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Promotion and protection of the rights of children

21-10-1998 Statement

United Nations, General Assembly, 53rd session, Third Committee, item 106 of the agenda Statement by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), New York, 21 October 1998

Mr Chairman,

The unrelenting and distressing problem of children caught up in the turmoil of war continues to profoundly preoccupy the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), guardian of international humanitarian law (IHL), whose mandate is to protect and assist victims of armed conflict.

For this reason, the ICRC is pleased to note the growing awareness within the international community of the plight of all these children, victims of armed conflict, these entire generations traumatized and sacrificed, as well as of the future and development of the numerous countries affected by war. This has resulted in, among others, the nomination of Mr. Olara Otunnu, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflicts. His accomplishments in regards to the enormous task of mobilization has permitted, notably, to bring the subject for open debate before the Security Council. The ICRC reaffirms its commitment to assisting the Special Representative in his difficult and delicate task, in particular by making available its expertise in the field of IHL. The ICRC also wishes to stress the importance of meetings such as the World Conference of Ministers Responsible for Youth, held in Lisbon from 8 to 12 August 1998. In its final Declaration, this Conference stated its commitment to - and I quote - " preventing the participation, involvement and recruitment of children in armed conflicts, in accordance with international law " .

As encouraging as it may be, the mobilization of public opinion on a global scale, of international and non-governmental organizations, and of the community of States must be further reinforced for this awareness to result in a firm resolve to take the necessary action. States have undertaken to respect and to ensure respect not only for IHL, but also for the pertinent dispositions contained in the Convention on the Rights of the Child which enjoys near universal acceptance.

Mr Chairman,

ICRC's action contributing to the protection of children in situations of armed conflict is based upon two constant axes of its mandate.

Firstly, on the operational level, the ICRC concentrates its efforts on:

- the identification and registration of unaccompanied children;

- visits to imprisoned, detained, arrested, or interned children for which it requests, when possible, liberation or internment in quarters separate from the adults except, of course, if the children are detained along with their family;

- nutritional and medical assistance, including orthopaedic care.

Secondly, the Institution works towards the promotion, implementation and development of international norms, in order to ensure that the child is afforded both the general protection given to civilians, as well as the protection due because of a child's vulnerability.

Mr. Chairman,

The rules of IHL and of international human rights law are complementary in affording legal protection for children,  prohibiting, for example, the participation in hostilities of children under fifteen years of age. It is alarming to note that the number of children being recruited or volunteering to serve in today's conflicts is steadily increasing.

Despite this absolute prohibition, children under the age of twelve are frequently armed and encouraged to commit the worst atrocities. This is why the ICRC welcomes the adoption of the Statute of the International Criminal Court, which lists as a war crime the conscription or enlistment of children under the age of fifteen into armed forces or groups or using them to participate actively in hostilities. This notion of participation must be understood to include both taking a direct part in the fighting and active participation in related activities, such as reconnaissance, espionage and sabotage. The same applies to the use of children as decoys, as messengers or at military checkpoints.

Certain rules can and must be improved, for example, those concerning the age for recruitment and participation in hostilities. In this regard the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement - that is, the 175 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, their International Federation and the ICRC - is endeavouring to have the minimum age for recruitment and participation in hostilities raised to eighteen.

On the basis of the detailed argument it has put forward, which was also reproduced in a report presented by the Secretariat of the United Nations at the last session of the Commission on Human Rights(1), the ICRC supports the adoption of an optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child which would prohibit all forms of recruitment and participation in hostilities of children under the age of eighteen. Such a prohibition must apply to all parties to the conflict, including armed groups.

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has adopted a Plan of Action in favour of child victims of armed conflict. The Plan sets out to promote not only the principle of non-participation and non-recruitment of persons under the age of eighteen, but also to develop specific activities to protect and assist them. These include measures to facilitate their post-conflict rehabilitation and their reinsertion into civil society.

To conclude, we wish to insist on the impor tance of synergy among the efforts of all those who, by virtue of their expertise and their mandate, are taking practical action in favour of children in armed conflict.

Thank you, Mr Chairman.

(1) E/CN.4/1998/WG.13/2, paragraphs 53-105.

Ref. LG 1998-077-ENG