Auma Susan is now a counsellor with the Whitaker Peace and Development Initiative and a respected community leader, teaching peace education and mediating land disputes. At age seven, she was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and only escaped beatings and forced labour when she was hit by shrapnel and fled. Rejected by her community, stigma defined her life. Trauma is another invisible effect, he said. Recalling a visit to Uganda, he said an aid worker who started a programme for players in a football project for former combatants who had become refugees and students, told him that a boy he had helped to return home had then killed his eight-year-old sister. The boy’s brain had been transformed to only know violence, he said, emphasizing: “Children affected by conflict cannot walk out of their night in a day.”
Reintegration will not succeed without patience and determination, he continued, adding that it is essential to provide a continuum of care spanning childhood, adolescence and youth to address their needs. Highlighting his organization’s work in South Sudan, Uganda and other countries, he said its efforts focus on rekindling the link between children affected by conflict and their community, through providing skills, opportunities and trauma‑healing. Other groups are working in the same direction, he said, pointing to War Child, working worldwide, and such groups in Uganda as Hope North, which provides shelter and skills‑training, and an orphanage in Gulu, tailored to girls rescued from armed groups.
The approach may be different, but the theme is the same: children have the right to a second chance, he said. As an example, he said Benson Lugwar, a volunteer with the Whitaker Peace and Development Initiative in northern Uganda, had been abducted by LRA in a raid in 2004 that killed his family. For two years, he was forced to witness and commit acts of violence, including during the infamous Lira massacre in a camp of internally displaced persons. Now, he is an elected official, hosts a radio show and has helped his community. He cited Mr. Lugwar’s words, which fully capture the reason why the Council is gathered today: “I didn’t lose sight because the seeds of hope were planted and nurtured in me, from being a former child soldier to a role model that influences many youths within my community and outside.” A strong message of hope and resilience comes from Mr. Lugwar and others, whose questions are simple in asking Council members if they will take time to listen to them and have the strength to see the positive in them, he said.
Laban Onisimus of Plan International, said that, as an Education Specialist with that non-governmental organization, he leads humanitarian teams into conflict-affected regions of Nigeria, focusing on gender-responsive child protection and education in crises. While resolution 2427 (2018) acknowledged the specific needs and vulnerabilities of both girls and boys affected by armed conflict, he said, there is still a long way to go to recognize, understand and address the experiences of girls in armed conflict. “I am here today to call upon the Security Council to increase efforts to protect girls, who are on the front lines of these attacks,” he said, referring to exponential growth in violations against girls in the Lake Chad Basin.
Of the 276 girls abducted in Chibok, north-eastern Nigeria, in 2015, some have still not returned home, he said. Similar abductions fail to make international news and the total number of abducted girls is much higher. Last year, meanwhile, saw a 70 per cent increase in rape and other forms of sexual violence, compared to 2019, in countries on the children affected by armed conflict agenda. Girls made up 98 per cent of the victims, he said, emphasizing the physical and mental health consequences faced by survivors. Repeated attacks on schools, teachers and students have also denied thousands of adolescent girls their right to education.
In northern Nigeria, armed group are targeting girls for use as suicide bombers, he continued. Between June 2014 and February 2018, 468 women and girls were deployed or arrested in 240 suicide attacks which left roughly 1,200 dead and some 3,000 injured. “Almost all the female suicide bombers are adolescent girls who have often been influenced or forced to carry out these attacks.” The denial of humanitarian assistance is also having a disproportionate impact on girls and women, who make up the majority of those who depend on humanitarian aid in the Lake Chad Basin region. Yet, for the most part, girls are not consulted about their humanitarian needs. The outright denial of humanitarian access — including through direct attacks or obstacles to aid deliveries — only makes their situations worse, he said.
Setting out several recommendations, he called on the Security Council to recognize the impact of conflict on girls and not to overlook the plight of girls associated with armed forces and armed groups. Those who attack schools, maim students and teachers, and abduct girls must be held accountable under international law. Safe and unimpeded delivery of humanitarian assistance must be a reality. Lastly, the Council, Member States and the United Nations must do better with conflict prevention, he said, noting that contemporary conflicts which could have been prevented or cut short are instead going on for years.
In the ensuing debate, Council members expressed concern over the more than 26,000 instances of grave violations committed against children in 2020 documented in the Secretary-General’s report, pointing out that many more have likely gone unreported due to challenges imposed by the pandemic. Many acknowledged that children in places like Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan have grown up knowing nothing but war — with girls disproportionately affected — and stressed the importance of education, accountability and protection. On the last point, many members, stressing the relevance of this issue across the Council’s agenda, called for the consistent inclusion of child-protection provisions in the mandates of United Nations peacekeeping operations and special political missions, and for increased political and financial support for the United Nations monitoring and reporting mechanism on children and armed conflict. Others decried the effects that unilateral coercive measures have on children — especially given the challenges associated with COVID-19 — stating that such sanctions prevent critical supplies from reaching those in need despite the existence of humanitarian exemptions.