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Promoting and protecting the rights of the child

11-11-1994 Statement

United Nations General Assembly, 49th session (1994), Third committee, Agenda item 101, 11 November 1994. Statement by Mrs María Teresa Dutli, Delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Mr Chairman,

The protection of children in the event of armed conflict is a matter of constant concern for the International Committee of the Red Cross. I therefore wish to thank you for according us this opportunity to speak on the subject today.

ICRC delegates are working in the ever more complex theatres of operation created by the wars that are raging as we approach the end of the century. whether in Africa, in Asia, in Latin America or in Europe, we are dealing with conflicts characterized by utter contempt for even the most elementary rules of humanity. Too often the civilian population itself becomes a strategic objective for the warring parties. One need only consider the most recent of the horrible wars like Somalia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Liberia or indeed Rwanda, to be convinced of the yawning gulf between humanitarian principles and reality. And one of the most pathetic and abhorrent aspects of today's reality is the plight of children caught up in situations of conflict.

For decades now, the protection of children in wartime has exercised the minds of international lawmakers. The 1949 Geneva Conventions for the protection of war victims and their two Additional Protocols of 1977 protect children as members of the civilian population. Those instruments also contain 25 provisions that afford children special protection tailored to their needs. But the rules are not always complied with and war continues to claim innocent young victims.

Mr Chairman,

UNICEF estimates that in the past ten years one and a half million children have been killed in armed conflicts and this estimate might even be co nservative. Between 1990 and 1992, the proportion of mine injuries among the children admitted to the ICRC's surgical hospital in Peshawar, Pakistan, rose from 14 to 25%.

In situations of armed conflicts, the prevailing lack of security and the breakdown of essential services drive civilians from their homes in large numbers. Of those who flee, children are the most vulnerable. Studies carried out among groups of refugees show that the infant mortality rate is between five and twelve times higher than in their countries of origin.

When children are separated from - or worse, abandoned by - their families, their psycho- social behaviour undergoes changes. Some of these changes are immediate, some occur later. Children who are born into war frequently reach adolescence knowing nothing but a world of violence imposed by the force of arms. Left to their own devices, they are easy prey for those seeking to recruit them into the military or other armed groups.

A child who takes part in hostilities endangers not only his own life but also that of anyone in the sights of a weapon wielded by an immature and reckless young person.

Sadly, it must be acknowledged that an ever-increasing number of children are being recruited or volunteering to fight in today's conflicts. Yet the participation of children in hostilities is prohibited by humanitarian law. Article 77, paragraph 2, of Protocol I additional to the Geneva Conventions states that the parties to an international armed conflict must refrain from recruiting into their armed forces persons less than 15 years of age. In recruiting among persons who have reached the age of fifteen but not the age of eighteen, priority must be given to those who are oldest. In the event of non-international armed conflict, the rules are even more strict. Article 4, paragraph 3, of Protocol II prohibits both the recruitment of children under fifteen and their par ticipation in hostilities. This principle of non-recruitment and non-participation in hostilities is restated in Article 38 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Despite these strict prohibitions, the reality is often quite different. Yesterday in Mozambique or Cambodia, today in Liberia or Afghanistan, children under twelve have frequently been given weapons and encouraged to commit the most appalling atrocities.

Fuller compliance with the existing rules is essential. We support current efforts to bring about adoption of an optional protocol to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which would prohibit the recruitment into armed groups and involvement in hostilities of children under eighteen. It is vital that this instrument be adopted by all States.

Mr Chairman,

The ICRC has recently launched and supported a series of initiatives within the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement designed to counteract the disturbing phenomenon of child recruitment.

In November 1991 the Movement's Council of Delegates, meeting in Budapest, adopted the resolution 14 on child soldiers. It called for a study to be undertaken on the recruitment and participation of children as soldiers and on measures to reduce and eventually eliminate such practices.

The study was carried out under the auspices of the Henry Dunant Institute in Geneva, and has just been published under the title Child soldiers ( Child soldiers - a study for the Henry Dunant Institute, Geneva  / Ilene Cohn and Guy Goodwin-Gill . Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1994, 228 pp. ) It contains a wealth of first-hand accounts collected in various armed conflicts and recommends specific measures that would provide effective protection for children. When it met in Birmingham, in October 1993, the Council of Delegates adopted a resolution on the basis of the study requesting the preparation and implementation of a plan of action for the Movement aimed at promoting the principle of non-recruitment and non-participation of children under eighteen years of age, and urging practical action to protect and assist child victims of war.

We hope that these measures will be taken into account in the study on the impact of armed conflict on children launched by the United Nations pursuant to resolution 48/157 of 20 December 1993. The ICRC fully supports that undertaking and will contribute to it within the bounds of its mandate.

Mr Chairman,

The day-to-day experience of ICRC delegates shows that only preventive measures can improve protection for children caught up in armed conflict and ensure that they do not take part in hostilities. Practical steps must be taken without delay in the areas of health, education and proper care for abandoned children. Humanitarian organizations can and must make a contribution, but their resources are limited and the magnitude of the needs calls for a united stand on the part of the entire international community.

Thank you.

Ref. UN (1994) 23b