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Human Rights Council concludes Annual Meeting on the Rights of the Child with a panel focusing on children in humanitarian situations

Human Rights Council
AFTERNOON 

5 March 2018

The Human Rights Council this afternoon concluded its annual full-day meeting on the rights of the child with a panel discussion focusing on children in humanitarian situations and on how States and the international community could be more accountable in this regard.

Ricardo Gonzalez Arenas, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Uruguay to the United Nations Office and the international organizations in Geneva and moderator of the panel, said children were particularly vulnerable during natural disasters and conflict.  They could suffer injuries, become disabled, be at greater risk of health issues, be separated from their families, and be subjected to serious violations, including recruitment by armed groups, mutilations, abduction, rape and other forms of sexual violence.

Gehad Madi, Member of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, said the Committee was deeply concerned about the violations that children in armed conflict faced.  One of the most alarming statistics was that 40 per cent of the children recruited by non-State armed groups were girls.  Recruiters were targeting girls more than boys, as while girls could conduct armed violence, they could also cook, clean and provide sexual services.  This was very alarming and girls needed special attention.

Nicolas Gerard, Head of the Monitoring and Reporting Team at the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict, said the monitoring and reporting mechanism was an important tool to promote accountability for violations committed against children.  It had been established by the United Nations Security Council resolution 1612 to collect and verify information on six grave violations committed against children in country situations.

Justin Byworth, Global Lead for Disaster Management at World Vision International, stressed the critical importance of putting in place an accountability system for children, giving them a voice, an opportunity and a platform to express their concerns.  Listening to their concerns and challenges helped in making the interventions more targeted and effective, and it was also an operationalization of children’s human rights.

Shahrzad Tadjbakhsh, Deputy Director of the Division of International Protection, United Nations Refugee Agency, stressed that children made up nearly half of the world’s displaced people and more than half of all refugees.  Accountability to disaster-affected children must be an international priority.  This meant not to put their lives on hold during displacement, but to support their inclusive education, ensure their right to nationality and legal identity, and to hear their voices and their aspirations, as well as to make them part of the effective search for solutions.

In the ensuing discussion, some speakers wondered whether it was possible to build lasting solutions for children in a context exacerbated by poverty, while others pointed out that eighty per cent of migrants were hosted in developing countries.  Some speakers also spoke of the fact that all children were equal, and that the international community could not focus on some while ignoring others.  Speakers called upon all parties to armed conflicts to respect their international obligations towards children.  They also called on States to adopt the Declaration for Safe Schools, emphasizing the importance of education as a way of longer-term resilience and maintaining a sense of normality for children affected by protracted crises.  Speakers also emphasized the importance of the system of monitoring for the six grave violations committed against children during armed conflict.   Finally, some speakers lamented that while the institutional and legal framework for the protection of children’s rights existed, it could not promote the best interests of the child if some countries were targeting others.

Speaking during the discussion were the European Union, Spain, Azerbaijan, United Arab Emirates, Mexico, Nepal, Chile, Venezuela, Kenya, Jordan, France, Uruguay, Iraq, Afghanistan, Côte d’Ivoire, Angola, Honduras, Council of Europe, Switzerland, Australia, former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Syria and China.

The following non-governmental organizations also took the floor: Centre for Reproductive Rights; International Human Rights Association of American Minorities (IHRAAM); European Union of Public Relations; Association of World Citizens; African Regional Agricultural Credit Association; and Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain.

The Council will reconvene on Tuesday, 6 March at 9 a.m., when it will hold a clustered interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy and the Special Rapporteur on the sale of children.

Statements by the Moderator and the Panellists

RICARDO GONZALEZ ARENAS, Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Uruguay to the United Nations Office and the international organizations in Geneva and Moderator, said children were particularly vulnerable during natural disasters.  They could suffer injuries, become disabled, suffer from physical and sexual abuse, be at greater risk of health issues, or be separated from their families.  In conflict situations, they were subjected to serious violations, including recruitment by armed groups, mutilations, abduction, rape and other forms of sexual violence.  Their right to education, food and health were habitually violated.  In situations of displacement, children suffered mass deportations.  Children in any context were far more likely to be exploited, sold, and experienced physical violence with little protection from social services.   Introducing Mr. Gehad Madi, Member of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, Mr. Gonzalez Arenas asked him to introduce children’s rights in humanitarian situations from the perspective of the rights of the child.  How did the Committee monitor these situations?

