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Promotion and protection of the rights of children: ICRC statement to the United Nations, 2010

18-10-2010 Statement

United Nations, General Assembly, 65th session, Third Committee, item 64 of the agenda, statement by the ICRC, New York, 18 October 2010.

Mr. Chairman,

The international community has striven over the last decade to improve the mental and physical integrity of children by implementing the Millennium Development Goals. However, there has been a failure to recognize conflict as a major barrier to primary education, improved maternal health, lower child mortality and other Millennium Development Goals. Much remains to be done throughout the world to protect children and see to their welfare in the event of conflict.

Children are too often the victims of direct and serious violations of international humanitarian law, including killing, maiming, sexual violence and recruitment into the military and armed groups. But they are also victims of the indirect effects of war such as inadequate health care, food and water. These side effects result in the deaths of many more children than bullets and bombs.

A few examples illustrate the extent to which war and other violence infringe children's basic rights and hinder development in early childhood. These examples show why it will be challenging to achieve the Millennium Development Goals for children living in conflict zones.

First, some violations of international humanitarian law may deprive children of the most basic elements required for normal, healthy development, particularly in the early stages of childhood. This is the case, for instance, when civilians not taking a direct part in hostilities are targeted or when essential facilities that do not constitute military objectives, such as hospitals, schools and water-purification systems, are attacked.  

Second, conflict often impedes access to good health care for women and children at a time when they may most need it. One indirect yet serious consequence of armed conflict is that key health-care facilities fail to be maintained and fall into disrepair. The cost of warfare puts a heavy burden on a State's budget, and resources are often redirected to cover military costs. This, combined with the fact that health-care personnel may have fled the conflict zone, increases the vulnerability to illness and disease of those left behind.

Third, the International Committee of the Red Cross recognizes that forcing people to flee their homes is one of the most devastating consequences in humanitarian terms of modern-day conflict. Its impact on children is manifold. To begin with, the camps housing people forced to flee may themselves be a threat to children's health. Food shortages, insufficient water and poor hygiene all increase the child mortality rate. Overcrowding may also facilitate the spread of deadly diseases. The mortality rate for children under five may be particularly high in camps, especially at the early stages of displacement. Pregnancy and childbirth are major causes of death in many countries under normal circumstances; but the situation worsens dramatically when conflict breaks out.

Fourth, in the panic and chaos surrounding displacement, many children find themselves alone and separated from their families. In such situations, it is not unusual for children as young as eight or nine to assume adult roles, taking care of and protecting younger siblings. Inevitably, the burden of family responsibility, coupled with the trauma of sudden loss, takes a huge toll on the mental and physical health of the child. This puts the child itself and his or her dependants at greater risk of neglect, exploitation and abuse. It is therefore essential to identify young unaccompanied children immediately, ensuring that they receive appropriate care and that their families are traced wherever possible.

Finally, the experience of war harms not only children's physical development. The violence they witness, frequently coupled with the loss of loved ones, leaves lasting psychological scars. This mental anguish must be recognized and tackled so as to prevent lasting trauma, which in some hard-hit countries amounts to a lost generation.

Mr. Chairman,

Much of what children suffer during conflict can be prevented through better compliance with international humanitarian law by all the warring parties. Among other things, this body of law requires that civilians be treated humanely, prohibiting as it does murder, torture and other forms of ill-treatment, as well as enforced disappearance. It also outlaws directing attacks against civilians and civilian objects.

The ICRC urges UN Member States, which are all party to the Geneva Conventions, to ensure that they remain committed to children affected by armed conflict, safeguarding early childhood development and ensuring respect, protection and assistance for children in all circumstances, including times of extreme danger.

The ICRC also wishes to stress the importance of respecting medical activities during conflict. As enshrined in the Geneva Conventions and their two Additional Protocols, medical personnel and hospitals are essential to the welfare of the civilian population and therefore may not be targeted. Children have the right to the best attainable health care. It is therefore imperative that medical work and medical facilities be respected and protected.

This year is the 10th anniversary of the adoption of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict. The ICRC encourages UN Member States to ratify and implement this instrument.

In conclusion, the ICRC emphasizes that all of us are responsible for ensuring that children receive the best possible protection and assistance. That said, the States bear primary responsibility for ensuring that within their borders children's rights are respected. This duty can not be waived at any time, not even in times of conflict and other violence.

Thank you Mr. Chairman.