Promotion and protection of the rights of children
United Nations, General Assembly 50th session (1995), Third Committee, Agenda item 110, Tuesday, 21 November 1995. Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)
Because children are undoubtedly among the most vulnerable victims of armed conflict, they benefit from special and extensive protection under international humanitarian law. In many cases, unfortunately, the law is not applied and children are simply left to their fate. When they are not wounded or killed themselves, these victims of today's wars are often the silent witnesses of atrocities and other tragic events which mark them for life.
Children in wartime are threatened by many types of danger. We shall focus on three particularly acute problems which the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and other humanitarian organizations must deal with on a daily basis, namely the situation of unaccompanied children, the conditions in which children are detained and the active participation of children in armed conflicts.
An ever-growing number of children are either lost or separated from their families as a result of mass population movements. If these unaccompanied children are to be identified and their whereabouts monitored at all times, a system is needed for managing and carefully following each case. For many years, the ICRC, assisted by the vast network of National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, has been actively searching for missing people, in pursuance of its mandate to restore family ties and bring separated family members together again.
In Rwanda and in the refugee camps in Tanzania and Zaire, for example, the ICRC has registered 80,000 unaccompanied children and s o far has enabled 4,000 of them to rejoin their families. Our institution is not alone in providing assistance to these children - fortunately so since it would not be able to help them all. Other organizations, such as UNHCR, UNICEF, the IOM and a number of NGOs, also play an active role.
Given the enormous needs in the field, it would be important to increase cooperation among the various agencies and organizations concerned and to define their respective tasks more clearly so as to ensure more consistent and effective action, conducted in a spirit of complementarity.
The ICRC is also deeply concerned by the problem of children who are prisoners of war, civilian internees or detainees. Through their visits, ICRC delegates endeavour to safeguard the rights of children deprived of their freedom, in particular by examining their material conditions of detention and by seeking to preserve their mental and emotional balance.
Whether in the case of detained children presumed to have committed unlawful acts or of young children incarcerated with their mothers or even born in prison, the best interests of these children must prevail over all other considerations. For example, it is extremely prejudicial to a child's development to separate him from his mother. Indeed, in some cultures a mother who has been separated from her child may lose her social status, with all the consequences this entails.
Humanitarian organizations must coordinate their activities in this area as well by agreeing on priorities and on the various ways in which they can assist detained children. This requires a concerted approach and an effort to understand the respective roles of each.
The last problem that should be mentioned here concerns the participation of children in hostilities. More and more children are taking a direct part in ar med conflicts and are caught up in the fighting without even knowing what is at stake. They can easily be manipulated and encouraged to commit acts the gravity of which is beyond their grasp and experience all kinds of suffering and hardship not to mention often being captured, wounded or killed.
Everything must be done to ensure that there are no more child soldiers. The ICRC therefore strongly recommends that an optional protocol prohibiting both the recruitment of children under 18 years of age into the armed forces or armed groups and their participation in hostilities be added to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
We hope that States which are still reluctant to take this step will re-examine their position in light of the fact that a generation of adults marked for life by an experience as child combatants can slow the development of their society.
The adoption of rules setting limits to the participation of children in armed conflicts goes hand in hand with the establishment of effective mechanisms for preventing their recruitment and the adoption of practical measures in favour of children.
With this objective in mind the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, in view of its 26th Conference, has just finished drawing up a plan of action. We hope that its proposals, which we would be glad to share with other organizations and institutions concerned by the problem, will be of help in determining what preventive measures should be adopted. We also hope that these proposals will be taken into consideration in the study which the United Nations has entrusted to Ms Graça Machel, concerning the impact of armed conflicts on children, and to which the ICRC is already contributing its expertise. The States, for their part, will also have the opportunity to discuss this particular issue at the 26th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent this coming December in Geneva.
Thank you, Mr Chairman.