Children and Armed Conflict - Protecting the Most Vulnerable
Children and Armed Conflict - Protecting the Most Vulnerable
Speech / Global 5 minutes

Children and Armed Conflict - Protecting the Most Vulnerable

Speech by Donald Steinberg, Deputy President of the International Crisis Group, to the UNICEF Program on Rehabilitation and Reintegration of War-Affected Children, Brussels, 22 October 2009.

Distinguished guests. It is a great honor to chair this opening panel to set the normative framework for our discussion of issues related to children and armed conflict.  I'm pleased to share the stage with Dr. Radhika Coomaraswamy, UN Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict, and Victoria Forbes Adam, director of the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers.

The challenge of protecting the rights and well-being of children during conflict and ensuring attention to their educational, health, rehabilitation and nutritional needs in post-conflict periods is daunting.  Too frequently, the absence of participation by advocates of youths and children during peace negotiations means that these concerns are given short shrift or, quite often, completely ignored.

We do so at our peril.  Addressing these needs is not just a matter of fairness, equity or humanitarianism: it is key to building and maintaining lasting peace.  Refusal to respect children's rights and to account for abuses committed against children during wartime can put a cynicism at the heart of attempts to restore rule of law and justice.  Failure to show tangible improvements in the lives of children erodes the support of the general population and, in particular, powerful civil society groups for a peace process perceived as representing only the interests of the warring parties themselves.  And rampant youth unemployment, resulting in mass alienation of young men in particular, is the surest way to produce a ready reserve of recruits for fanatical leaders like Foday Sankoh or Joseph Kony seeking to lure them into combat with a siren song.

Beyond the impact on peace and stability, there is indeed the human dimension of the tragedy when children and conflict collide.  Go into any camp for demobilizing soldiers in the context of a peace process and you are sure to find large numbers of young people under the age of maturity, even where governments and rebels leaders tell you with straight faces that they did not use child soldiers.  Many of these young people are used as bearers, cooks, messengers and sex slaves, but some of them were also involved in combat, carried AK-47s that are almost as big as they are, and took human lives

Talk to these young people and you'll find that they are more frightened by the prospects of demobilization and civilian life than they ever were on the battlefield.  They know that they possess no skills - including basic skills of social inter-action - needed to succeed in civilian life.  They know that their homes are gone or that their families don't really want them back, fearing their impact I particular on younger family members.  They will usually be given a little money, some seeds and tools, and maybe even some psycho-social counseling, but they lack the most important commodity: hope and faith in the future.

But it is not just child soldiers who need our attention: all children are the victims of large-scale armed conflict.  They are victims when the government cannot or will not ensure adequate funding for schools and health clinics, resulting in very low school participation rates, high maternal and infant mortality rates, and other weak social indicators.  They are displaced in huge numbers and live in camps that are desperate breeding grounds for alcohol and drug abuse, tuberculosis, cholera, and domestic and sexual abuse.  They subsist on thin gruel provided by international relief agencies.  They are victims of landmines frequently planted randomly in areas where children walk and play

Their eyes have seen a lifetime of violence in the few short years of their lives.  Visit psycho-social training programs for children, where the act of painting is used as a means of allowing children to express their emotional traumas.  The counselors will tell you that the pictures were so filled with blood, the organizers kept running out of red paint.  It's as if an entire generation is enduring post-traumatic stress disorder.

Over the last decade, we have seen a number of normative and systemic improvements in our capacity to address these issues.  At the UN, for example, the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1612 was a vital step.  That resolution created the framework for serious efforts to address the effects of conflict on children, including creation of a permanent Security Council working group, consolidation of the office of the Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, identification of six key issues to be addressed and monitored, setting up mechanisms for bringing problem countries to the attention of the Security Council through a "naming and shaming" exercise, and providing for sanctions against countries and non-state actors who are abusing children in the context of armed conflict.  These measures have given a powerful tool to Dr. Coomaraswamy and her colleagues at UNICEF and elsewhere within the UN system with which to attack these difficult problems.  And they have done so with talent, imagination, and tireless resolve.

In our deliberations over the next two days, we should consider a number of difficult questions.  These include:

  • How can we ensure that programs that stress the needs of child soldiers do not create the impression among the broader population that we are prioritizing their requirements above those of the masses of other children who have suffered equally?
  • What techniques can be adopted to ensure that the voices of children's advocates and, equally important, children themselves are heard when devising programs for their benefit, using the concept of "nothing about us without us?"
  • How can we ensure adequate resources for children's needs, especially in post-conflict periods, in light of reduced aid budgets and government resources resulting from the global financial crisis?
  • How can we provide special attention to girls and young women, including reproductive health care and girls' education - which is now understood to be the single best investment in improving socio-economic indicators in post-conflict societies?
  • How do we promote local ownership of these programs so that they are sustainable when international support declines?

In addressing these and other questions, it is vital that we constantly think about what will have an impact on the ground in terms of protection and participation of children.  Girls must be free to attend schools without risking social alienation or, worse, acid being thrown in their faces.  Young boys and girls kidnapped or coerced into joining armed forces must be freed to live the rest of their lives without the stigma or trauma of those early years shadowing their futures.  All children must be able to view the ground as a place to run and play, not as a source of every-present danger from the presence of landmines and unexploded ordnance.

If we won't take the leadership in the struggle to protect the most vulnerable of our world from violence, who will?   

Thank you.

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