UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell's remarks at the Oslo Conference on Protecting Children in Armed Conflict
OSLO, 6 June 2023 - "Excellencies, honored guests, colleagues … thank you for joining us at this international conference on protecting children in armed conflict.
"Let me start by thanking our gracious cohosts – the Government of Norway for your steadfast leadership on child protection in conflict situations, the ICRC for your collaboration and engagement on establishing international norms for the protection of children, and Save the Children for partnering with our teams around the world to protect children from harm.
"Thank you also to SRSG Gamba for your powerful advocacy on the Children and Armed Conflict agenda, to the African Union for your efforts to strengthen protection systems for children across the continent, and to OCHA and all the other organizations here for working with UNICEF to reach children affected by humanitarian crises.
"Excellencies, today 400 million children across the globe are living in or fleeing conflict zones, that is about 1 in every 5 of the world’s children, more than the population of entire countries.
"In war, children suffer first, and they suffer most. They lose family members and friends. They are sexually violated. They are killed or injured, often by explosive weapons in populated areas. They are recruited and used by armed forces or groups. And many are displaced multiple times, risking separation from their families, losing critical years of education, and fraying ties to their communities.
"The United Nations has verified more than 315,000 grave child rights violations in areas of conflict between 2005 and 2022.
"These are children who were killed, maimed, recruited or used by armed forces, abducted, or subjected to horrific sexual violence. In addition, thousands of schools have been attacked or destroyed. And these are only the cases that have been verified, which means the true number of violations is most certainly much higher.
"Behind each of these numbers is a story of unimaginable child suffering … of rights violated and rights denied.
"I have met too many of the children affected by conflict in my travels.
"In Ukraine, I met a severely disabled teenage boy whose family struggled to get him into the shelter every time air raids sound … and they sound often as this horrible war grinds on.
"In Aleppo, Syria I met children who barely survived a war and were beginning to rebuild their lives only to experience a horrific earthquake.
"In Yemen, I met a child who had lost both his legs after he was injured in a mortar attack.
"And in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, I met a boy who was so traumatized by violence he could barely speak, while a girl shared her story of abduction and years of sexual violence.
"Each of these stories is a tragedy. Taken as a whole they are an indictment of a world that has abandoned too many children in need.
"For the sake of these children, we simply must do better. This starts with delivering a robust child protection response to reach all children in need – whether they are in areas under conflict or on the move in search of safety.
"These services must build upon existing protection systems and community structures, and support children’s rights, participation and best interests.
"This is a big aspiration. But we can accomplish it by investing in Child Protection Policy, People and Programming.
"First, we must put some teeth into policies that place children and their protection at the center of humanitarian action. We have already heard how states can do this by prioritizing the best interests of children in their laws and practice.
"International organizations and NGOs must also put the protection of children at the heart of their policies and strategies.
"Indeed today, I am pleased to announce that UNICEF will implement a Protection and Accountability Policy that will specifically include child protection across all of our work, including education, water and sanitation, and healthcare.
"Second, we must invest in the people who are the backbone of our child protection workforce – our social workers, frontline responders, and community mobilizers.
"Our protection workforce must be better equipped with the ability and knowledge to monitor the impact of war on children.
"All stories and circumstances are not the same, so protection staff must respond to the different specific vulnerabilities and needs of children affected by armed conflict. And they need the tools to tirelessly advocate to keep children safe, like demanding that parties avoid using explosive weapons in populated areas.
"As you have heard throughout the conference, the United Nations Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism is critical to informing policymakers about the true impact of war on children … and to facilitating engagement with parties to conflict. This is highly sensitive work, and unfortunately, it is also very challenging to mobilize resources to support it.
"That is why today, UNICEF is committing to cover fifty per cent of the annual cost of staffing to monitor, document and verify grave violations against children … and to engage with parties to conflict.
"We will work with partners to mobilize the additional resources to fulfill this critical mandate.
"Finally, we must invest in quality child protection programming that meets evolving circumstances and needs. This means finding better ways to collaborate and to engage children and communities in programme design. It also means delivering programming tailored to local realities.
"Child reintegration is a good case in point. We have successfully supported tens of thousands of children who have exited armed forces or groups.
"But reintegrating children is often painful and very complex…for the children and for the communities they’re going back to. All parties to the process have called for more support to these efforts.
"UNICEF is heeding these calls and supports SRSG Gamba who has been a critical champion.
"Over the last 18 months, UNICEF has convened partners to lay the foundation for a Global Initiative on Child Reintegration that aims to transform how we support children who have exited armed forces and groups. UNICEF is committed to launch the initiative and deliver the services and support that children are asking for and deserve.
"Before closing and on behalf of UNICEF, I want to thank our donor partners, including our hosts here today, who are funding child protection action in armed conflict. Your support makes this work possible. I am deeply appreciative of the many partners striving to protect children in even the most challenging contexts.
"Protecting children is a choice. And so, too, is putting them at risk, forcing them into conflict, and blatantly denying their needs.
"War and conflict are the work of adults. Children do not start wars and they are powerless to end them. At a minimum, we must do everything in our power to keep children safe from the dangers and deprivation wrought by those who engage in conflict.
"Today, I urge all states and entities to join us in making the right choice … to protect children today so they can grow up to create a more peaceful world for future generations."
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