On November 20th, we commemorate World’s Children’s Day, an occasion to take a step back and reflect. Reflect on our achievements but also on the remaining progress that we need to accomplish to fulfill the rights of every child.
The recognition of a child, as well as their rights and needs, is enshrined in the most widely ratified Convention of the United Nations, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). More than thirty years have passed since the adoption of the CRC in 1989 and yet, in 2023, it has become increasingly evident that a vast number of children remain daily victims of violence, abuse, and oppression, particularly those living in situations of armed conflict.
Over the years, the United Nations Security Council has recognized the importance of bringing visibility to the most vulnerable children, by requesting the Secretary-General to report annually on the six grave violations affecting children in armed conflict, namely recruitment and use, killing and maiming, sexual violence, abduction, attacks on schools and hospitals, and denial of humanitarian access.
In 2022 alone, the United Nations verified 27,180 violations affecting 18,890 children which were committed in 24 situations and one regional arrangement. The most prevalent violation of 2022 was the killing and maiming of children, while the number of attacks on schools and hospitals showed an unprecedented increase of 112% compared to the previous year. As sobering as the 2022 figures were, they felt pale when contrasted with the dramatic increase in violations against children during 2023.
Armed violence has worryingly increased in many ongoing conflicts including in Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Myanmar, Niger, Somalia, Sudan, and most recently in Israel and the State of Palestine. So far this year, reported violations against children in conflict have climbed significantly, particularly those related to the killing and maiming of children and attacks on schools and hospitals, and their protected personnel. Perhaps no situation is more tragic than the case of Israel and the State of Palestine, particularly Gaza, where thousands of children have been killed and maimed, denied life-saving humanitarian aid, while others have been abducted. In Gaza, it is reported that more than 5,500 children have been killed and more than 9,000 children have been maimed by airstrikes, while most of them are currently being denied access to the most basic humanitarian aid, including food, water, and medicine.
“While there must be accountability for the horrific terror attack against civilians in Israel, the ensuing continued bombardment and deprivation of humanitarian relief to an entire civilian population in Gaza, half of whom are children, cannot be justified. The hostilities against the children in Gaza must stop now,” remarked the Special Representative of the Secretary-General, Ms. Virginia Gamba.
In Sudan, children have been facing intense hostilities since April, and are subjected to raids, and airstrikes by parties to conflict, resulting in shocking accounts of widespread killing and maiming of children and sexual violence against girls, including rape. Thousands of children in and around Khartoum, the Darfur states, the Blue Nile, and the Kordofan regions are disproportionately affected by the actions of armed forces and armed groups. Parties to conflict in Sudan must prioritize a cessation of hostilities and a return to peace if children are to be spared further suffering.
Children in the Sahel and Lake Chad basin continue to be victims of armed conflict. Children are raped, abducted, and recruited by armed forces and armed groups, particularly girls, while schools and hospitals are attacked and destroyed.
In Afghanistan, girls beyond 6th grade are deprived of their education and of any opportunities for development and personal growth, leading to forced marriage, a form of sexual violence. To add to this dramatic situation, in November 2023, reportedly 400,000 girls, with their relatives, were forcibly deported from Pakistan, to share the fate of their sisters living under the restrictive rules in place.
The use of explosive ordnance, including improvised explosive devices, landmines, and explosive remnants of war, continues to be one of the main causes of child casualties, particularly when used in densely populated areas. Those weapons fiercely and indiscriminately target children in many countries around the world. The situation for children remains very dire particularly due to the impact of explosive ordnance, in Colombia, Iraq, the Syrian Arab Republic, and Ukraine.
Counter-terrorism measures have unprecedented negative impacts on children, including their deprivation of liberty, sometimes solely over an assumption of affiliation with an opposing party to conflict. Let us remind ourselves that more than 31,000 children remain deprived of liberty in Hawl and Rawj camps in north-east Syria, waiting to be released and repatriated to their countries of origin, and over 600 children are currently deprived of liberty for alleged association with armed forces and armed groups without adequate access to humanitarian aid and basic services.
To add to the tragedy of children living in situations of armed conflict, other push factors such as the effects of climate change, and its impact on inter-communal violence, as well as the rise of pandemics and endemics, have led to a general impoverishment of communities, trigger for children to join armed groups and/or face sexual violence. Further, as seen in Haiti, armed groups and gangs are increasingly targeting children and committing all six grave violations against children in doing so.
Nevertheless, hope remains in some situations. This is the case notably in the Central African Republic, South Sudan, the Philippines, and Yemen, where there is a decline in verified violations against children. All these situations have one thing in common: the parties to conflict have intentionally decided to put in place measures to protect children. These measures were translated for some through a direct engagement with the United Nations over the signature of a joint action plan, for others through the declaration of a ceasefire and/or the start of peaceful dialogue for conflict resolution. Irrefutably, the pursuit of peace should be the ultimate goal of parties to the conflict, and it is essential to urge all global leaders to push peers, allies, and friends to engage on the path to peace.
“Without the political will to genuinely resolve conflicts, we will continue to fail our children and their hopes and dreams. Without respecting the obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law, we will continue to harm our children. Without putting children at the center of our actions, the possibility of complying with the CRC and providing every child with their rights and needs is sadly null,” explained the Special Representative.
There is nothing to celebrate on this World’s Children’s Day but simply acknowledge a lingering sense of regret and shame.
“Stop the war on children. It is time to act to protect children. Let us recall our humanity, we owe this to the children of the world” concluded Ms. Gamba