Following are UN Secretary-General António Guterres’ remarks to the Security Council briefing on “Children in armed conflict: introducing practical guidance on the integration of child protection issues in peace processes”, in New York on 12 February:
I am pleased to join you today, on the International Day against the Use of Child Soldiers, and to brief you on the Practical Guidance for mediators to protect children in situations of armed conflict.
Children simply have no role in conflict. And yet, as Graça Machel said in her landmark 1996 report: “Millions of children are caught up in conflicts in which they are not merely bystanders, but targets.” Children below the age of 18 constitute more than 50 per cent of the population of most countries affected by war, and are among the most vulnerable, unable to protect themselves from its impact. Some 250 million children live in countries affected by conflict.
Twenty eighteen saw more than 12,000 children killed or maimed in conflict – the highest recorded figures since 1996, when the General Assembly created the mandate of my Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict. More than 24,000 violations were documented and verified compared with 21,000 in 2017.
Attacks on hospitals and schools deny children education, health care and life-saving emergency assistance and force families from their homes. Children may be subjected to horrific abuses in war zones, including sexual violence and abduction. They may be trained to use deadly weapons or exploited as cooks and messengers. These violations cause lasting damage to the children themselves and to their communities and societies. They can feed the grievances and frustrations that lead to extremism, creating a vicious cycle of tension and violence.
I thank this Council for its systematic engagement on this issue in several resolutions over the past 21 years. We have made some progress in raising awareness of violations, partly due to the Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism established by this Council in 2005. The statistics this mechanism has yielded are incomplete, but they paint a damning picture and raise questions of responsibility and compliance. Over time, they have the power to change behaviours, prevent grave violations and protect children.
My Special Representative is working to improve the protection of children, from the Central African Republic to Myanmar and Yemen, and everywhere else in the world. South Sudan is an example of how the protection of children can bring parties to conflict together and build confidence and peace. Parties to the peace agreement signed a comprehensive joint action plan for the protection of children with the United Nations, in the presence of my Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, in Juba last week. This comes at a crucial moment for South Sudan and has the potential to build confidence between the parties in the context of the peace process that is facing, as you know, many obstacles. Elsewhere, 12 parties to conflict have been removed from the list of those responsible for violations after complying with their commitments under an action plan.
Sustained advocacy has led to changes in the law and better cooperation with government departments and the military. In Afghanistan, for example, child protection units have been established in every province, and the recruitment and use of children has been made a criminal offence. Campaigns including “Children, Not Soldiers” and the new “Act to Protect” have helped to bring about a global consensus that children should never be used in conflict. However, despite these efforts, the figures for grave violations against children in conflict continue to rise. Greater awareness and better monitoring do not account for this increase. It is the result of ongoing and worsening hostilities, and a shameful disregard for civilian lives. We must all do more.
The Practical Guidance for mediators that we are launching today is the next step in our strategy to put children at the heart of protection, peacebuilding and prevention efforts. It recognizes that children’s needs and rights must be considered during all phases of conflict, from prevention efforts to mediation and recovery through sustainable, inclusive development. The Guidance is based on principles that outlaw discrimination and put children’s interests first. It provides the means to conduct a child rights-based analysis of conflict for mediators and negotiators. And it welcomes the involvement and participation of children, with appropriate support.
By integrating specific measures to protect children into peace processes, we can achieve concrete results for children, and for peace. When the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, ended the recruitment and use of children, it helped to build confidence and created momentum to move the peace process forward.
I thank all those who were involved in developing the Guidance, specifically my Special Representative, Virginia Gamba, the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, the Department of Peace Operations, UNICEF and other stakeholders who have direct experience in the fields of mediation and child protection in civil society. And I strongly encourage all Member States, regional and subregional organizations, mediators and other actors involved in peace processes to make full use of this Guidance and to circulate it widely, to achieve the greatest possible impact.
But as important as this guidance is, it is not enough. I urge all Member States to take concrete actions to prioritize the protection of children affected by conflict at the national, regional and global levels. My Special Representative stands ready to support all Member States in this effort, and in particular at the present moment, doing so in Mali, Syria and Yemen.
Last September, I stood on the North Lawn of the United Nations complex and looked around at 3,758 backpacks that had been laid out by UNICEF colleagues to resemble a graveyard. Each backpack represented a child killed in conflict during 2018. Standing in this cemetery of dreams was devastating. I am sure many of you experienced it for yourselves.
It is our fundamental duty as leaders to do everything in our power to protect children, our future, from the chaos and madness of wars that have nothing to do with them. Together, we are beginning to make progress, but we need to continue on that path. I urge you to make it a priority for this Council.