The 52nd Session of the Human Rights Council
27 February – 4 April 2022
Item 3 – Interactive Dialogue with the Special Representative to the Secretary-General on Children in Armed Conflict
16th March 2022
By Isabelle Despicht / GICJ
On the 16th of March, 2022, an Interactive Dialogue with the Special Representative to the Secretary-General (SRSG) for Children and Armed Conflict took place at the 52nd session of the Human Rights Council. Covering the period from December 2021 to December 2022, the Special Representative, Ms. Virginia Gamba, discussed the findings of her report during an Interactive Dialogue at the 52nd session of the United Nations Human Rights Council.
After the opening by the Vice-President, Ms. Virginia Gamba outlined her work conducted with UN Human Rights Mechanisms and the activities undertaken as part of her mandate. She addressed various challenges, such as numerous conflict escalations, the multiplication of armed actors, the use of mines, improvised explosive devices, explosive remnants of war and explosive weapons in populated areas, and generally intensified humanitarian crises and violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law, amongst other things. During the ensuing interactive dialogue, various delegations expressed their views and concerns about the current state of affairs of children in armed conflict.
Numerous delegations called states to ratify the Optional Protocol to the CRC on the involvement of children in armed conflict and to the adoption of the Vancouver Principles and the Safe Schools Declarations.
The European Union, Lithuania, Poland and others addressed the human rights of children in Ukraine being forcibly deported to Russia and undergoing forced adoptions.
During the Interactive Dialogue, various Member States asked questions to the Special Representative, notably on the best ''holistic approach'' to tackle the most serious crimes against children in times of conflict. Various issues, such as child recruitment, trafficking, sexual exploitation, and the use of schools by military powers, were addressed.
In her concluding remarks, the Special Representative to the Secretary-General for Children in Armed Conflict noted the importance of holistic reintegration programmes. She emphasised that children must, in all circumstances, be considered victims instead of perpetrators and that the age of children should be considered as per the CRC. She further outlined the key priorities of the mandate looking forward.
Geneva International Centre for Justice (GICJ) is appalled by the persisting violence faced by children in armed conflict and urgently calls the international community to take action to protect children. Standing with the report presented by the Special Representative, we believe that states have the responsibility to protect children, who remain among the most vulnerable groups. GICJ calls on all states to ratify the Optional Protocol to the CRC on the involvement of children in armed conflict, the Safe Schools Declaration as well as the Vancouver Principles. Further, we reiterate that while any additional code of conduct protecting children is welcome, it must do so by applying the definition of child provided for by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which considers all children as those under 18 years of age.
The Mandate of the Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict was created in 1996 by the United Nations General Assembly, in response to the growing concern about the impact of armed conflict on children. It was established at a time in which 30 major conflicts were progressing around the world and was aimed at gathering information on the situation of children affected by armed conflict and to promote their rights and protection, and has been renewed numerous times since its creation.
Since then, the UN Security Council and other UN bodies took various steps to protect children in armed conflict. Amongst others, Security Council Resolution 2143 on Children in Armed Conflict, unanimously adopted practical guidelines for states to tackle children violation in times of armed conflict, including but not limited to their right to education, as well as the prohibition of the use of schools by armed forces. Most recently, resolution A/RES/72/245 renewed the mandate of the Special Representative to the Secretary-General on Children in armed conflict.
As of today, various international legal documents govern the protection of children in armed conflict including the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), some parts of which have become part of customary international law.
Summary of the UN Report
In her report (A/HRC/52/60), Virginia Gamba explores challenges in ending and preventing grave violations, outlines priorities and makes recommendations.
In the first section of her report, Ms. Gamba outlined the work conducted with the United Nations Human Rights Mechanisms. Amongst other things, the SRSG noted her enhanced exchanges with Fact Finding Missions (FFMs) and various Human Rights Commissions. She also provided input on the country-specific observation for the Committee on the Rights of the Child.
