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Statement by UNICEF Executive Director to Security Council on Children and Armed Conflict

UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy:

I am very pleased to join you today as the Council turns its attention once again to the appalling situation of children in armed conflict. 

Madame President, UNICEF is deeply heartened by the Council’s ongoing concern with the egregious violations of the rights of children in armed conflict. Indeed, anyone familiar with the issue welcomes the Council’s continued engagement. I wish to commend Olara Otunnu, in particular, for his work in helping to draw global attention to the outrages perpetrated against children in armed conflict.

But as the past year has demonstrated, our efforts so far have fallen far short of what is required. From Liberia to Nepal, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Colombia, girls and boys have continued to be caught up in war. 

One clear example of our joint failure to protect children from the ravages of war is the stark picture we encounter in areas where humanitarian access has been denied. During the siege of Monrovia, the inability of the humanitarian community to gain access led to the unnecessary suffering of children and women. In Afghanistan, the security situation has deteriorated to such an extent that humanitarian workers are unable to access critical areas where children are in dire need of assistance. Most recently, the situation in Darfur illustrates the life-threatening consequences when we are denied access to children and women in need.

In my travels over the course of last year, I witnessed the horrific impact of war on children - in Iraq, Afghanistan, and DRC. We can only begin to imagine how it must feel for a child to experience the fear and uncertainty that come with the threat of war, the horror of war, and the long aftermath -  when schools are closed, the routines of daily life are destroyed and children must try to cope with the loss of family, homes, and community.

The report of the Secretary-General attempts to bring home the reality of what is happening to children, every day, in scores of countries.  The numbers speak for themselves. We know, for example, that in Liberia, there are an estimated 15,000 child soldiers, some of whom have been in the fighting forces for many years.  A recent survey in Sierra Leone indicated that 17% of displaced households reported sexual assaults, including rape, torture and sexual slavery.  In mid-2003, there were 82 countries affected to some degree by landmines and/or unexploded ordnance, of which only 45 are States Parties to the Mine Ban Treaty.

Another devastating consequence of today’s wars is that they create and exacerbate conditions that lead to HIV/AIDS. The impoverishment that accompanies conflict often leaves women and girls so destitute that trading sex for survival becomes the only option for many. Other conditions such as the disintegration of communities, displacement, the separation of children from their families, rape and sexual violence, and the destruction of schools and health services also fuel the spread of HIV/AIDS.

Madam President, UNICEF is operational on the frontlines every day.  We are there before, during and after conflict, assisting and protecting children, together with our many UN and NGO partners.
Child soldiers tend to be the “face” of children and armed conflict, but there are many other ways in which the rights of children are violated during armed conflict. I recently returned from a mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo where I saw first hand the devastating impact of sexual violence. Girls, and sometimes boys, are targeted in campaigns of gender-based violence, including rape, prostitution, trafficking, forced pregnancy and sexual slavery. This past year, we have seen once again that rape has been used systematically as a weapon of war and as a means to terrorize populations and destroy communities. Adolescent girls are often singled out for this abuse.

In a hospital in the DRC, girls as young as four years old lay side by side with grandmothers in their 70's. Those who seek medical help represent only a fraction of the survivors. We do not know how many children have become infected with HIV as a result of the rape - in one hospital in Bukavu, 27 percent of rape survivors tested sero-positve. Nor do we know how many girls have become pregnant, forced to bear a child born of rape.  And, we can only imagine the long-term psychological and emotional impact on these girls, many of whom survived brutal rapes by multiple perpetrators.

UNICEF is responding to this crisis in the DRC by working with partners, such as the International Rescue Committee and the Italian NGO COOPI [pronounced: KO-PEE], to provide care and support for survivors of sexual violence.  One project in the Eastern Congo supports a network of community women who reach out to survivors of rape, offering them health care, psychosocial support, and opportunities for income generation. UNICEF is also providing support to several hospitals to provide comprehensive and compassionate care to rape survivors.

In situations of conflict when people are extremely vulnerable, there is always the possibility that power may be abused. We, as humanitarian actors and UN staff, must ensure that in our own behaviour we respect the highest standards of personal conduct, wherever we are working. With the issuing of the Secretary-General's Bulletin on Special Measures for Protection from Sexual Exploitation and Abuse in October 2003, I am actively promoting these principles to maintain the highest possible standards and greatest vigilance in all situations within UNICEF and with all our partners.

Distinguished delegates,

The Council is well aware of UNICEF’s long history in demobilising child soldiers.  Throughout the past several years, UNICEF country offices have engaged in dialogue with groups and governments using children as soldiers in order to bring an end to this abhorrent practice.  The Secretary-General’s list of parties to conflict who recruit and use children as soldiers has been a valuable advocacy tool in this regard. The list has also created opportunities for UNICEF and the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict to pursue collaborative actions in our advocacy efforts on behalf of children in conflict.  The SRSG function is, in addition, a crucial complement to UNICEF’s operational mandate.

I am pleased to draw your attention to an important new tool - a Guide to the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, jointly prepared by the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers and UNICEF. This Guide, which is being released today, will enable child protection advocates, government officials, ordinary citizens and children themselves to translate the commitment of the Optional Protocol into specific actions at the local, national and international levels to put an end to the use of children as soldiers.

In Afghanistan, UNICEF and NGO partners such as BRAC are supporting a community-based demobilization and reintegration programme for child soldiers. The programme will reach an estimated 8,000 child soldiers over a three-year period with formal education and accelerated learning, apprenticeships, vocational start-up kits, psychosocial support, life skills training, and community and family support projects.

