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Rights of the child

14-04-1999 Statement

55th Annual Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. Agenda item 13 - 14 April 1999. Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross

Madam Chair,

Tragically, children represent an important category of victims of armed conflict. Not only because they form such a large part of the civilian population, but also due to their particular vulnerability. All too often, children are separated from their family, physically wounded or emotionally traumatized, by having witnessed atrocities, or even been forced to commit them. Being deprived of their childhood and youth, such children also often face considerable problems to reintegrate into their devastated societies.

The ICRC therefore welcomes the growing international attention given to the plight of children affected by armed conflicts. The Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflicts, Mr. Olara Otunnu, has contributed to raising awareness on this matter. Both civil society and Governments are mobilizing, as evidenced by the numerous instances where the problems of children have been discussed, such as the recent debate in the Security Council. It is to be hoped that the concerns manifested will result in practical action to better protect and assist current and future generations of children from the evils of warfare.

The different components of the International Red Cross an d Red Crescent Movement have over the years become engaged in a wide range of activities on behalf of children affected by armed conflicts. In 1995, its Council of Delegates adopted a Plan of Action aimed at further developing these activities. In essence, this plan focuses on preventing the use of children as soldiers, and on psychosocial rehabilitation of children victims of armed conflict.

The general field activities carried out by the ICRC of course also benefit children. These include providing nutritional and medical assistance to civilian communities in need, rehabilitation of sanitation systems, facilitating contact between separated family members, and interceding with parties to an armed conflict, with the aim of making them respect their obligations under international humanitarian law. Among more specific activities should be mentioned the identification and registration of unaccompanied children, reuniting families, supporting education, as well as efforts to ensure that detained children are treated in accordance with the special protection granted to them under humanitarian law.

In line with the Plan of Action, the ICRC promotes the principle of non-recruitment and non-participation of children under the age of eighteen years in armed conflicts. It does so notably by participating in the open-ended Working Group for the Elaboration of a Draft Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflicts. In this regard, the ICRC wishes to reiterate its support for the adoption of an optional protocol on this issue, and to express its regret that it has not yet been possible to reach a consensus on a text.

The ICRC would like here to briefly reiterate its views on the content of the instrument to be adopted. In short, the optional protocol should prohibit both voluntary and compulsory recruitment, and prohibit both direct and indirect participation in hostilit ies. Most importantly, it should apply to all parties to an armed conflict, including armed groups. Indeed, practice has often demonstrated that for relevant rules of international law to be respected, there must be equal legal obligations on both sides. Since the subject-matter before us relates to armed conflict, it represents a clear case where the logic of international humanitarian law should be adopted in the human rights law instrument.

The ICRC thoroughly presented its views to last year's sessions of this Commission and its open-ended Working Group. It has also had the opportunity to explain its position to the new Chairperson of the Working Group, Ambassador Catherine von Heidenstam, and remains committed to participate in future consultations, with a view to reaching a better legal protection of the children concerned.

Of course, these efforts in no way detract from the need to ensure a better implementation of existing standards, addressing in particular the participation in hostilities of children who have not yet attained the age of fifteen years. The ICRC therefore welcomes the adoption of the Statute of the International Criminal Court, which will help ensure that children under the age of fifteen do not take part in hostilities. It should be noted that a wide range of other measures can also contribute to reaching this objective, notably those which aim at providing children at risk with an alternative source of income, occupation, perceived stability and social respect.

Thank you, Madam Chair.

 Ref. LG 1999-130-ENG