In the report, the SRSG took note of the challenges, trends and progress in ending and preventing grave violations of children in armed conflict. She reported numerous conflict escalations, the multiplication of armed actors, the use of mines, improvised explosive devices, explosive remnants of war and explosive weapons in populated areas, and generally intensified humanitarian crises and violations of international humanitarian law and human rights law. Within the first nine months of 2022, the Special Representative reported about the sustained high number of violations against children, further underscored by the decision of the Secretary-General to add three new situations of concern in his latest report on children and armed conflict – namely in Ethiopia, Mozambique and Ukraine.
According to the information in the report, the highest number of verified cases of abuse against children in armed conflict was their recruitment and use, followed by killing, maiming, and abduction. Ms. Gamba also referred more specifically to Kabul's takeover by the Taliban in Afghanistan, which resulted in increasing violations against children. In May 2022, a code of practice on child recruitment aimed to prevent the recruitment of boys with no signs of puberty in military units was published, and hundreds of recruited male children were released. Yet the SRSG noted that the code was aligned with the internationally agreed definition of a child, which is contained in the CRC.
The Special Representative also addressed the situation in Colombia, the Central African Republic (CAR) and Iraq, as well as the current situation for children in Israel and the States of Palestine, Mali, Myanmar, the Philippines, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Yemen and the Syrian Arab Republic - underlining the multidimensional nature of the risks and vulnerabilities children are exposed to in armed conflict.
She also raised concern over the increasing failure of various actors to uphold international human rights law and the impact of counter-terrorism measures on children, as they often fall under the scope of international security measures, which can negatively impact their human rights. Apart from child recruitment, the use of explosive weapons and remnants of war and the denial of humanitarian access as a precursor to other grave violations were addressed. Furthermore, the SRSG also addressed trafficking in children and noted that children are simultaneously at risk of many forms of exploitation, forced labour, marriage, sexual violation, and slavery.
Finally, the Special Representative to the Secretary-General made a series of recommendations and, amongst others, called upon Member States not to forget about the importance of the sustainable reintegration of children to ensure sustainable peace and security and for stakeholders to adopt a holistic approach to facing the complex challenges faced by children in conflict, with a specific focus on trafficking. She further highlighted her great concern for the continuing trend of killing and maiming of children and called the Member States to join and fully implement international instruments about those weapons, including anti-personnel mines and cluster munitions, and to comply with their obligations under international humanitarian law. The report further encourages member states to take all necessary measures to protect children in line with the principles of distinction, proportionality and precaution.
In Geneva, on the 16th of March 2023, a 29th Meeting of the 52nd Regular Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council, the Vice-President, Asim Ahmed, opened the meeting and gave the floor to the Special Representative to the Secretary-General on Children in Armed Conflict, Virginia Gamba. She opened the Interactive Dialogue by summarising the findings in her report.
The SRSG opened the meeting by presenting the content of her report (add report). Amongst other things, she raised concerns about the high number of escalating conflicts, the multiplication of armed actors and the increased instability which have drastically increased children’s vulnerabilities. She also addressed the challenge to the international definition of the child included in the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which is too often not applied in practice.
Noting the persisting attacks on educational and health facilities, despite this being in clear violation of International humanitarian law and the direct impact such occurrences have on children. She expressed concern all while emphasising the notion of underreporting of sexual abuse of both girls and boys in times of conflict.
The SRSG also elaborated upon her continuing collaboration with UNICEF, UN Bodies and civil society actors to strengthen compliance and improve the long-term protection of children in armed conflict. She noted that ‘ultimately states are the ones that need to comply’ and that states are the ones that need to comply with the Secretary General’s 2023 priorities to ‘’recommit to the charter - putting human rights and dignity first, with prevention at the heart’’.
Ms. Gamba further enumerated developments in her report, notably in Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic and Yemen. Yet, she asserted that the Commitments by the state did not mean much unless they were being enforced.
After the presentation of her report, various delegations took the floor.
