More must be done to protect children in armed conflict

Despite global acceptance of existing human rights legislation dealing with children’s rights, 250,000 child soldiers remain involved in more than 30 conflicts around the world today.

The international community is urged to continue efforts to fight impunity for grave violations of children’s rights © UN Photo/Gilles SereniThis contradiction was highlighted by the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy, in her report to the 12th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. She exposed the “shocking reality that in far too many situations of armed conflict children are routinely brutalised and their most fundamental rights contravened.”

The Special Representative acknowledged significant progress in efforts to better protect the rights of children entangled in armed conflict.

The Security Council passed a landmark resolution on children and armed conflict this year. Resolution 1882 expands the protection framework for children by allowing for the “naming and shaming” of those responsible for grave human rights violations, among other provisions.

Recent commitments made by armed groups and forces have enabled thousands of child soldiers to be demobilised and reunited with their communities in Burundi and Chad in 2009. Parties to conflict have vowed to stop recruiting child soldiers in Côte d’Ivoire and Uganda. Elsewhere, armed forces have made protection of civilians an integral part of military planning.

The UN put in place a child protection policy that includes child protection advisors in Peacekeeping Operations which will foster better monitoring and reporting of violations of children’s rights and help formulate a response.

However, Coomaraswamy noted that the stark reality remains the impact of armed conflicts on children in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Gaza, Iraq, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

She told the Council that the changing nature of conflict around the world takes a greater toll on children and other civilians who are increasingly on the front lines: people have become deliberate targets of terror attacks in public spaces and the “collateral damage” of attacks on combatants. Children are also detained as part of counter-terrorism measures because they’re suspected of being associated with “terrorist” groups.

In some instances, sexual violence on boys and girls continues to be used as a weapon of war and is a grave breach of international humanitarian and human rights laws. “Sexual violence has been used as a premeditated tactic of war designed to humiliate or exterminate a population or to force displacement. For children, the physical and mental consequences are devastating, with far-reaching negative effects on sustainable peace and security”, said Coomaraswamy.

Another concern is the plight of those forced by conflict to leave their homes. “Often caught in a lacuna and a political vacuum, they remain the most vulnerable of groups whose rights are denied”, she said. She advocated for the “rights and guarantees” of children forced to flee.

Coomaraswamy urged the international community to remain resolute and focused on ensuring accountability of perpetrators and fighting impunity for grave violations against children. She also urged the Council to privilege the voice of the victims. “We may hear many theoretical arguments about state sovereignty and the imposition of double standards and though we may attempt to address those concerns, we must not lose focus”, she concluded.

The Special Representative’s report was followed by an interactive dialogue with 39 Member State delegations. They welcomed her recommendations on action to ensure the protection of children in armed conflict. The delegations of countries where the Special Representative had undertaken visits this year also highlighted the measures they had taken to conform to the Optional Protocol of the Convention on the Rights of the Child dealing with the involvement of children in armed conflict as a follow-up to her visit.

1 October 2009