GEHAD MADI, Member of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, said the Committee was deeply concerned about the violations that children in armed conflicts faced.  The world was witnessing many atrocities against children.  Referring to the eighteenth anniversary of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict two weeks ago, he noted that some children were still being recruited at the age of 16.  Some States had increased the age of voluntary recruitment of children from 16 to 18 and this was a welcome step.  One of the most annoying statistics stated that 40 per cent of the children recruited by non-State armed groups were girls.  Recruiters were targeting girls more than boys, as while girls could conduct armed violence, they could also cook, clean and provide sexual services.  This was very alarming and girls needed special attention.  The Committee had adopted a joint General Comment with the Committee on Migrant Workers on the human rights of children in the context of international migration, which included all provisions and principles, as well as the obligations of States in this regard.  The Committee hoped that States parties would read, digest, and implement these General Comments.  The Committee welcomed some of the reconciliation processes and peace agreements and hoped that the issue of the demobilization of children and their release would take place speedily.  Children soldiers were in a great need of reintegration into society.  They had witnessed so many traumas.  At the same time some of the States parties while demobilizing these were in great need of financial, technical and human support to reintegrate these children.  The most important aspect was to support these children.  When it came to the plight of children as a result of natural disasters, the Committee asked States to implement contingency plans to determine how States had to act or not act and to ensure that children would be heard.  Finally, Mr. Madi regretted that children were not represented at the Human Rights Council.  Children were rights-holders and they should participate at this session.

NICOLAS GÉRARD, Head of the Monitoring and Reporting Team at the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict, noted that the multitude of conflicts across the globe and the denigration in the respect of international law in the conduct of hostilities were leaving an increasingly difficult task to protect the most vulnerable: boys and girls.  The monitoring and reporting mechanism was an important tool to promote accountability for violations committed against children.  It had been established by the United Nations Security Council resolution 1612 to collect and verify information on six grave violations committed against children in country situations where parties to conflicts were listed in the annual report of the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict.  The collected information was used to generate action to end and prevent grave violations through advocacy and action plans, and to inform the humanitarian response.  In a little more than a decade, the mandate’s strong legal framework had led to important advances for children: 29 action plans had been signed with parties to conflict, each of them including measures to promote accountability such as the criminalization of the recruitment and use of children.  The Office was engaged in action plans with all Government security forces listed for the recruitment and use of children.  The Office’s work was now based on the near universal consensus that boys and girls should not be recruited and used by Government security forces in conflict and should be protected from all grave violations.  Engaging with non-State actors to end violations and promote accountability was one of the greatest challenges the Office still faced.

The Office was currently developing a strategy based on the Secretary General’s vision of enhanced engagement to stop violations and prevent them from occurring in the first place. 

Increasing public awareness and action were at the core of that prevention strategy.  The campaign “Children, Not Soldiers” had become a catalyst for the signing and implementation of actions plans with Governments.  Even though it had now officially ended, the campaign continued to be used as an advocacy tool by partners in the majority of the countries on the Children and Armed Conflict agenda.  The Office was currently developing a new initiative that would build on “Children, Not Soldiers” achievements, while creating additional advocacy tools to better address the other violations included in the mandate, and with a strong focus on the ultimate objective: preventing violations.  Another aspect of the strategy was to increase cooperation with regional and sub-regional organizations which played an increasingly important role in the maintenance of international peace and security by developing a common approach to the protection of children.  One recent example was the involvement with NATO’s child protection policy guidelines and training, which was setting a standard in all their operations.

RICARDO GONZALEZ ARENAS, Permanent Representative of Uruguay to United Nations Office at Geneva and panel moderator, invited the next panellist to share examples of how civil society was working to make States accountable in different humanitarian situations and at different levels.

