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Rights of the child

17-04-1996 Statement

52nd Annual Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Agenda item 20 - 17 April 1996. Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross

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 affording us this opportunity to speak on the subject today.

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

In its capacity as an organization responsible for bringing protection and assistance to war victims, the ICRC is especially concerned about these children.

The ICRC therefore spares no effort to improve the protection and assistance afforded to children affected by hostilities, in particular by promoting the adoption of more effective legal provisions and the implementation of practical measures for their benefit.

The past six months have witnessed significant developments, to which the ICRC has actively contributed, in the area of protection for c hildren in armed conflicts. We shall mention only three of these developments, which we consider to be particularly promising:

a) the work undertaken with a view to the adoption of an optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child;

b) the discussions held during the 26th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent; and

c) the Plan of action for children in armed conflicts adopted by the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

 a) Draft optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child  

In January 1996 the ICRC took an active part in meetings held by the working group responsible for drafting an optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The ICRC was thus able to express its opinion on a series of important points with a view to ensuring harmonization between the draft optional protocol, which deals with the participation of children in armed conflicts, and the principles of international

humanitarian law.

The ICRC believes that the draft optional protocol should prohibit all forms of participation, whether direct or indirect, by children in armed conflicts. Such a total prohibition is already provided for under international humanitarian law applicable in non-international armed conflicts, namely in Protocol II additional to the 1949 Geneva Conventions. If the draft optional protocol were to prohibit only certain forms of participation, this could weaken the broader provisions of Protocol II. The draft optional protocol should therefore, in the ICRC's opinion, prohibit all forms of participation by children in armed conflicts, without distinction. 

Moreover, the ICRC considers it essential that the provisions of the draft optional protocol be respec ted by " all parties to conflict " . In practice, children are usually caught up in situations of non-international armed conflict. Dissident forces or armed groups taking part in internal conflicts should therefore also be bound by and respect its provisions. If the scourge of child soldiers is to be eradicated, the rules of international humanitarian law must be respected by all those who are in any way involved in armed conflicts.

Therefore, we strongly hope that the efforts undertaken with a view to the adoption of a draft optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child will lead to more effective protection for children in armed conflicts, in harmony with the rules of international humanitarian law.

 b) Work of the 26th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent  

The 26th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, held in Geneva from 3 to 7 December 1995, brought together more than 1,200 delegates, including representatives of 143 States party to the Geneva Conventions and of 166 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. A substantial debate arose at the Conference on the subject of protection for children in armed conflicts. This led to the adoption of Resolution 2, entitled " Protection of the civilian population in period of armed conflict " , which recommends that parties to conflict refrain from arming children under the age of 18 years and take every feasible step to ensure that they do not take part in hostilities.

 c) Plan of action for children in armed conflicts  

In December 1995 the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement adopted a Plan of action aimed at alleviating the plight endured daily by children in armed conflicts. This Plan of action is intended to promote the principle of non-participation and non-recruitment of children under the age of 18 and lead to the adoption of tangible measures to protect and assist children in armed conflicts.

A coordinating group responsible for implementing the Plan of action is to be set up in the coming weeks.

Mr Chairman,

The day-to-day experience of ICRC delegates shows that only preventive measures can improve protection for children caught up in armed conflicts 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 agencies 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, Mr Chairman.

Ref.UN(1996)6,6b