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'Stop the War on Children' Symposium

Statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

The Hague, 16 May 2019

Your Royal Highness,
Mayor Krikke,
Ms Thorning Schmidt,
Colleagues, Friends,

Thank you for inviting me to speak about this crucial topic.

I congratulate Save the Children for the excellent report they have produced. What we need to do now is not just read it, but act. This is about preserving the lives and wellbeing of potentially hundreds of millions of children who live in conflict situations.

It is also about who we are, and the kind of society we want. Do we think it’s acceptable that children are being treated, in effect, as regrettable but avoidable collateral damage, in conflicts that are not so very far away from where we are today?

Last month a new surge of fighting began in Libya, much of it around the capital city, Tripoli. By now, indiscriminate missiles and other fighting has killed several civilians and forced at least 66,500 people to leave their homes. The escalation in fighting is the worst Libya has seen in several years, and as UNICEF has reported, increasing numbers of children are “at imminent risk of injury or death”. Already, at least one civilian health centre and 10 ambulances have been damaged. 1,800 (one thousand eight hundred) children are among the civilians who require urgent evacuation from the worse conflict areas. And although millions of dollars have already been allocated to provide humanitarian assistance to civilians, access to aid is being blocked by both sides.

In Yemen, after more than four years of terrible warfare, and the creation of the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, people are again facing a massive increase in the cholera epidemic. Last month, over 2,000 suspected cases were recorded every day – double the number observed in January.  According to World Health Organization data, up until March 17th, more than 108,000 cases (one hundred and eight thousand) had been reported this year, in comparison with 371,000 (three hundred seventy one thousand) cases in the whole of the last year, with the trend of suspected cases up 24%.

Regardless of these numbers, over half of all health facilities in the country are out of action – many, because of bombings – and nearly 20 million people lack access to adequate health care. Over half of them are children. From the moment of birth, the survival of children in Yemen is under threat, with many born outside of hospitals, without skilled birth attendants – exposing many babies and mothers to the risk of infections and death.

In addition, over 2 million children in Yemen are suffering from acute malnutrition, including 360,000 from severe acute malnutrition. Thousands of children have been killed or injured since the beginning of the conflict. Many more have died of preventable diseases, made worse by starvation. Two million children in Yemen cannot attend school. Over 8 million do not have access to safe water and sanitation.

The number of children deeply and, perhaps, permanently traumatised by what they have experienced, will never be known.  As the UNDP recently concluded, even if the war in Yemen were to end tomorrow, it will take decades to return the country to its pre-conflict levels of development. This means the lives and destinies of several generations of children will be scarred.

As the UN Secretary General pointed out recently, children did not start the war in Yemen. Neither did they play a part in the beginning of the conflict in Libya.

In Syria, children did have a role at the onset of the conflict. The arrest, torture and murder of adolescent children, after they scrawled graffiti on the wall of their school, in Daraa, led to peaceful public protests, which were met with a wave of violent repression.  This series of events is generally considered to be a major element in inflaming the conflict.

In Syria, as the Committee on the Rights of the Child reported in February, 8 years of conflict have led to the killing of thousands of children, including by the use of indiscriminate, disproportionate or unlawful weapons by all sides. The CRC and the Human Rights Council’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria have concluded that many children have also been tortured in detention, often in front of their parents. Many other children and adolescents have been recruited as fighters, subjected to sexual violence, or suffered the repeated infliction of physical and emotional trauma. 2018 was the deadliest year yet for children in Syria, according to Unicef.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Geneva conventions: the legal treaties which established that even in war, there must be a limit to suffering – and which laid down the very basic, minimal requirements for the protection of civilian families.

It is also the 30th anniversary of the Convention of the Rights of the Child, in which States commit to taking “all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse”. The Convention’s commitments apply to all children, at all times, everywhere. And the primary responsibility for upholding those commitments belongs to each national State.

These commitments – under international humanitarian law and international human rights law – were made for all of us. The four Geneva Conventions are among the very few international treaties universally ratified. The Convention on the Rights of the Child is the most widely ratified international human rights treaty. They express something very powerful about the core requirement for every human being – that we must care for each other’s’ destinies.

But in conflict after conflict, these promises are being torn apart. We are seeing the lives of civilians shattered. Protected sites, such as hospitals, are repeatedly attacked. Protracted fighting in urban areas quickly becomes indiscriminate and leads to attacks on basic infrastructure for civilian life, such as water, electricity or – as in the Syrian conflict – bakeries. Over the past 8 years, long lines of women and children queueing up to fetch what may be their families’ only food have been bombed again and again.

In some countries, such as South Sudan, children are at very high risk of being killed, abducted or recruited by the armed parties, to serve as soldiers or workers. Reports by my Office and the UN peacekeeping mission, UNMISS, have spoken of the sheer brutality of the sexual violence perpetrated along ethnic lines against women and girls. The number of children, who have suffered rape by armed combatants in South Sudan, or have been used as child soldiers, is unknown.

 Everywhere, children caught up in conflict situations -- or children who have been forced to flee their homes -- are vulnerable to being sold or trafficked for labour, sexual and other forms of exploitation. Trafficking of children by armed groups has been documented in conflicts in the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, and it is a war crime.

Children already marginalised -- because of their ethnic, religious or national origin, because of disabilities, migrant status or for any other reason – are usually at highest risk of these harms.

In April, a young woman named Nujeen Mustafa delivered a heart breaking speech to the Security Council. She was born with cerebral palsy and she described living in Aleppo under daily bombardment, with the intense fear that because she lacked a wheelchair, she would slow down her family and cause their deaths. In January 2014. When they finally fled Syria, 16 year old Nujeen had to be carried out of the country by her brothers, at great risk.

