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Speech by Anthony Lake, UNICEF Executive Director at United Nations Security Council on Open Debate on Children and Armed Conflict


NEW YORK, ----

Mr. President, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen:

On behalf of UNICEF and the children all of us here serve, I thank the Council for convening this debate on a subject of urgency – and for adopting this important resolution.

Earlier this year, I met a 16-year old boy in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“They came to my village and took me away,” he told me, “and from that day on, I was a soldier.”

This is literally true. But looked at another way, on that day, he lost more than his freedom. His childhood was taken from him at the point of a gun.

On the same visit, I met a young girl who had lived through the horror of rape by an armed soldier. She, too, was violently robbed of her childhood … and so much more.

As we have heard today -- and as the Secretary General’s report describes in grim detail – their stories are painfully repeated in conflict areas around the world.

Millions of children bear the brunt of war: killed, maimed, orphaned … forced to flee their homes … sexually assaulted … pressed into the service of armed groups … and exposed to unspeakable violence.

These horrific acts are not only a violation of international and humanitarian law. They are a violation of our common humanity. And today, the Council has affirmed that attacks on schools and hospitals are attacks on children – and must be treated as such. For these grave violations are alarmingly common.

As has been described, schools have been bombed and burned to the ground. Classrooms are used to billet soldiers and schoolyards to bury the dead. Unexploded ammunition and mines litter playgrounds, threatening life and limb. Hospitals have been looted and immunization campaigns interrupted. Children have been taken from the classroom to the battlefield.

The human costs of these attacks are beyond statistical calculation. The economic costs are also very high, forcing communities to rebuild schools and replace stolen supplies and equipment when conflicts come to an end – a cost most can little afford, few budgets provide for, and humanitarian aid rarely covers.

And the costs to society are also staggering. More than 40% of all children out of school in the world today live in conflict areas -- countries that are often among the world’s poorest places. The same children are less likely to see a doctor or visit a health clinic … and more likely to be deprived of their most basic needs.

The great educator Dr. Maria Montessori once said that, “education is the most effective way of opposing war.” It is also an indispensable foundation for peace and prosperity. And it is at the very heart of equity.

In times of peace, education gives disadvantaged children the chance to break the cycle of poverty and to contribute to their societies. It is no different in times of war -- and it may be even more important. Schools restore a sense of normalcy and teach children the skills they need to survive and thrive, helping them rise above the horrors they have witnessed. Without these skills, they are more vulnerable to violence. And so the vicious circle of poverty, despair and conflict continues.

We must not fail these children. It is up to all of us to take action to protect the schools where they learn and the hospitals where they heal -- for to do so is to protect their individual futures, and the future of their societies.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are making progress in meeting this challenge -- thanks to the commitment of the Secretary General, the strong resolve of this Council, and the ceaseless efforts of so many. In particular, we owe much to the work of the Secretary General’s Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict, Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy, as well as Ambassador Peter Wittig, and the Security Council Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict, and – increasingly -- DPKO, as more children are swept up in violent conflicts.

Today, the Council has acted to build on that progress. Adding attacks on schools and hospitals as a trigger for listing parties in the Secretary-General’s annual report will heighten awareness of these grave violations and the terrible impact they have on the lives of children.

We hope that this will spur governments and other groups to do more to prevent attacks on schools and hospitals – defining concrete plans to end those violations. And when they will not, creating clearer links to sanctions committees will strengthen this Council’s ability to take action. For impunity is as intolerable in a civilized society as justice is indispensable.

Mr. President, our purpose today is one of principle – but it must also be one of practicality. For monitoring, reporting and listing alone are not enough. Sanctions are not silver bullets. And while denunciation gives expression to the outrage we all feel, it alone will not move governments. These are necessary conditions, but they are insufficient to achieving lasting change.

To do that, we also have to find practical new ways to prevent these acts from occurring. Action plans are an important part of this. The UN should have access to all governments and other groups which want to pursue them.

Furthermore, this resolution may lead to necessary discussion on the military use of schools and hospitals, encouraging more governments to follow the lead of Nepal and the Philippines in protecting schools as zones of peace.

Finally, even as we strengthen the legal framework to increase our response to these abuses, we must never lose sight of the children who have been abused … and those who are at risk.

Too often, we refer to the children caught in conflict simply as “victims” to be pitied. But as so many of us have seen, they are remarkably, poignantly, resilient – and brave beyond imagining. They deserve our admiration, perhaps even our awe.

They have hopes and dreams, like children everywhere -- even when virtually everything has been taken from them. They don’t need our pity; they need practical support – programmes designed to help them make the most of their potential – and to make a positive contribution to their societies.

The young boy I met in the DRC had returned to his life as a soldier twice and then been released. He continues to be at risk of recruitment because he lacks the skills and resources to withstand it. He intends to find another community in which to live, and he is receiving more training for civilian life. But his future is uncertain.

When I met him, he was trying again, and living in a transitory care centre that provides psychological and social support services, and prepares children to return to school and to learn a trade. Without these critical services, the future of these and so many children remains uncertain. But with them, they have a better chance to move forward with their lives.

On the same trip, I met Bernard, another young man who was kidnapped at the age of 11 and forced to fight for years before escaping. Fortunately, he found a way to use his training and, today, he operates a carpentry shop, is married and has a child of his own. I will never forget his pride as he told me he had made the chair I was sitting on… or the hope his example has inspired in others.

Ladies and gentlemen, in 2009 we commemorated the 20th Anniversary of the Convention on the Rights of the Child – and it has been more than a decade since the adoption of the Optional Protocols, which ban some of the worst forms of exploitation and abuse against children. I urge those Member States that have not done so to sign, ratify and implement these indispensable instruments.

But let us never forget: human rights are not an end in themselves; the lives of people, of children, are our purpose. Rights are a context for upholding human dignity and for creating the conditions for human progress. It is the practical steps we take to protect these rights – and the impact of our actions – that change the world.

Today, we are taking another step forward – and I thank the Council for its commitment to children affected by armed conflict, and for making this critical issue a priority.

Thank you.


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