Security Council must ‘come together’ to address the plight of children trapped in armed conflict, says UN envoy

© UNICEF/Kamal Ayyashi An injured girl is being treated at Althawra Hospital in Hudaydah, Yeman. She was injured along with her brothers and her uncle, while the family was trying to relocate farther from the fighting that same day in Aljah area, Bait Alfaqih district. (2018).

This article is brought to you in association with the United Nations.


It is “vitally important” that the Security Council “come together” on the current plight of children affected by armed conflict across the globe”, Virginia Gamba, the United Nations Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict said on Friday.

Recalling that 2019 marks 20 years since the Council first passed a resolution on children and armed conflict and the 30th anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, she said the open debate, which comes on the heels of the release of the Secretary-General’s annual report on the issue earlier this week,  “provides a milestone” to take stock of our collective efforts to date.

Last month in Mali, Ms. Gamba said that she saw “first-hand the situation of children” and advocated for “increased protection measures for boys and girls”.

She travelled to Mopti, “a region recently affected by dramatic spikes of violence”, saying she was struck by the “common recognition of the importance of protecting children from violence” on the part of the authorities and those in Dogon and Peulh communities.

“It was clear to me that the protection of children can act as a confidence-building measure between opposing parties”, she asserted. “It can demonstrably positively impact peace processes and agreements, as we recently saw with the commitments of the two groups to cease hostilities”.

As Special Representative, Ms. Gamba has expended much energy in engaging with conflict parties where they were willing, which she said has “inspired positive results”.

Moreover, in many situations where a monitoring and reporting mechanism has been in place, Governments have instituted measures that have “galvanized action and allowed progress to develop quickly as a direct result of high-level engagement”.

“Regional and subregional work is a key element of this direct engagement”, according to the Special Representative. “High-level political engagement supports the cornerstone of our endeavors; the child protection efforts in situations of armed conflict”.

Spelling out the importance of “access and actors in the field” she said “we cannot achieve anything without the tireless work on the ground of so many colleagues and partners”.

Grave violations against children continue

“Unfortunately, for all our efforts to date, we are not yet at a point where we can be confident that the situation is improving year upon year”, lamented Ms. Gamba,

She informed the Council that 2018 saw “record levels” of verified cases of children killed and maimed, and echoed the Secretary-General s concern that “unprecedented numbers of violations were attributed to national and international forces”.

“It is vital that this Council redoubles its efforts to ensure that all parties abide by the principals of distinction, proportionality and military necessity” affirmed Ms. Gamba, urging the conflict’s parties to issue “specific command orders that address reducing child casualties”.

The Six Grave Violations Against Children During Armed Conflict

  1. Recruitment and use of children
  2. Killing or maiming of children
  3. Sexual violence against children
  4. Attacks against schools or hospitals
  5. Abduction of children
  6. Denial of humanitarian access

Noting that unexploded ordinates, improvised explosive devices and landmines are “a real preoccupation” for her office, the Special Represented said “quick wins” could be achieved if explosive remnants of war (ERW) were cleared up when peace agreements are made.

Saying that rape and other forms of sexual violence are “significantly under reported”, Ms. Gamba cited the fear of stigma and retaliation and a lack of survivors’ services and witnesses protection as discouraging children from coming forward.

“Unfortunately, this violation has proved difficult to address”, she lamented, advocating for “greater accountability” and “adapted responsive care services” to make significant progress.

Moreover, too many children continue to be detained as a result of conflict.

“Children exposed to alarming levels of violence should not be further ostracized once released from armed groups and armed forces”, she upheld. “We must allow these children to be considered as what they are: victims of a conflict”.

She asked the Council to work for humanitarian access in resolutions and bilateral relations, explaining that “we can strain every sinew at the highest level to prevent violations, but we also need to be able to respond quickly to violations when they occur”.

Additionally, Ms. Gamba underscored the need for more dialogue and engagement.

“We cannot afford to lose children once they are released and we cannot afford to make them wait their turn for reintegration assistance”, she said, flagging the need for real reintegration of boys and girls globally.

In closing, Ms. Gamba implored the Council’s support to engage with conflict parties to end and prevent violations and to ensure sufficient pressure to make commitments mean something.

“And, most of all, we need your support to ensure that there is the requisite child protection capacity to give children affected by conflict all the support they need”, concluded the Special Representative.

“We must face facts [and] we must do better”

In her remarks, Henrietta Fore, Executive Director the UN Children’s Fund, spotlighted the stark figures from the report, pointing to the 24,000 violations against conflict-affected children documented in 2018. Half of these cases involve the killing and maiming of children, she said, adding: “Those are just the verified incidents; we must do better.”

She also expressed deep distress over the continued rampant use of explosive weapons and their impact on children, who account for more than two thirds of all civilians killed and maimed by these weapons. “Ten years after the Council adopted resolution 1882 (2009), the facts tell us that we have miles to go to end grave violations against children in armed conflict,” she said.

“But they do not tell the whole story; there is so much we can do to come to the aid of children at risk.”

While stressing that Governments are responsible for preventing the recruitment and use of children in armed conflict, she said UNICEF is supporting related projects, including an age-verification workshop with the armed forces of Sudan.

Authorities must also exercise maximum restraint in preventing the excessive use of military force against people engaging in peaceful protest.

UNICEF remained 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”, she maintained. “They are shunned by their communities because of perceived or actual links with groups designated as terrorists”.

When children leave these groups, after years of harrowing experiences, they should receive protection and humanitarian assistance. But instead, they are ostracized, rejected and locked up, said Ms. Fore.

Boys and girls often join armed groups under extreme duress, coercion, fear or manipulation – or simply as a matter of survival. 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”, stressed Ms. Fore. “UNICEF calls on all Member States to reintegrate children associated with armed groups into society and to support holistic, evidence-based reintegration programming”.

“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,” Ms. Fore emphasized. “They are the adults and the leaders of tomorrow. Let us do more to protect vulnerable children. Our global future may depend on it.”

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