Throughout the ages, children have been used and abused in many ways – from cheap labour to enslavement, maiming, torture, rape and murder. Although slow to come, international pressure built momentum over time leading to ground-breaking commitments such as the decision, 28 years ago today, to adopt the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Its application at national levels might not always be consistent; nevertheless, there is hope for children in its continued implementation. But this hope is denied to a special group of children: the millions living in situations of armed conflict.
Through my office of Children and Armed Conflict, the United Nations monitors violations against children, including their recruitment and use in armed conflict; all forms of sexual violence; abductions; killing and maiming; attacks on schools and hospitals; and denial of humanitarian access. In 2016 alone, the United Nations verified over 20,000 incidents of such violations. But we must assume these numbers to be much higher as we are not able to document every case due to access restrictions and security threats.
Young people have become the primary fuel of groups waging war and using violent, extremist tactics. They are accessible, expendable commodities to keep the engines of war running. They are also increasingly the target of coercion – both physical and mental – as armed actors often force them to engage in violent deeds themselves.
We are all to blame. We have the tools and resources to protect children better, even in situations of armed conflict, but we have failed to do so. We need to act now.
All wars have their distinct shame such as the use of gas on soldiers in World War One. So, it may well come to pass if no action is taken that our generation will be remembered for a new disgrace: the use and abuse of children in, and for, the conduct of armed conflict.
What should we do?
The international community must act today to end the impact of conflict on children wherever possible, prevent their future involvement and to assist affected children recover from violent conflict.
Politically, we must look at conflict prevention and resolution efforts in a different manner. We must recognize that children are at the heart of, and not at the periphery of, contemporary armed conflict.
Practically, we must start by strengthening the number of specialized experts on the ground. These Child Protection Advisors (CPAs) play a leading role in monitoring and documenting the abuses against children, but also in establishing dialogue with governments and armed groups to end violations and in assisting the release of children from armed actors. The strategic asset of CPAs in conflict prevention and resolution is vital and must be more widely recognized – and supported.
And strategically, we need to better fund the crucial last steps to re-establish released children in their communities: reintegration, rehabilitation and re-skilling programs. Many of these efforts are run by our partners, most notably UNICEF, who have already helped release and reintegrate over 100,000 children since 2000.
We have come a long way to defend the rights of children, from access to education to ending child labour. The time has come to reach the furthest behind. Abandoning children in conflict zones to a violent fate is unacceptable. Let us act now so that future generations might remember us for what we did to better protect children affected by armed conflict and not for what we failed to do.
Virginia Gamba is the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict.