To the Panel on the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict
New York - 31 January 2001
Madam Moderator, Distinguished Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen:
Last May, UNICEF warmly welcomed the General Assembly's adoption of two Optional Protocols to the Convention on the Rights of the Child - one on the involvement of children in armed conflict, the other on the sale of children, child prostitution and child pornography.
These Protocols, the product of six years of negotiations involving governments, NGOs and our partners in the UN System, represent the highest international standards for child protection - and UNICEF is pressing for their earliest possible ratification and implementation.
The Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict prohibits the active participation of children under the age of 18 in hostilities - and imposes strict limitations for the recruitment of children into armed forces and groups.
In adopting it, governments have expressed their resolve to reverse and ultimately end the victimisation of children - hundreds of thousands of them - who are systematically targeted and brutalised in armed conflict.
A total of 76 countries have now signed the Optional Protocol on children in armed conflict, a significant number of them during the Millennium Assembly. Three have ratified the Protocol. And many States have publicly committed themselves to adopting legislation that would institutionalise 18 as the standard minimum age for all forms of recruitment and involvement in military activities.
This is progress - but not nearly enough.
Distinguished Delegates, now is the time for this commitment to be translated into action. It is time for every government to move swiftly to ratify and implement the Protocol.
Why is speed of the essence? Because every day that we delay, the toll of death and suffering among children in armed conflict will continue to grow - and that is simply unconscionable.
The United Nations Children's Fund operates on the ground before, during and after conflicts - and so we know first-hand how the same children that UNICEF and its partners help nurture, immunise and educate have been slaughtered, raped and maimed; exploited as soldiers - and exposed to unspeakable brutality.
The Optional Protocol is a vital tool for ending these attacks on child rights. It strengthens our hand in insisting that all parties to armed conflict put an immediate end to the use of child soldiers. And it lends added force to demands for their immediate demobilisation - and eventual rehabilitation and reintegration to society.
The Optional Protocol does more than set standards. Its reporting requirements demand accountability from governments and armed groups alike. In this connection, UNICEF is encouraged by the steps taken by the Committee on the Rights of the Child to adopt guidelines for reporting under the Protocol.
With many governments endorsing the minimum age of 18 for voluntary recruitment, UNICEF is hopeful that this standard will be universally adopted for government military forces and other armed groups.
We will be hearing shortly from Colombia and Finland, two countries where the minimum recruiting age of 18 has already been addressed. And States Parties to the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child have committed themselves to applying 18 as the minimum age for voluntary and non-voluntary recruitment into armed forces.
And as UNICEF and its partners work to promote this standard, we will continue our efforts in the field to help children to recover from their experiences and return to society, using such measures as psychosocial support, family reunification, and dialogue with non-State parties.
What are the next steps?
Our first goal, obviously, must be to achieve the 10 ratifications necessary for the entry into force of the Protocol in time for the first anniversary of its adoption in May.
And UNICEF would like to see at least 50 ratifications by September's opening of the General Assembly's Special Session on Children.
Indeed, ratification of the Optional Protocol should be a central element in every government's preparation for the Special Session - and UNICEF urges all those involved in the Global Movement for Children to make this a priority concern.
We also believe that every ratification should be accompanied by a strong declaration endorsing 18 as the minimum age for voluntary recruitment - and by steps to incorporate the new standard into national legislation.
Such legislation should also make the recruitment of children a crime under national law; and mandate improvements in birth registration to protect children who might otherwise become cannon fodder.
UNICEF's country offices are following the issue closely - and we stand ready to assist in any way possible, including advice or participation in public debates.
We hope that presence here of so many government officials and representatives of civil society will encourage the sharing of information on the ratification process - and thus help build momentum.
Distinguished Delegates, it is no secret that children are the first victims of every war. We all agree that this is unforgivable. But it is no less unforgivable that the world sees these attacks on child rights - and yet fails to act.
Peace is every child's right, as Graça Machel has pointed out - and all of us, without exception, are responsible for protecting that right. That is why we must work to ensure that the Optional Protocol enters into force well in advance of the opening of the Special Session on Children - and goes on to be ratified by every country on earth. The world's children deserve no less.