Image: UNICEF/Vincent Tremeau
New York: The disregard for children’s rights amid war and upheaval “is shocking and heartbreaking”, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said on Monday during a high-level open debate in the Security Council, held virtually.
Mr. Guterres urged warring parties to prioritize the prevention of violations against boys and girls, and called on countries to support their protection at all times.
“There is no place for children in conflict, and we must not allow conflict to trample on the rights of children”, he said.
Grave violations committed
The Secretary-General presented his latest report on Children and Armed Conflict, which was published last week.
It revealed that last year, grave violations were committed against some 19,300 youngsters affected by fighting in countries such as Afghanistan, Syria and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Recruitment and use in hostilities remained the top violations, followed by killing and maiming, and denial of humanitarian access.
“Moreover, new and deeply concerning trends emerged: an exponential increase in the number of children abducted, and in sexual violence against boys and girls”, Mr. Guterres said.
“We are also seeing schools and hospitals, constantly attacked, looted, destroyed or used for military purposes, with girls’ educational and health facilities targeted disproportionately”.
Challenges ‘magnified’ by pandemic
While the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating for children worldwide, the crisis has magnified the challenges faced by those caught up in conflict, according to Henrietta Fore, Executive Director of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF).
“We had hoped that parties to conflict would turn their attention from fighting each other, to fighting the virus”, she said, underlining why the agency supported the Secretary-General’s call for a global ceasefire.
“Sadly, as this annual report shows, this call went unheeded”.
Instead of laying down their arms, Ms. Fore said warring parties continued to fight, making it difficult for the UN and partners to reach children in need.
“And lockdowns and travel constraints made the already challenging work of supporting these children all the more difficult”, she added, “affecting our ability to reach children with lifesaving support, constraining our work to release children from the ranks of armed groups, and slowing our efforts to trace and reunify children with their families and begin the long process of reintegration”.
‘See the positive in us’
The violations these youngsters have suffered come with long-lasting “invisible impacts”, including months or years of lost education, Academy Award-winning actor and activist Forest Whitaker told the Council.
“Such gaps will turn into jeopardized careers and reduced opportunities”, he said. “And, in many cases, their opportunities will be also limited because of a second invisible impact of the grave violations, social stigma”.
Mr. Whitaker is the founder of a peace and development initiative that has worked over the past decade in South Sudan, Uganda and other countries to rekindle the link between children affected by conflict and their communities.
He spoke about one of the volunteers, a former child soldier called Benson Lugwar, who has become a respected figure in his community in northern Uganda.
Though often stigmatized and marginalized, young people like him have a message of hope and resilience.
“And they ask simple questions of us and the members of this assembly”, said Mr. Whitaker, who is also a Special Envoy for Peace and Reconciliation with the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
“They ask: 'Will you take the time to listen to us? Will you work with us? Will you have the strength to see the positive in us?' We must”.
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