Statement by various delegations
The German representative, on behalf of Germany, the Kingdom of the Netherlands and over 50 other countries raised concerns over the 6.7 million children who continue to face shelling in Ukraine: ‘’Every war has a disproportionate effect on children’’. The delegate further noted children’s deprivation of enjoyment of their human rights, stressing the situation of children with disabilities; and condemning Russia’s forcible transfers of Ukrainian children to Russia in clear violation with International humanitarian law. The delegate concluded her statement by affirming that ‘’Those responsible must be held accountable’’... ‘’we owe it to the children of Ukraine’’.
Next, the European Union representative thanked the Special Representative for her report and reiterated his support for the mandate of the SRSG. The delegate reiterated that ‘’accountability must be ensured’’ referring to the war in Ukraine as well as to other conflict zones in which children suffer unbearable harm. He, amongst other things, referred to forcible transfers of Ukrainian children as well as forced adoptions; and underscored the utility of key human rights instruments such as the Paris Principles, the Vancouver Principles and the Safe Schools Declaration. Finally, the representative, on behalf of the European Union, encouraged all Member States to endorse these and other initiatives as well as to the ratification of the Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict.
Over the course of the Interactive dialogue, various delegations including Lithuania, Poland, the United States of America, further referred to human rights violations of children, and most notably forcible transfers from Ukraine to Russia.
The delegate of Argentina, speaking on behalf of the 117 states that have endorsed the safe schools declarations, expressed deep concern about attacks on schools, which continued to increase in 2022. In particular, the representative betoned the difficulties faced by children with disabilities, and most notably girls, in accessing education. It was noted that depriving students of the opportunity to receive a safe, inclusive and high-quality education; attacks on schools are a considerable obstacle to sustainable peace and development. The Argentinian delegate ended his statement by calling on all states to ratify the Safe Schools Declaration and Operationalise the Security Council Resolution 2601.
The Belgian delegate, on behalf of a group of 29 states, reiterated his support for the Special Representative and her mandate and acknowledged her important contributions to the protection of children in armed conflict. The representative joined the SRSG’s call for a holistic approach before, during and after conflict. He welcomed the Special Representative’s decision to add three new situations of concern to her reporting. (including Ukraine) He noted additional challenges faced by children in armed conflict, which include the triple planetary crisis (climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss). He, however, underlined that, conflict parties can prevent violence against children, and called on Member States to ratify the Optional Protocol on children in armed conflict.
The representative of Lithuania, on behalf of the Nordic-Baltic countries, expressed his extreme concern about indiscriminate use of airstrikes, landmines and attacks on schools. The delegate noted that according to the SRSG report, the use of explosive weapons in densely populated areas leads to an increase in children's injuries. He flagged that violation of children's rights in conflict zones was one of the most pressing political concerns. He further announced that in June 2023, Norway will hold an international conference on how to better protect children in conflict zones. Finally, the representative asked: ‘’How should we ensure accountability for crimes against children during armed conflicts; including forced deportations’’?
The representative of the UN Children Fund thanked the SRSG, and underlined the progress collectively made to remedy the plight of children in armed conflict; yet noted that it also highlighted the need for further action, also considering the three new situations of concern added in 2022. Amongst other issues, the delegate underlined the harmful impact of counterterrorism measures on children and reiterated the need for all states to adopt the definition of Child prescribed by the CRC, which comprises all individuals under 18 years of age.
In continuation, the delegate of Costa Rica raised concern about the ongoing recruitment, kidnappings and sexual violence of children in situations of armed conflict and called for respect for their human dignity. The delegate further condemned attacks on schools and asked States to respect International Humanitarian Law and take all possible measures to protect the fundamental rights of children. The representative asked the Special Representative: ‘’What can be a holistic approach to tackle the most serious and thorny situations that children face in armed conflict, particularly trafficking, their recruitment under the age of 18 and sexual violence?’’
