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Promotion and protection of the rights of children

12-11-1996 Statement

United Nations, General Assembly 51st session, Third Committee, Agenda item 106 – Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), New York, 12 November 1996

Madam Chairperson,

On Friday, 8 November the Vice-President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), in her speech before this Committee, gave our institution's views on the report presented to the General Assembly by the Expert of the Secretary-General on children in armed conflict. The ICRC commended Ms Graça Machel for her thorough study, and reiterated its concerns regarding the protection of children. Finally, the ICRC declared that it would study in detail the way in which it could, within the framework of its mandate, participate in the follow-up to the recommendations formulated in the report.

Madam Chairperson,

Nowadays, most armed conflicts take place within States. Their aim is often to displace or even exterminate parts of the population. Sometimes they take place in situations where State structures have broken down. Such conflicts inevitably result in large-scale civilian deaths and injuries, extensive damage to health and education systems, and substantial movements of refugees and displaced persons. When conflict drags on for years and even decades, the root causes themselves, such as resentment, poverty or repression, are exacerbated, galvanizing civilians for recruitment into armed groups. As is thoroughly demonstrated in the Machel Study, children today are being wounded and killed, horrifically mutilated by anti-personnel mine, forcibly recruited, imprisoned, deprived of all material and medical aid and separated from their loved ones.

Today we would like to focus our decl aration on the issue of recruitment. Indeed, the ICRC is dismayed to note that an ever-growing number of children are being recruited into armed forces or volunteer to fight, and are caught up in combat. Children can easily be manipulated and encouraged to commit acts the gravity of which is beyond their grasp. They experience all kinds of suffering and hardship, and are often captured, wounded or killed.

It cannot be overemphasized that the shocking reality of armed conflicts is that, in many instances, children below the age of 15 take part in hostilities, in breach of existing international standards contained in international humanitarian law instruments and in the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Madam Chairperson,

The ICRC strongly supports the adoption of both preventive and remedial measures to address this disturbing phenomenon. In addition, our institution is of the opinion that legal standards must be raised with a view to prohibiting the recruitment of children below 18 years of age.

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, which is composed of the ICRC, the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and their Federation, also feels that a large-scale response is necessary. To this end, its Council of Delegates adopted a resolution in 1995 requesting the drafting and implementation of a Plan of Action aimed at promoting the principle of non-recruitment and non-participation of children below the age of 18 in armed conflicts, and taking concrete action to protect and assist children victims of armed conflicts. The 26th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, held in Geneva in December 1995, also dealt with those questions.

In January 1996, as in previous years, the ICRC took an active part in the meeting held by the working group responsible for drafting an optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. At this meeting, the ICRC expressed its opinion on a series of important points with a view to ensuring harmonization between the draft optional protocol and the principles of international humanitarian law. Indeed, the ICRC is concerned about the potential danger of lowering the reach of existing norms protecting children.

In particular, the ICRC considers it essential that the provisions of the draft optional protocol be respected by all parties to a conflict, including those of a non-international nature. It is precisely in such situations that children are most at risk. It is therefore crucial that dissident forces or armed groups taking part in internal conflicts also be bound by the norms of the protocol and respect its provisions. Indeed, 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. In this context, it must be stressed that international humanitarian law applicable in situations of non-international armed conflicts binds all parties to a conflict, including armed groups, without giving them a legal status.

Moreover, 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 Protocol II additional to the Geneva Conventions. If the draft optional protocol were to prohibit only certain forms of participation, this could weaken this broader provision. In addition, experience in the field has shown that the distinction between direct and indirect participation is often virtually impossible to ascertain. The draft optional protocol should therefore, in the ICRC's opinion, prohibit all forms of participation by children in armed conflicts, and this without distinct ion. In addition, this instrument should be applicable to both international and non-international armed conflicts.

But legal measures are almost useless if they are not accompanied by practical measures. As in many other areas, the law cannot be implemented without strong political commitment, followed by the establishment at national level of specific programmes involving the civil society to ensure that children do not fall victim to armed conflict or, where this has already happened, to ensure that they are fully rehabilitated and reintegrated into society.

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. In particular, concrete steps must be taken without delay in the areas of health, education and proper care for abandoned and demobilized children. We must be aware, however, that emergency relief cannot have a lasting preventive impact. Long-term solutions must also be worked out. Responsibility for this rests primarily with the States, but humanitarian organizations can and must make a contribution. Unfortunately, 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, Madam Chairperson.

Ref. UN(1996)33,b