UN Security Council Open Debate: Children and Armed Conflict
Thank you Mr President, and we congratulate Malaysia for convening this debate and for your leadership of the Council’s working group on Children and Armed Conflict. We thank the Secretary-General for his careful briefing, and Ms Zerrougui and Mr Lake both for their briefings and for their important work in protecting the interests of children.
As others have noted, it has been 20 years since the Graça Machel Report was released, drawing global attention to the devastating impact of armed conflict on children.
Since then, we have established a strong framework to monitor and address violations against children in armed conflict. Its purpose is not simply to criticise or censure, but to drive practical improvements on the ground. The Secretary-General, Ms Zerrougui and Mr Lake, as well as other speakers have described the places and ways that children are suffering in conflict zones. We are all horrified at the way children are used and abused, manipulated and killed; their lives blighted, their futures destroyed. Yet far too often we see utter indifference to this suffering of the innocent by those who could make a difference but choose not to.
There are real limits to what we as a Council and as a United Nations can do to change things. But we must make full use of the tools available to us.
The Secretary-General has been given a clear mandate to report on and list those parties responsible for grave violations committed against children in armed conflict. It is of course possible that information used in those reports is contested and it is important that there are discussions to ensure that reports are as accurate as possible. But the Secretary-General and his office must be able to discharge their mandate independently, in order to maintain a transparent and credible listing process. All member states must respect the Secretary-General’s independence as required by the Charter. This is a collective responsibility that we all must uphold. So too must the United Nations and we member states live up to our commitment to protect children and others from sexual abuse and exploitation by UN peacekeepers and UN personal. Complaints must be investigated and perpetrators must be brought to justice.
Mr President, as Ms. Zerrougui has reminded us, actions plans with listed parties are delivering clear, practical results.
Since 2003, nine parties to conflicts in Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Uganda have completed their Action Plans and have been de-listed from the annexes of the Secretary General’s annual report. This progress is welcome. At the same time, we must acknowledge that the situation of children in many conflict settings remains grave.
The Secretary-General’s report paints a harrowing picture. I wish to highlight several issues that demand urgent attention. Both schools and hospitals have special protections under International Humanitarian Law. Yet attacks on schools and hospitals were documented in 19 out of 20 situations of conflict in 2015.
Parties to conflict continue to use schools and universities for military purposes, leaving children vulnerable to retaliatory attack. Even where no military attack occurs, the presence of armed forces within schools exposes children to increased risk of sexual violence and of recruitment by armed actors.
New Zealand has endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration – as have 52 other Member States. We urge others to do the same.
In May, at the initiative of New Zealand and four other elected members, the Council adopted a resolution on health care in armed conflict which unequivocally condemned attacks on health care workers and health care facilities.
Our message was clear: the wounded and sick, medical personnel, facilities, transport and equipment must be respected and protected. The delivery of medical assistance must not be obstructed. It is that simple. And yet attacks on hospitals have continued, with children frequently amongst the casualties.
The recent fighting in Aleppo has seen further egregious examples. These attacks are an affront to our common humanity and must stop. We urge all states and parties to conflict to comply with International Humanitarian Law and to redouble their efforts to protect civilians and limit the harm to which they are exposed.
Where fear of violent extremism builds, we see increasing numbers of children detained without charge by governments which consider them “security threats”. These children are frequently subject to torture and ill-treatment.
As the Secretary-General has underlined, depriving children of their liberty is contrary to the best interests of both the child and of society as a whole. The abuse of children in detention only creates a greater sense of grievance in communities, and further fuels the spread of violent extremism.
The detention of children without charge must stop. Children associated with armed groups should be transferred to child protection authorities for rehabilitation. If charged with a valid criminal offence, children must be treated in accordance with international juvenile justice standards.
We urge Member States to treat children associated with armed groups as victims entitled to full protection of their human rights. In this regard, we fully support the Secretary General’s message around reintegration and rehabilitation. No child’s story ends simply with his or her release by an armed group. Adequately funded reintegration programmes for children separated from armed forces and groups are needed to enable children to rebuild their lives in safety and dignity. Without support, children may return to violence.
Former child soldiers who have acquired a disability during conflict have particular rehabilitation and reintegration needs. Such children are especially likely to experience isolation and neglect. We would welcome discussion between the Special Representative, UNICEF, the Special Rapporteur on the rights of persons with disabilities and other relevant stakeholders to develop recommendations or guidance for the reintegration and rehabilitation of these children.
In closing, Mr President, let me reiterate New Zealand's full support for the work of the Special Representative and her office; the rigour and integrity of the monitoring and reporting mechanism; and the Secretary General’s comprehensive reporting and recommendations. We urge all member states to continue to support their vital work, to help them translate the global consensus on the need to protect the rights of children in conflict settings into a much better reality than we see today.
I thank you.