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Child victims of armed conflict: the view of the International Committee of the Red Cross

23-05-2000 Statement

OSCE, Human Dimension Seminar on children and armed conflict, Warsaw, 23-26 May 2000. Statement by Jakob Kellenberger, President, International Committee of the Red Cross

Madam Chair, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Thank you for the possibility offered to me to address this OSCE seminar on the subject of children and armed conflict. The hardcore of ICRC's activities with its staff of almost 11'000 persons worldwide is the

  • protection and assistance to victims of armed conflicts and their direct consequences and

  • promotion and development of international humanitarian law.

Civil population has become a specific target of military action Children are a particularly vulnerable part of this civil population. At present, children account for three out of every five victims receiving ICRC protection and assistance in the field.

They are often snatched from their families and forced to take flight. They end up left to their own devices, with no roots and no identity. All over the world, this situation has reached unprecedented dimensions.

And yet we have the legal instruments we need to respond to the daunting challenges confronting us, for the law already offers children extensive protection.


 International humanitarian law - the basis for the protection of children in armed conflict  


How do es international humanitarian law protect children?

 a) General protection:  

Every child is protected on two levels: in general terms, as a person not taking part in the hostilities, and, more specifically, as a member of a vulnerable group.

According to the principle of impartiality, every legal rule that protects the civilian population in general and each individual in particular from becoming a target for attack applies equally to children.

General protection is understood to mean that children must not suffer any harm at the hands of the party to the conflict under whose power they are. They are protected by virtue of all the rules that make up the core principle of humane treatment. The law guarantees respect for their lives and their physical and psychological integrity. As members of civil society, they are also protected against the effects of hostilities.

 b) Special protection  

More than 25 articles in the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the 1977 Additional protocols are devoted to the protection of children. Take for example Article 24 of the Fourth Convention. It requires that children who are orphaned or separated from their families receive an education and will be identified. Article 77 of Additional Protocol I protects children against indecent assaults, prohibits participation to hostilities (direct or indirect) to children under 15 and protects children against death penalty for offences committed before the age of 18.

 c) Child soldiers  

As we have seen, 25 articles in international. humanitarian are aimed at protecting children not taking part in the conflict, but what about child soldie rs?

The number of children recruited forcibly or voluntarily is constantly rising, in spite of the fact that international humanitarian law prohibits children under 15 years of age from being recruited. IHL also encourages not to have them taking part in hostilities below 18. Additional Protocol II, relating to non-international conflict, goes so far as to prohibit both direct and indirect participation. I cannot think of many cases where the difference between law and the situation in real life is so big.

This is perhaps the most tragic group of child victims. Although they start as victims, child soldiers themselves become perpetrators of violence and are caught up in wars they do not understand.

Children taking part in hostilities remain under the protection of international humanitarian law. Some of these children are not even ten years old. They are said to be capable of extraordinary heroism and of the most appalling crimes. Often they are not mature enough, in the depraved environment in which they live, to distinguish between good and evil. With no understanding of danger or death, it is they who carry out the most hazardous missions.

Occasionally, having nothing else in the world, they are volunteers. All too often, however, they are subjected to threats, violence and drugs as instruments of persuasion.


 ICRC activities  

The ICRC acts on two levels - in the field and in terms of the law.

 a) Activities in the field  


Briefly, field activities comprise programmes such as those to provide food and medical care - including prosthetic and orthotic work for the war disabled - and set up health facilities.

The ICRC takes practical measures to protect and assist unaccompanied and injured children and child detainees by observing and appraising every situation.

  • Protection of unaccompanied children begins with their identification and continues with efforts to trace their parents.

  • The ICRC takes steps to restore family links and reunite children with their families or find other long-term solutions. In 1999, the ICRC reunited a total of 4,236 individuals with their families.

  • Another aspect of work in the field is the restoration of family links through the exchange of news by means of Red Cross messages . In 1999, the ICRC collected and distributed more than 300 000 messages.

  • Tracing missing persons is a formidable challenge. The only way of putting an end to the families’ uncertainty and suffering is to provide definite news.

