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Rights of the child

09-04-1997 Statement

53rd Annual Session of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Agenda item 21 - 9 April 1997. Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross

Mr Chairman,

Nowadays, most armed conflicts take place within States. Their aim is often to displace or even exterminate parts of the population. Sometimes they occur in situations where State structures have broken down. Such conflicts inevitably result in heavy casualties among civilians, extensive damage to health and education systems, and large-scale movements of refugees and displaced persons. When a conflict drags on for years and even decades, this aggravates its underlying causes, such as resentment, poverty or repression, and galvanizes civilians into joining armed groups. As is thoroughly demonstrated in the report presented to this Commission by the Expert of the Secretary-General on the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children (A/51/306), children today are being wounded and killed, horribly mutilated by anti-personnel mines, forcibly recruited, imprisoned, deprived of all material and medical aid and separated from their loved ones.

In its capacity as an organization responsible for affording protection and assistance to war victims, the ICRC does its utmost to optimize conditions for children caught in the midst of war, and to enable them as far as possible to remain in their own environment. More specifically, its efforts to help children are of two kinds. First, ICRC delegates take practical steps to protect and assist child victims, for instance by ascertaining the identity of unaccompanied children and registering them, reuniting families, forwarding news, searching for missing persons, monitoring conditions of detention, providing food aid and medical care, including specialized treatment for the disabled people, rehabilitating sani tation systems, helping with education and arranging for repatriations. Secondly, the ICRC takes preventive measures by making every effort to spread knowledge of international humanitarian law, including by stepping up educational activities for young people.

The ICRC is deeply concerned to note that an ever-growing number of children are being recruited into armed forces or volunteer to fight, and are thus 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.

The shocking reality of armed conflict 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.

The ICRC strongly supports the adoption of both preventive and remedial measures to address this disturbing phenomenon. In addition, our organization 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 International Federation, feels that a large-scale response is necessary. To this end, its Council of Delegates adopted a resolution in 1995 and endorsed a Plan of Action aimed at promoting the principle of non-recruitment and non-participation of child ren under the age of 18 in armed conflicts, and taking practical measures to protect and assist children who are victims of armed conflict. The 26th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, held in Geneva in December 1995, also recommended that parties to conflict refrain from arming children below the age of 18 years and take every feasible step to ensure that children under 18 do not participate in hostilities.

In January 1997, as in previous years, the ICRC took an active part in the proceedings of the inter-sessional open-ended working group on a draft optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on involvement of children in armed conflict. At this meeting, the ICRC expressed its opinion on a series of important points with a view to ensuring harmonization between the draft protocol and the principles of international humanitarian law. Indeed, the ICRC is concerned about the potential danger of weakening the existing norms protecting children.

In particular, 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 comprehensive prohibition is already provided for under international humanitarian law applicable in non-international armed conflict, 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 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. Likewise, the distinction between voluntary and involuntary recruitment may in practice often be fluid and uncertain.

The ICRC considers it essential that the provisions of the draft optional protocol be respected by all parties to a conflict, including conflicts of a non-int ernational nature. Those are precisely the situations in which 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 law must be respected by all those who are in any way involved in armed conflict. In this context, it must be stressed that international humanitarian law applicable in situations of non-international armed conflict binds all the warring parties, including armed groups, without giving them any legal status.

But legal measures are almost useless if they are not accompanied by practical measures. As in many other spheres, the law cannot be implemented without strong political commitment, followed by the establishment at national level of specific programmes involving civil society to ensure that children do not fall victim to armed conflict or, where this has already occurred, 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 participate in hostilities. In particular, practical steps must be taken without delay in the areas of health, education and proper care for abandoned children and demobilized child soldiers. It must be borne in mind, 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, Mr Chairman.

Ref. LG 1997-034-ENG