Foreign Minister Czaputowicz, Special Representative Gamba, civil society briefers Mariatu and Peter, excellencies, members of the Security Council: I join you today in our shared and steadfast commitment to protect children affected by armed conflict ... to prevent their physical and psychological harm … to provide them with a future.
First, though, we must face facts. As Special Representative Gamba has noted, there were more than 24,000 documented violations against children in armed conflict in 2018 — up from 21,000 the year before. Half of those violations involved the killing and maiming of children. And those are just the verified incidents. The numbers are actually higher. We must do better.
At UNICEF we are deeply distressed by the continued, rampant use of explosive weapons and their impact on children. Airstrikes, landmines, improvised explosive devices, rocket attacks, cluster munitions, artillery shelling — these cause the great majority of child casualties in armed conflict today.
We know, as well, that children account for more than two thirds of all the civilians killed and maimed by explosive remnants of war. Their bodies are small and fragile, and they are attracted by the shiny colored metal. Not only are children harmed in disproportionate numbers; because of the size of their numbers but also the severity of harm, they are also much more likely than adults to be disabled or killed as a result of blast injuries.
These appalling facts speak for themselves. Ten years after the Security Council adopted Resolution 1882, the facts tell us that we have miles to go to end grave violations against children in armed conflict. But they do not tell the whole story. There is so much we can do — so much we are doing — to come to the aid of children at risk.
Day in and day out, UNICEF and our partners work with courageous, resilient children and young people in conflict zones around the world. They give us hope for the future — theirs and ours.
Let me tell you of two. Saja is a 13-year-old from Aleppo who has spent half her life living in conflict. In recent years, she lost her home, her brother and several other loved ones. She also lost her left leg to a bomb. But she has not lost hope. Every day, she makes the long walk to school to continue her education.
Saja says her most prized possession is her prosthetic leg. She was an aspiring gymnast before losing her leg, and she still practices flips in her family’s tiny apartment. Her wonderful new dream is to compete in the Paralympics.
And there is Fatima, a young girl I met at a support centre in Aden, Yemen where we do psychosocial support for young people. Fatima talked to me about fleeing the terrible violence in her hometown. She said she was now learning to reconnect with her peers and showed me a drawing that she had just made. It was a picture of a girl and her girlfriend sitting in a park on a sunny day. Staff members at the centre later told me that when Fatima first arrived, she only drew pictures of guns and blood. She had begun to heal.
In 2018, UNICEF reached 6.9 million children and adolescents like Saja with emergency education in humanitarian crises. And we focused greater attention on the needs of children living with disabilities in the midst of conflicts. To help prevent disabilities from explosive remnants of war, we worked on risk eduation programmes in places like Syria, Mali and Myanmar. Simple posters and leaflets can mean the difference between life, death or disability for children in conflict areas.
Last year, UNICEF also provided 3.6 million children and adolescents like Fatima with psychosocial support to help them cope with trauma and regain the childhood they deserve.
But we must do even more to meet the mental health needs of children affected by armed conflict. This is an area that cries out for more robust, sustainable funding.
UNICEF remains especially concerned about the mental health, physical security and basic rights of children associated with armed groups. Tens of thousands of these children are languishing in camps, detention centres and orphanages in Syria, Iraq and other countries. They are shunned by their communities because of perceived or actual links with groups designated as terrorists.
When children leave these groups, they should receive urgently needed protection and humanitarian assistance after the harrowing experiences they have endured — often for years. But instead, they are ostracized, rejected and locked up.
Under Resolution 2427, a critical achievement of the Security Council last year, children associated with armed groups should be treated primarily as victims. This means all children — not just children under a specific age — and it includes those who may have committed crimes. They should never be deprived of liberty solely because of their alleged or actual association with armed groups.
Boys and girls often join or support armed groups under extreme duress, coercion, fear or manipulation — or simply as a matter of survival. The evidence suggests that they are rarely driven by ideology. Rather than being detained, they should be reintegrated into society with a holistic approach that addresses their complex needs. Along with many others working on child protection, UNICEF has developed sustainable, evidence-based reintegration programmes to do just that. These programmes take time, but carry great rewards
UNICEF calls on all Member States to reintegrate children associated with armed groups into society — and to support holistic, evidence-based reintegration programming. We commend the States that are already doing so.
Member States — indeed, all governments and their militaries — are themselves accountable for preventing the recruitment and use of children in armed conflict. UNICEF continues to provide a strong voice on this issue. As we speak, UNICEF is supporting an age-verification workshop with the Sudanese military and Rapid Support Forces in Khartoum. Next week, our teams will conduct age verification with the Rapid Support Forces in Nyala, Darfur.
At the same time, we remain concerned about the excessive use of military force against civilians, including children, who engage in peaceful protest. Authorities should exercise maximum restraint in these situations. Otherwise, they risk killing children or causing grave injuries that lead to permanent disabilities.
Protecting the lives and futures of children affected by armed conflict is not just the right thing to do; it is in our collective self-interest. In conflict and post-conflict situations worldwide, we must engage actively with young people to prevent spiraling violence and achieve lasting peace. They are the adults and the leaders of tomorrow. In the spirit of the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, let us do better … let us do more … to protect vulnerable children. Our global future will depend on it.