JUSTIN BYWORTH, Global Lead for Disaster Management at World Vision International, stressed the critical importance of putting in place an accountability system for children, giving them a voice, an opportunity and a platform to express their concerns.  Listening to their concerns and challenges helped in making the interventions more targeted and effective, and it was also an operationalization of their human rights.  Word Vision was systematically integrating children in its emergency interventions, and in 2016 it had released a summary of what 11,000 children had said over the past 10 years to understand the extent to which disasters impacted their lives, and to gain insight into how effective the Word Vision’s relief efforts had been.  What emerged from listening to children was that they saw themselves as agents of change and not only as victims of conflict and disasters; children saw themselves as humanitarian actors in their own right, and so should everyone else.  The core humanitarian standards stated that the people affected by conflicts and disasters had the right to information and participation in decision-making, and in this complaint mechanisms had a strong role to play, and in the Philippines, the World Vision had now developed guidelines to make those systems child friendly.  Children repeatedly stated that their top needs were for protection and for education, and yet, protection was extremely under-resourced and underfunded and children were not getting the protection that they needed and deserved.

RICARDO GONZALEZ ARENAS, Permanent Representative of Uruguay to United Nations Office at Geneva and panel moderator, asked the representative of the United Nations Refugee Agency to expand on best practices in protecting children in humanitarian situations.

SHAHRZAD TADJBAKHSH, Deputy Director of the Division of International Protection, United Nations Refugee Agency, stressed that children made up nearly half of the world’s displaced people and more than half of all refugees, and that accountability to disaster-affected children must be an international priority.  This meant not to put their lives on hold during displacement, but support their inclusive education and strengthen national education structures in host communities; to enable creative pathways to higher education; to ensure their right to nationality and legal identity; and to hear their voices and their aspirations, and to make them part of the effective search for solutions.  The education of displaced children could create an important protection against a range of risks such as recruitment into armed groups, gangs or child labour, and it played a central role in building their future.  And yet, over 3.5 million refugee children aged 5 to 17 were unable to attend school in the last academic year; while 84 per cent of adolescents globally attended secondary school, the figure fell to 22 per cent for refugees.  There were examples of good practices in the inclusion of refugee children in national programmes such as the Global Partnership for Education, the Educate a Child Programme which had helped enrol over 300,000 out of school refugee children in primary education, and others.  Continued support to those programmes, in support of displaced and hosting communities alike, was crucial.  Ms. Tadjbakhsh also spoke of every child’s right to a nationality and legal identity, as well as the prevention of statelessness as an important part of solutions for children in humanitarian situations.

Discussion

European Union said when crisis struck, children were the first to suffer.  This was why the European Union was strongly committed to the protection of children in humanitarian situations, and provided needs-based assistance to countries in conflict.  The protection of migrant, displaced and refugee children with the full respect of the principle of children first was a priority. Spain believed that focusing on the rights of the child in humanitarian situations held great merit.  Children were the most vulnerable victims.  The Spanish humanitarian action strategy and the child action strategy aimed to ensure that the rights of the child were specifically protected, including through the establishment of safe spaces, access to immunization, and psycho-social and other programmes. Azerbaijan said that the rights of children were being flagrantly violated around the world, and this was due to double standards.  As long as the international community failed to address that each and every child was equally important, and focused on some while ignoring other suffering children, the silence would instigate more crimes by the perpetrators.

United Arab Emirates said that the latest statistics showed that children made up 51 per cent of refugees.  The United Arab Emirates undertook double efforts to provide additional assistance to children living in difficult situations, with programmes such as the Dubai Cares Initiative and the Education Does Not Wait Fund.  Recently, the United Arab Emirates had provided $ 500,000 to support the activities of this fund in Rakhine State. Mexico said that during the recent devastating earthquake, it had understood the value of being part of the international community.  Within minutes, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs had helped the Government identify the needs.  What were States’ experiences when drafting contingency plans? Nepal was gravely concerned that many children around the world were dying from abject poverty, including related to natural disasters and manmade disasters.  The Constitution of Nepal guaranteed the rights of the child, and many programmes were implemented in this regard. Chile said prevention and planning had to take a rights based approach.  Chile was vulnerable to natural disasters, and in 2017 it had published a manual with general recommendations for children and parents in emergency situations.  Children must be heard when it came to drafting policies in their regard.

