On Tuesday August 2, 2016, under the Japanese presidency, the Security Council held an open debate under the theme, "Children and Armed Conflict." The debate reflected the findings of the 2016 Report of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict; and the discussion was focused on what can be done to strengthen the “children and armed conflict” mechanism. Noting the recent achievements over the last 20 years and highlighting key developments, speakers highlighted the most pressing themes, such as the issues of child soldiers, the need to protect hospitals and schools from bombing and explosions, the impact on children of displacement as a result of prolonged armed conflict, and the sexual exploitation and abuse of children by uniformed and non-uniformed personnel in peace operations. Finally, difficulties in getting parties to implement previously-developed action plans and to develop new comprehensive approaches were noted. Despite the fact that the majority of speakers based their statements on the threats caused by increased militarization of conflicts, the calls for disarmament and inclusive participation in finding solutions were extremely rare.
“In places such as Iraq, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen, children suffer through a living hell,” said United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as he briefed the Council. In addition, Leila Zerrougui, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, said that while States face challenges in tackling violent extremism, security responses that do not comply with international law only inflicted further harm. Supporting the statements of the other briefers, Anthony Lake, Executive Director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), emphasized the need for focused action in three key areas: explosive weapons and remnants of war; health care; and education.
Primarily, representatives of Member States reflected on the issue of massive recruitment of children by ISIL and other non-state actors. In this vein, they welcomed the recent announcement by Colombia’s Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) group in which it had agreed to end child recruitment. Adding to this, the representative of Sri Lanka noted that to reduce child recruitment, political and economic pressure must be brought to bear on the offending party and resources must be mobilized for rehabilitation and the socioeconomic, political and ideological dynamics that had seduced children into groups, such as ISIL.
As noted by the representative of Angola, among others, with regard to children formerly associated with armed groups, Member States should ensure that their trial procedures were consistent with international law on juvenile justice and that “reintegration, not punishment” was pursued as a priority.
In addition, speakers welcomed the recent developments of the international community in providing tools to protect children and give them a voice. Some heartening examples included the progress of the “Children, Not Soldiers” campaign and the deployment of child protection advisers in peacekeeping missions.
However, speakers also voiced their skepticism about the adequacy of the existing mechanism of addressing the “children and armed conflict” agenda. When the monitoring and reporting mechanism was created ten years ago, violations against children in armed conflict situations were largely attributable to either government forces or non-state actors operating within the country, with a small number such as Al Shabaab and the Lord’s Resistance Army requiring a regional approach. Neither the wide-reaching impact on children of armed groups espousing violent extremism, nor conflicts involving a coalition of state parties such as Yemen, were factors when the monitoring and reporting mechanism was set up.
Ending violence against children, as highlighted by the representative of Indonesia, cannot be achieved through silo and sporadic approaches. It is imperative to comprehensively identify real actions to address the impact of armed conflict on children. Speakers believed that the Council should do more to address the root causes of children’s suffering by prioritizing conflict prevention, disarmament, proper financing, and support for peace processes; ensuring respect for international humanitarian, human rights and refugee law; and seeking accountability when violations are committed.
Out of nearly 72 statements delivered, only ten speakers (9.8%) used a specific gendered language. Girls living in conflict face the unimaginable circumstances; they are kidnapped, imprisoned, forcibly married, used as suicide bombers, and subjected to constant fear, terrible hunger and daily sexual violence. Without addressing their specific needs in the process of rehabilitation, the successful peace process and sustainable peace are largely impossible.
Fifty-two speakers (70.83%) noted the importance of upholding children’s rights in the process of strengthening the “children and armed conflict” agenda. Specifically, education was considered to be the main key. As with attacks against health facilities, the devastating impact of attacks on schools for children and the future of their societies cannot be overstated. As suggested by the representative of Denmark, “children’s access — in particular girls’ access — to quality education in war and disasters must be ensured.”
Also of particular concern was the situation of girls sold into slavery as well as the victims of abduction and those forced into sexual unions or forced or early marriage. Thirty-two speakers (43.66%) noted that girls are most frequent victims of sexual and gender-based violence. In this regards, the representative of Uruguay mentioned that “these practices represent a flagrant violation of their human rights and have an irreversible impact on their physical and mental integrity as well as their future development.”
Lastly, the growing use of explosive weapons and aerial bombings against civilian targets perpetrated by various parties to armed conflicts, including schools, hospitals and populated areas, was discussed by twenty-seven speakers (37%). In this regards, Anthony Lake, Executive Director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), emphasized that “we all should call on all parties to conflict to commit to protecting children by changing the way they wage their wars, including by ending the use of explosive weapons in densely populated areas.”