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Protecting Children’s Rights in Troubled Landscapes


Special Representative Rhadika Coomaraswamy meeting with Chadian President Idriss Déby
Radhika Coomaraswamy, former UN special envoy for children and armed conflict, left, with Idriss Déby, Chad's president in June 2011. The country has signed an "action plan" to release child soldiers.

The Security Council has waded deeper into the tricky waters of protecting the rights of children in armed conflict despite protests of sovereignty from some countries, passing a resolution that clarifies the mandate for the UN special envoy on safeguarding children. The resolution, submitted by Canada and 30 other primarily Western countries, was adopted with four abstentions: Azerbaijan, China, Pakistan and Russia.

The resolution demands the end of such abuses as conscripting, killing, maiming and raping children as well as attacking schools and hospitals. It also declared the Security Council’s willingness to adopt sanctions against violators and called on governments to prosecute abusers through their judicial systems and international means.

Peter Wittig, the German ambassador to the UN, said at a news briefing that the resolution ensured that “the integrity” of  UN mechanisms remains intact and that the secretary-general will continue submitting annual reports on children and armed conflict. Germany, which holds the rotating presidential seat at the Security Council this month, held a debate on the topic on Sept. 19, when the resolution was passed.

But the countries that abstained said the mandate was too broad and that certain issues not on the council agenda could fall under the purview of the special envoy, aggravating national problems. Colombia, which voted yes on the resolution, said that governments needed more help to create national child-protection policies. China said the draft was “hastily put to vote.”

The UN’s “naming and shaming” list, part of reports documenting the status of children and armed conflict, includes two Colombian militias who are recruiting or using child soldiers. Colombia is currently a member of the Security Council.

Pakistan’s abstention is related to a recent UN report‘s mention of situations that the country says are acts of terrorism and not conflicts, calling the accusations against armed groups linked with the Taliban and Al Qaeda “completely misleading.” The report also says that “Islamic-allied forces” are using children as human shields and in suicide bombings not only in Pakistan but also in Afghanistan, citing the instance of an 8-year-old girl carrying explosives unwittingly.

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Germany gave the debate floor to dozens of countries and to the new UN special envoy for children and armed conflict, Leila Zerrougui; Hervé Ladsous, the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations chief; Anthony Lake, the head of Unicef; and David Tolbert, president of the International Center for Transitional Justice.

In a daylong meeting that invoked the “voices” of children around the world, not one appeared.

Leila Zerrougui,
Leila Zerrougui, from Algeria, is the new UN special envoy for children and armed conflict.

The speeches conveyed strong emotions, mostly in favor of protecting children and noting repeatedly the increase of “persistent perpetrators” and the need to sanction them; the grave crimes committed against children in Syria; the precedent-setting war-crimes convictions of Thomas Lubanga, the Congolese rebel, and Charles Taylor, the ex-Liberian president; the rise in UN “action plans” to release child soldiers; strengthening national judiciaries; mainstreaming child protection throughout the UN; and cooperating with Zerrougui in her new role.

But the UN’s success so far in protecting children in conflicts, achieved under the six-year leadership of Radhika Coomaraswamy, a Sri Lankan lawyer who held the special envoy post before Zerrougui, has only begun to scratch the surface of a problem that some UN member countries, including a group on the Security Council, would prefer to be managed exclusively at home.

Yet the crime of conscripting children and other atrocities against youths is not receding.  The number of  “persistent perpetrators” – those on the UN list for more than five years – has doubled in the last year. These include rebel groups and national armed forces. Children continued to be murdered, raped, tortured or sent into combat, as documented by the UN this year in Syria, Libya and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“Violations continue to be committed against children,” Zerrougui said in her first appearance before the council at the debate, noting more “nonstate actors” involved in violations but also more signed action plans leading to “tens of thousands of children” reintegrated into their societies.

Since 2011, action plans have been signed in Afghanistan, Burma (Myanmar) Central African Republic, Chad, South Sudan and Somalia. The Congo government’s one is “almost finalized,” Zerrougui said.

She also dwelled particularly on the conditions of children in Syria, saying that children there have been “subject to torture and sexual violence” and that she is “ready to establish open dialogue with Syrian authorities.”

Here is a range of excerpts from other speeches at the debate:

–Finland, speaking for itself and the other Nordic countries (Denmark, Iceland, Norway and Sweden), said that parties in Nepal and Sri Lanka were the latest to be delisted from the “naming and shaming” roster, proving “that the mechanisms are useful also in situations which are not on the council’s agenda, but where grave violations against children occur.”

–Estonia called on all countries to join the International Criminal Court and encouraged the Security Council to pursue a “complementary approach” with the court to exert pressure on individuals and entities.

–Democratic Republic of Congo, which is home to several armed groups, discussed the regrettable spike in violence by the M23 militia in eastern Congo and the litany of abuses on children and enormous displacement there. The representative also touched on children who were being forced to work in Congolese mines to break up the rare ore coltan with rocks, exposing them to “high levels of radioactivity” and respiratory problems. (Coltan is used in electronics.)

–Belgium deplored the use of explosive weapons in hospitals and schools and emphasized that “sovereignty as a matter of principle should never, never be invoked to deprive children of the protection they deserve.”

–Syria, translated, said the UN reports on children and armed conflict were full of “misinformation” and tarnished “Syria’s reputation.”

–Israel noted the thousands of children who have died in Syria in its 19-month civil war and how “the stories coming out of Syria are a stain on the conscience of the world.”

 Related articles

A Former Child Soldier Grows Up in Colombia

UN Security Council to Study Child Soldier Use in Colombia

Top New UN Assignments, and Syria Deputy Envoy Leaving

Charles Taylor, 64, Receives 50-Year Sentence for War Crimes

The International Court’s New Prosecutor


Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.

Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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