Venezuela fully shared the view that it was necessary to ensure children’s rights in the context of humanitarian situations.  It was vital to have a legal framework to ensure immediate care for children in armed conflict. Kenya noted that it faced humanitarian situations due to drought, floods, conflicts, fires and terrorist attacks.  It had undertaken specific activities to address children in humanitarian situations, such as the child protection working groups. Jordan noted that protecting child rights in humanitarian situations went beyond the immediate response to a crisis and meeting short-term needs.  Education in emergencies was essential and Jordan had enrolled 126,127 Syrian children in its schools. France reminded that at times of crises children suffered the violations of their fundamental rights, and particularly in the field of health and education.  Civil society could be valuable allies in upholding the rights of children, and their social reintegration. Uruguay stated that all measures should be taken to ensure the access of children to humanitarian aid and basic services, without any discrimination.  It called for compliance with international law across the board in that respect.

Centre for Reproductive Rights stressed the importance of addressing specific forms of discrimination in humanitarian settings and in this vein, the needs of young women and girls who must be able to freely make decisions related to their sexual and reproductive health, and who also must have access to accountability and redress mechanisms for violations they suffered. International Human Rights Association of American Minorities (IHRAAM) drew attention to the situation of children in Yemen, who were being killed by sniper fire, suffered atrocities and were being recruited into armed groups. European Union of Public Relations said that in the male-driven and conservative society of Pakistan, girls were undesirable and abandoned, and rendered powerless.

Iraq had included the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child into the Constitution and had recently adopted the national policy for the protection of children, which focused on recently liberated areas, in order to mitigate the effects of terrorism. Afghanistan had endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration in 2015 and believed that education was not only a human right, but an essential protection and empowerment strategy for children living in conflict-affected settings.  The protection of children in humanitarian situations was a priority in Sudan, which had in place a very modern law on the rights of the child and was looking into adopting a national child protection strategy in line with the 2030 Agenda and the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Côte d’Ivoire said that the protection of the rights of the child must be re-examined in the current global context marked by armed conflict, terrorism and organized crime.  It was the responsibility of States and the international community to protect children.

Angola said the protection and promotion of the rights of the child was a priority of Angola’s recently adopted laws.  Implementation in this regard had to take into account the political processes.  As a country which had lived through a conflict lasting decades, Angola had rehabilitated children soldiers and had promoted meetings between families which had been separated during the conflict. Honduras found that armed conflict exacerbated the vulnerability of children.  Referring to the forced recruitment, sexual violence, and other serious abuses by armed groups in the Northern Triangle in Central America, it asked: was this a humanitarian situation?  Was it possible to build lasting solutions in a context exacerbated by poverty? Council of Europe said it was committed to supporting Member States in upholding the rights of the child in every situation.  The European Convention of Human Rights required Member States to guarantee the rights of all children with their jurisdiction which applied equally in humanitarian situations, while the Lanzarote Convention was a blueprint for States to protect children from all kinds of abuse.

Switzerland called upon all parties to armed conflicts to respect their international obligations to children.  It encouraged all States to approve the Declaration for Safe Schools and emphasized the importance of the system of monitoring for the six grave violations committed against children during armed conflict. Australia said education contributed to longer-term resilience and maintaining a sense of normality for children affected by protracted crises.  This was why Australia joined the six partner countries in the Education in Emergencies Challenge, which leveraged the capacities of global citizens, universities, non-governmental organizations and the private sector to help children receive the education they needed to thrive, no matter their circumstances. The former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia welcomed the focus of this annual discussion on the rights of the child in humanitarian situations as particularly timely.  In that context, how could the protection of children in humanitarian situations best be ensured through the Global Compacts on Refugees and Migrants?  And what measures did the panellists see possible for a stronger Regime Complex on the Rights of the Child?

