Protecting children affected by armed conflict

23 March, 2012

Radhika Coomaraswarmy, UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict with Olara Otunnu, the first UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict, who held the post between 1998 and 2005.

Despite considerable progress, significant challenges remain to ensure children affected by armed conflict are protected. By examining the changing nature of conflict and exploring innovative strategies, Wilton Park is helping to advance this agenda.  

Protecting children affected by armed conflict: advancing the agenda of the last 10 years

21 – 24 March 2012  (WP1151)

Published in 1996, Graça Machel’s report for the United Nations on the ‘Impact of Armed Conflict on Children’ marked a landmark study, laying the foundation for comprehensive action to protect children in areas of armed conflict. The report’s most immediate impact was the establishment of a Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict (SRSG-CAAC). Fifteen years on, this Office continues to coordinate the UN’s activities in this area, with the mission ‘to promote and protect the right of all children affected by armed conflict.’

The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in Armed Conflict (OPAC) came into force in February 2002 and represents another development in the international framework. States which ratify this protocol commit to taking all feasible measures to prevent the direct participation in hostilities by individuals under the age of eighteen. In the context of the tenth anniversary of the OPAC this year, the SRSG-CAAC is seeking universal ratification of the Protocol by the end of 2012.

Despite such progress, however, key challenges remain. Of the estimated 26 million people currently displaced by armed conflict, for example, approximately half are children, and young people continue to be targeted by armed groups and militias. This situation is exacerbated by the changing nature of contemporary conflict and the new threats posed by different forms of armed violence. The 10-year Strategic Review of Machel’s report, published in 2007, identified three increasing or new challenges:  the proliferation of highly unaccountable armed groups; the emergence of resource wars, which can involve children in hazardous forms of labour; and the internalisation of terrorism, which often restricts access to basic services, as well as targeting children. The Review also drew attention to the fact that indirect consequences of war, such as decreased access to water, sanitation, health and education and increased levels of poverty, malnutrition and diseases, are regularly overlooked. The report of our conference on Children and armed conflict:  towards a policy consensus and future agenda – ten years after the Machel study held in 2007 provides additional information.

In light of the continuing challenges, Wilton Park’s conference on ‘Protecting children affected by armed conflict: advancing the agenda of the last 10 years’, an initiative supported by the SRSG-CAAC’s Office, is particularly pertinent. The event, held in partnership with World Vision UK, and with sponsorship from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, brought together between fifty and sixty people from a variety of sectors, including government, UN bodies, academia, NGOs and community initiatives. It will focus on the extent to which current legal, policy and institutional frameworks, both national and international, are sufficient to confront the challenges posed to the rights of children by contemporary conflict. Identifying the gaps that exist in both policy and implementation, it explored innovative solutions to facilitating protection, access to justice and restoration for all children affected by armed conflict. The conference thus represented a significant and timely opportunity to push forward the agenda.

Further information

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