We can do better – much better – than this. Protecting the world’s children from the worst effects of conflict is a goal we can achieve. It is feasible: the tools are in place. And in this city of international justice, we also need to take a stand: this protection is important, not only for the many children directly concerned, but also for us all.

Excellencies,

When I chose to became a paediatrician, it was party because children -- as the Declaration of the Rights of the Child points out – need “special safeguards and care". Because their brains and bodies are developing, the harms they suffer may have extremely deep and long-lasting impact; and because most children cannot adequately look after their own needs, we “undertake to ensure the child such protection and care as is necessary for his or her well-being”.

The nourishment and care we bring to children has direct bearing on the future of humanity. Without strong commitment to children, we undermine not only the destiny of many individuals – but also our community's strength.

Protecting children’s rights and wellbeing should be absolutely basic to who we are. All children possess inherent worth and should have an equal chance to thrive, whatever their social origin, gender, place of birth or family situation.

Like a mirror, the situation of children around the world reflects many trends of recent decades. There has been progress, most clearly with respect to children's health, education and the struggle to end extreme poverty. But in the case of children caught up in conflict, the trend has been one of deepening calamity.

Clearly, the best way to protect these children would be to prevent conflict from happening in the first place. To prevent outbreaks of conflict and boost the societies' ability to heal divisions and avoid generating deep grievances – a range of human-rights based tools is available, including the detailed roadmap to sustainable development drawn up as the 2030 Agenda.

Last month, the Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed conflict, Virginia Gamba, launched a new initiative to strengthen the protection of children affected by armed conflict, and promote better information about the plight of children affected by war. 

The Act to Protect Campaign will seek to generate greater awareness and support actions to end and prevent grave violations committed against children in times of conflict: the recruitment and use of children; killing and maiming children; sexual violence against children; attacks on schools and hospitals; abduction of children; and denial of humanitarian access.

I invite you all to join the ACT to Protect campaign and to work together to provide effective protection to all children.

Just last month, the Security Council adopted an important new resolution on conflict-related sexual violence. Resolution 2467 adds significantly to the international community's understanding of the dimensions of these abuses and their impact on victims and survivors. It also brings fresh focus on accountability and prevention. While it could have gone further, it is still a strong affirmation of the Security Council's collective commitment to use all means at its disposal – including sanctions and other targeted measures – to respond to sexual violence against women and children in armed conflict.

The Security Council noted for the first time that children born of sexual violence face sometimes life-threatening harm, linked to the harms inflicted on their mothers, and that these include the risk of statelessness, discrimination and marginalization, and physical and psychological injury. The Resolution also called on States to recognize the equal rights of these children in national laws, and asked for follow-up reporting by the Secretary-General.

In addition, the Secretary General issues annual reports to the Security Council on Children and Armed Conflict, which specifically name parties to conflict, that commit grave human rights violations against children. These have become an effective mechanism to engage in dialogue with listed Governments and armed groups, encouraging them to develop action plans to halt and prevent violations against children. To date, 28 listed parties have signed 29 action plans, including 11 Government forces and 17 non-State armed groups. Of those, 12 parties fully complied with their action plan and were consequently delisted.

But although these mechanisms are vital, it is also essential to ensure accountability for the perpetrators. That is true for all victims, of course, but especially so when the most vulnerable members of our human family, children are victims.

Here in The Hague, key institutions have pursued accountability for crimes suffered by countless children and other victims, in countries shattered by conflict. In this city, the Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, joined later by the International Criminal Court, the Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals and the Kosovo Specialist Chambers, have advanced crucial protections and rendered justice in emblematic cases.

Elsewhere, ground-breaking cases before the Special Court for Sierra Leone and the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia have also focused on the rights of children. And this work is not limited to courts. The investigative mechanisms set up by the United Nations to prepare criminal cases concerning Syria and Myanmar, where thousands and thousands of children have been swept up in vast waves of violence, are also crucially important in maintaining focus on the forceful demand for justice that crimes against children impose on us all.

Justice is not only about punishing the perpetrators of past crimes. Some remedies involve compensation to victims. Acknowledging the reality and illegitimacy of what has been done to children can be fundamental in rebuilding a sense of self. There is also a powerful deterrent function to judicial proceedings: they prevent future crime.

Excellencies,

This is not a time for complacency in the human rights community. We are struggling intensely to preserve the rules-based international order in the face of heavy head-winds –– whether in terms of arms control, climate, development, trade, international humanitarian law, or human rights.

I am confident we will succeed. In just the last few decades, many countries have travelled from dictatorship to democracy – my own among them. Others have recognised key rights for people deprived of basic freedoms for generations. Millions of people have risen out of poverty, and been able to contribute more fully to public life. Human rights are powerful: they improve lives for millions of people; they strengthen societies and charter the path for a better collective future for humanity.

Eglantyne Jebb – who founded Save the Children and contributed to drafting the Declaration on the Rights of the Child – told her followers, "let us clearly understand that this is not impossible".

And I tell you today that the struggle to prevent grave crimes against children is likewise, not impossible.

Time and again, in the long struggle for human equality, dignity and rights, ordinary people – people with burdens and fears and doubts – looked at their conscience and took action. They drew on each other’s strength, and their sense of basic decency, and they rose up to take a stand.

I have seen this done. I know it can be done again.

Our great international laws, treaties and judicial institutions need powerful advocates and stronger support. We need to stand firm on their achievements and build on them to chart new ways forward to better protection of children, everywhere.

Because the slaughter of children, and their casual physical and emotional destruction, are not an inevitable part of the human condition.

Because if we do not take a stand for children’s rights, who are we and what has happened to our humanity and values?

Because if we don´t act now, when?

Thank you.