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Promotion and protection of the rights of children

29-10-1997 Statement

United Nations, General Assembly 52nd session, Third Committee, Agenda item 108 – Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), New York, 29 October 1997

Mr Chairman,

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) would like to welcome once again the appointment of the Secretary-General's Special Representative to study the impact of armed conflict on children. We look forward to cooperating with him in an effort to improve the situation of children worldwide. We will do our utmost to assist the Special Representative in his important and difficult task, in particular by putting at his disposal our organization's expertise in the field of international humanitarian law.

Since we addressed this Committee a year ago, on the occasion of the presentation of Mrs Machel's report, there has hardly been any improvement in the plight of children who are victims of armed conflict the world over. It is, however, encouraging to see a mobilization on their behalf of civil society and of the international community.

For the third consecutive year, the ICRC has been asked by the Commission on Human Rights to take part in January 1997 in the working group in charge of preparing a draft optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The draft aims in particular to raise the minimum age for the recruitment of children and their participation in hostilities. The ICRC, for its part, wishes to state that it is firmly in favour of the minimum age being raised to 18 years, in conformity with the Plan of Action of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement in behalf of children affected by armed conflict.

In view of the advanced stage reached in the work on the draft o ptional protocol, the ICRC will focus its statement here today on that particular issue. We would like to mention here that a document setting out in detail the legal analysis on which the ICRC's position is based will be available in the next few days. Indeed, given the risk that the scope of existing rules might be curtailed, we should like to clarify a few points here, our aim being to ensure that the provisions of the draft protocol are in harmony with the rules and principles of humanitarian law.

First, in the ICRC's view, the draft optional protocol must prohibit any and all participation - direct or indirect - by children in hostilities. The principle of total prohibition has already been laid down in provisions of humanitarian law applicable to non-international armed conflicts, that is, in the 1977 Protocol II additional to the 1949 Geneva Conventions. If the draft optional protocol were to prohibit only some forms of participation in hostilities, this would weaken the more comprehensive provisions of Protocol II. Moreover, experience in the field has shown that in many cases it is almost impossible to distinguish between direct and indirect participation. Likewise, the line between voluntary and forced recruitment can often, in practice, be a very thin one indeed.

Furthermore, the ICRC deems it essential that the provisions of the draft optional protocol be made to apply to all the parties to a conflict, including in the case of non-international armed conflicts, for it is precisely in such contexts that children face the greatest risks. It should be pointed out that humanitarian law applicable in such situations creates humanitarian rights and obligations for armed groups, without in any way granting them international recognition. It is therefore possible from a legal point of view, and absolutely crucial from a humanitarian point of view, that dissident forces or armed groups be bound by the provisions of the draft optional protocol and that they respect its rules.

Mr Chairman,

The ICRC hereby calls on States to attend and to make a positive contribution to the next session of the working group in order to rapidly draw up a text which would extend to children a greater degree of protection. To sum up, the ICRC has in mind above all the following points:

-    the optional protocol must apply to all situations of armed conflict;

-    it must apply to all parties to the conflict;

-    it must prohibit all recruitment of children under 18 years of age;

-    it must prohibit any participation in hostilities by children under 18.

But enacting new rules is not enough. What we also need, and what we need most of all, is to ensure effective implementation of the law, notably by establishing the mechanisms required to repress violations. This is why the ICRC has proposed that the recruitment of children into armed forces or armed groups and allowing children to take part in hostilities be included in the list of war crimes which would fall within the purview of the international criminal court. Such practices should be considered as war crimes in all conflicts  be they international or internal.

As we stated at the outset, the ICRC is very pleased to note the growing interest shown in the distressing issue of the impact of armed conflict on children. But this does not mean that we can now slacken our efforts. On the contrary, we must keep on encouraging States to sus tain the political will necessary to turn these expressions of support into action.

Thank you, Mr Chairman.

Ref. LG 1997-110-ENG