In Cote d’Ivoire, extremely difficult security conditions and political instability prevail. UNICEF is leading prevention, demobilisation and reinsertion activities, particularly in the regions of Bouake and Man. One of the lessons learned from past experiences with disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) programmes that we have applied in Cote d’Ivoire is that child demobilization should not be contingent on formal peace processes or more comprehensive DDR exercises.  Resources need to be made available for child demobilisation as early as possible, often well before formal DDR processes begin. To continue to give impetus to these activities, UNICEF urges the Council to ensure that children’s rights are taken into account when the Council considers the revised mandate of MINUCI.

We have found that an essential part of re-establishing normalcy for demobilised child soldiers, as well as for children affected by conflict in other ways, is getting boys and girls back into school. In Liberia, we used some unconventional methods to distribute school materials. These included teachers using wheel-barrows to collect their school supplies, and a fleet of outboard canoes to reach river villages. We trained some 20,000 teachers, and rehabilitated 3,700 schools, including provision of clean water and hygiene facilities. In Afghanistan, similar activities were accompanied by efforts to sensitise parents on the importance of sending girls to school.

When entire communities are in a state of flux, schools can provide a haven. It is therefore vital that their sanctity be protected. What we have seen in Nepal and Afghanistan, for example, is that schools have been turned into recruitment centres, military bases and targets. The misuse of schools, their occupation and attacks on them are one of the worst violations of children’s rights. It is also a violation of one of the most basic principles of the laws of war – that civilian sites must be protected.

Distinguished delegates,

Effective monitoring and reporting on children’s rights violations are essential conditions for ending impunity for crimes committed against children.  The Secretary-General’s report and the draft resolution on children and armed conflict contain many ideas on improving monitoring and reporting in order to hold accountable those who deliberately target, abuse, or exploit children during war.

Based on our field presence, UNICEF is in a unique position to play an important role in monitoring and reporting on abuses of children. Our role in this area is spelt out in our mission statement and the outcome document of the Special Session on Children.

When the lives and the rights of children are at stake, there must be no silent witnesses. The challenge before us is to improve monitoring and reporting on children’s rights violations by modifying and strengthening the existing human rights system so that it can better perform its intended function. The legal and normative framework exists, UN country teams and UN missions are sensitized to the issues, NGO mechanisms such as the Watchlist exist, and there are various fora in which reporting can be done, not the least of which is the Security Council itself during its thematic and country-specific debates. UNICEF will be working in the coming months to identify clear indicators and strengthen our capacity, together with our partners.

Monitoring and reporting serves a key function.  It allows us to develop a record of violations. In so doing, it is an essential foundation for pursuing justice, accountability and, ultimately, reconciliation. It is essential that mechanisms established for such purposes are sensitive to the special situation of children and provide appropriate procedures for their participation. In Sierra Leone, UNICEF, UNAMSIL, and NGO partners worked with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to prepare a child-friendly version of the official report of the Commission.  The aim of this is to allow children to understand their past and actively participate in the national reconciliation process.

Madam President,

While boys and girls continue to be targeted, abused and exploited – whether as soldiers or sex slaves or both, it is important to bear in mind that there are significant ways that young people themselves are demonstrating their resilience and ability to overcome the violence around them. Their energy and strong desire for justice and peace can be a catalyst for peacebuilding within their communities. This has been well demonstrated in Timor Leste, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, and Colombia. 

One particularly innovative example is in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, where a Child Friendly Cities framework is being piloted in Jenin, Jericho, Gaza city and Rafah. Children’s Municipal Councils have been set up in each of the cities to give young people an opportunity to plan and implement activities that will help improve and rebuild community life. Of the 155 young Council representatives, more than half are girls. They meet to decide on priorities, plan and implement small-scale community projects and organize awareness-raising campaigns on children’s rights and related issues. Such initiatives can provide a much-needed alternative to violence and can provide children with the skills they need to build peace.

Madam President, distinguished delegates,

There are limits to what we as UNICEF can do to protect and assist children in war precisely because we are an operational UN agency. This is where we need you, as the Security Council and as individual member states.

UNICEF has deep appreciation for the continued commitment by the Council to deal with the situation of children in armed conflict. We think that the Secretary-General’s list on the use of child soldiers, in particular, is a vital step forward. It is important to maintain the Secretary-General’s list on an annual basis and that its scope be extended to situations not strictly on the Council’s agenda. Such an annual list will allow you to track progress made or commitments not kept. You can also request more detailed information on actions taken by the parties on the list, and decide upon measures you may take to encourage greater progress in this regard.

To facilitate this, we, together with our partner agencies, stand ready to provide you with more systematic, analytical information on the situation of children in armed conflict, including on the  most egregious child rights violations, such as recruitment and use of child soldiers, killing and maiming of children, abduction, attacks on schools, and sexual violence.

We encourage you to request, as a matter of routine, that information on child protection issues be included in all peacekeeping mandates, as well as country-specific and thematic reports. Some of the specific issues that should be highlighted are demobilisation of child soldiers; justice, accountability and reconciliation; refugees and internally displaced persons; and  gender-based violence. Your upcoming debates on the possible creation of several new missions or renewing existing ones (e.g. Cote d' Ivoire, Burundi, Sudan) provide important opportunities to do exactly this. 

Madam President, distinguished delegates,

We need to work together to ensure that children are protected from violence, abuse and exploitation. This year, when I travel to countries affected by armed conflict, I want to be able to tell the children and their families that they will be protected, that they will be able to go to school every day, that their health centres will be open and functioning, and that those who abused them during the war will be brought to justice. You have a vital role to play in helping us keep these promises.

Thank you.



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