Continuing the Interactive dialogue, the delegate of Japan thanked the Special Representative for her report and expressed his delegation's strong support of her work. In his statement, he expressed strong regret for the high numbers of child trafficking in times of conflict and echoed the SRSG’s call to pay special attention to this phenomenon.
The representative of Morocco raised concern about the use and recruitment of children in armed conflict and emphasised the need to respect international humanitarian and international human rights law. The delegate also underlined the need for refugee hosts to uphold their human rights obligations and asked: ‘’Madame Special Representative, what recommendations can you address to the states who host a group of individuals and deprive them of their fundamental rights, in order to raise the awareness to these states, about their responsibilities?’’
On the 16 of March 2023, the Vice-President, Asim Ahmed, closed the 29th Meeting of the 52nd session of the Human Rights Council. After the lunch break, Vice-President Václav Bálek opened the 30th meeting for the ensuing discussion.
Continuing the interactive dialogue, the delegate of Armenia extended her appreciation to the SRSG for her continued engagement. She underlined Armenia’s will to continuously engage and protect children from violence. The representative noted that Armenia, having been subject to war by Azerbaijan, knew firsthand how much children suffer in times of conflict. She stated that for the third consecutive month, children in the region of Nagorno-Karabakh did not have access to critical infrastructures such as healthcare, education and food due to Azerbaijan's blockade of the Lachin corridor. Further, she referred to the frequent internet disruptions, which have only accentuated the difficult winter conditions. She called Azerbaijan to ensure free movement through the Lachin corridor.
Next, the representative of Namibia thanked the Special Representative for her report and warmly welcomed her engagement in African countries. The representative, however, pointed to the recruitment and trafficking of children in times of conflict and called states to develop national policies to prohibit their recruitment into armed groups.
Ensuingly, the representative of the State of Palestine thanked the SRSG for her presentation and drew attention to the systematic targeting of Palestinian children by Israel, through extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention and forced displacement ‘’with the aim of terrorising an entire generation’’. The delegate requested that should the 2022 pattern of violation continue, that Israel should be listed as a serious violator of the rights of Palestinian children.
The representative of Azerbaijan then took the floor and thanked the Special Representative for her report. The delegate highlighted the risks of land mines posed by Armenia. She called on the importance of educating children and families about their risks.
After statements from various delegations, various NGOs took the floor and raised concerns about the recruitment, detention and maiming of children in armed conflict, and most notably the conflict in Yemen, Palestine and Colombia.
In her concluding remarks, the Special Representative to the Secretary-General for Children in Armed Conflict noted the importance of holistic reintegration programmes. She emphasised that children must, in all circumstances, be considered victims instead of perpetrators and that the age of children should be considered as per the CRC. Ensuingly, the SRSG outlined key priorities of the mandate, which included (1) operationalising solutions to prevent acts of violence against children; (2) working across the nexus between humanitarian peace and developmental aspects of Children in Armed conflict; (3) support national strategies and common regional approaches on prevention; (4) enhance monitoring and reporting capacity and (5) increase mine action and corresponding education.
Position of Geneva International Centre for Justice
Geneva International Centre for Justice (GICJ) is appalled by the persisting violence faced by children in armed conflict and urgently calls the international community to take action to protect children. Echoing the argument of the Special Representative, we believe that states are responsible for protecting children, who remain among the most vulnerable groups. Accordingly, GICJ calls on all states to ratify the Optional Protocol to the CRC on the involvement of children in armed conflict, the Safe Schools Declaration, as well as the Vancouver Principles. Further, we stress that while any additional code of conduct protecting children is welcome, it must do so by applying the definition of the child provided for by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which considers all children as those under 18 years of age.
GICJ highly condemns the indiscriminate use of schools and health facilities by military forces and all forms of violence, including the recruitment and use of children and their kidnapping. Member States have the moral responsibility to protect children and to prevent all irreversible physical and psychological harm inflicted on them, which includes exploitation, torture, trafficking and other grave crimes.