Syria noted that the institutional and legal framework for the protection of children’s rights existed, but it could not respect the best interests of the child unless the United Nations Charter was saved from manipulations and unless some countries stopped targeting other countries. China warned of serious challenges in the promotion and respect for children’s rights worldwide.  In recent years the Chinese Government had promulgated laws and regulations on the care for children of migrant workers, and action plans for the nutrition of children in rural areas.

Association of World Citizens called attention to the suffering of children in Yemen.  More than 3,000 children had been recruited by armed groups, hundreds had been killed recently, while thousands had been affected by disease.  Children were most affected and were even targeted by the conflict. African Regional Agricultural Credit Association drew attention to inhumane working conditions for children in Pakistan.  Child labour was the result of the country’s economic instability. Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain expressed grave concern about the situation of children in Yemen.  Saudi Arabia had been targeting the most vulnerable, namely children, placing them in detention.  The war had led to the closure of schools, lack of drinking water, and the spread of cholera and malaria.

Concluding Remarks

SHAHRZAD TADJBAKHSH, Deputy Director of the Division of International Protection, United Nations Refugee Agency, was pleased that a number of delegations spoke of protracted situations, and said that the response to such humanitarian crises must have solutions and vision right from the outset.  Education could not wait, she stressed.  The issue at hand was how to enable the increased support for children in crisis.  Considering that 80 per cent of the world’s refugees were hosted in developing countries, drawing effectively on the obligations from the New York Declaration was essential - there must be a greater commitment to supporting refugees and their host countries.  In terms of the participation of children, the United Nations Refugee Agency had set up a global youth advisory council, which had participated in a number of policy processes including on the Global Refugee Compact.  Furthermore, children were systematically included in all its activities and today, engaging with children and ensuring their participation was part and parcel of programming approaches.

JUSTIN BYWORTH, Global Lead for Disaster Management at World Vision International, concluded by outlining some practical examples of the inclusion of children and ensuring their meaningful participation in contingency planning and in responses.  Because World Vision was essentially a grassroots organization, that was where a lot of engagement with children in contingency and response planning was happening, including in Indonesia and the Philippines for example.  The examples from its own work showed that involving children at all levels and stages of humanitarian response was possible.  As for the reintegration of demobilized children, World Vision was running a very successful programme in the Central African Republic, and it was successful because it adopted long-term integrated programming approaches that looked at psycho-social needs of the children, their and their families’ livelihoods, and building the bridges and social cohesion between host and displaced communities.  Mr. Byworth stressed that the restriction of humanitarian access to children represented a grave violation of children’s rights, and said that today, there were places where this was occurring every minute.  It was regrettable that the international community was not acting properly to address this grave violation, whatever the place in which it was occurring.

NICOLAS GÉRARD, Head of the Monitoring and Reporting Team at the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict, underscored the concern about attacks on schools and hospitals, and about the denial of humanitarian access.  The monitoring and reporting mechanism relied heavily on access to specific zones in order to conduct its work.  It worked to promote access with State and non-State actors.  As for planning for prevention, that was an increasingly important element.  Action plans with Governments were a starting point for making the work on the prevention of recruitment and use of children successful.  The role of civil society and community-based organizations was absolutely crucial for the social reinsertion of children and for the prevention of abuse in the first place.

GEHAD MADI, Member of the Committee on the Rights of the Child, reminded that 500 million children were still affected by conflict, which was the most catastrophic situation since the Second World War.  It was a result of lack of enforcement of States’ obligations.  Recruitment by gangs was a crime, Mr. Madi emphasized.  States had to consider those children as victims rather than criminals, and they should understand the root causes for those children having joined gangs in the first place.  They had to invest in their education.  Civil society played a very important role in protecting children’s rights and States had to support them and listen to them.  Children were the rights holders – States needed to remember that and listen to them.  They needed to teach and train children how to express their opinion.
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