  • The ICRC calls for the release of child detainees who have been arrested or interned in connection with a conflict. At the very least, it requests that children be held separately from adults and, if possible, reunited with members of their family. During 1999 the ICRC visited a total of 228,000 detainees in 31 countries. This included 1,582 boys and 452 girls under the age of 18.

  • The ICRC seeks to prevent breaches of the law by striving to ensure that international humanitarian law and the Fundamental Principles are recognized and respected as widely as possible. It does everything it can to strengthen the rules for the protection of children and encourage their implementation .

 It is the obligation of the States to spread knowledge of the law, among the public authorities and the armed forces, in schools and universities, and among any other parties concerned.

 b) Activities in terms of the law  

  •  ICRC contributions to the development of law  

While the thrust must be to ensure implementation, we have also seen a number of positive developments in the law in recent years. These include the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Optional Protocol, the establishment of the International Criminal Court and the ratification of the Ottawa treaty banning landmines. The ICRC worked actively to bring about these developments.

  •  International Criminal Court  

The ICRC took an active part in the negotiations. The recruitment and participation in hostilities of children under the age of 15 are now specifically considered war crimes under the Statute of the International Criminal Court , which was adopted in Rome in July 1998 and will enter into force once it has been ratified by 60 States.

  •  Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child  

The ICRC was also active, on the committee responsible for drafting the Optional Protocol.

The main provisions of the Protocol are as follows: the prohibition of compulsory recruitment under 18, the non-participation in armed conflict of children under the age of 18, and the express will of the States to regulate the conduct of non-government forces (a provision that specifically targets .non international conflicts). The ICRC, while welcoming this Protocol considers it has also a number of shortcomings.


 Other ICRC undertakings  

 The ICRC is also taking action as a component of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement. In this context, two examples:  

In 1995, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement adopted a plan of action for child victims of armed conflict. The plan aims to promote the principle of non-recruitment and non-participation of children below the age of 18 years and to take practical measures to protect and assist child victims of armed confiict, including their reintegration and rehabilitation following a conflict.

The Movement is currently working to develop programmes in this connection.

A resolution of the 26th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent held in Geneva in December 1995 draws attention to the obligation of States to provide children with the protection and assistance to which they are entitled. It also r ecommends that parties to conflict refrain from arming children under the age of 18 years and encourages States, the Movement and other bodies to develop preventive measures, assess existing programmes and set up new programmes for children’s psychological and social rehabilitation.

This call was repeated at the 27th International Conference, which was held in Geneva in November 1999. The States Party which were present expressed their support for the objectives of the Conference’s Plan of Action.


The many legal provisions that exist are ample evidence that children benefit from a broad protection under the law. We must now concentrate on implementing the law and continue to think about ways in which it can be strengthened.

 To conclude, allow me to set before you a few of the ICRC’s major goals:  

 1) Implementing international humanitarian law  

Promote vigorously the better implementation of existing international humanitarian law is for me the top priority. The ICRC spreads knowledge of IHL in schools and universities as well as among the armed forces and the general public. We shall also continue to speak clear language to those violating it. We invite States to take responsibility for that task and for ensuring that IHL is observed and implemented.

 2) Rehabilitating and reintegrating children  


The ICRC and the other components of the Movement invite States to set up programmes for the psychological and social rehabilitation and reintegration of all children affected by conflict, including child soldiers.

 3) Age of recruitment  

The ICRC and the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement invite States to continue to strive for a universal age of 18 years for recruitment and participation, but the first and most urgent task is, when I look at the age of children in some of today most brutal conflicts, to do the utmost in order to ensure the implementation of the 15 years limit.


 What can the Member States of OSCE - who see themselves as a Community of values - do in order to better protect children in armed conflicts?  

  • by taking adequate measures OSCE States can in a decisive manner reduce the easy availability of small arms and light weapons. In most of today internal conflicts these arms play a major role. They are also the standard equipment of child soldiers.

  • by ratifying quickly the statute of the International Criminal Court. the OSCE States can considerably shorten the average estimate of two years for the entry into force of the statute. As mentioned before, recruitment and participation in hostilities of children under the age of 15 is considered a war crime.

  • OSCE States should use their contacts with parties in a conflict or in a crisis region in order to underline the importance they attach to the implementation of International humanitarian law.

Madame Chair, thank you.

Ref. LG 2000-114-ENG