Children in War: More Reason to Hope

From Afghanistan to Sudan, from the Philippines to the Central African Republic, there are more than 20 situations listed in the United Nations Secretary-General's Annual Report on Children and Armed Conflict detailing the use of girls and boys as soldiers -- slinging AK-47s and forced to murder before they are old enough to understand death. To make matters worse, war itself has changed and cruel tactical innovations have developed as a result. Children are made to strap suicide vests on their tiny bodies and sent into crowds where, if they falter, an adult can remotely detonate the devices. Beyond soldiering, children are often collateral damage as the result of air strikes or heavy combat amongst the civilian population. If they survive, many are left behind as orphans or burdened with permanent psychological scars. While this bleak picture is the reality, we are not without hope. I've met these children. I have heard their stories. Their incredible resilience after years of war, disruption of their education, rejection from their villages, is astounding. As the special representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, the responsibility falls on my office and others to speak on their behalf, but also to confront commanders in conflict and secure the release of child soldiers and children used as sex slaves and sometimes are forced to be combatants.

Progress has been made. UN staff have traveled to remote, war-torn areas and secured the release of all children from the Maoists in Nepal and entered into a road map with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Philippines, who are now on the path towards to compliance with their commitments to release children from their forces. Several parties in Sudan are about to release their children. Afghanistan is only weeks away from signing an agreement to end recruitment of children in the National Security Forces. And Somalia has just appointed a child protection adviser to the Prime Minister's office after his assurances that he would end this practice within the Transitional Federal Government.

But what encourages me most are the developments in the Security Council. While some have the impression that there is always political gridlock in the Council, children in armed conflict have been a unifying factor. This summer, members unanimously reaffirmed their willingness to impose focused sanctions such as travel bans, asset freezes and arms embargoes against individuals who recruit, abduct and otherwise abuse children to achieve political goals. In December, they made good on the promise and sanctioned a well-known violator of children in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

These actions are part of a systematic engagement of the Council since 2005 on issues related to children and armed conflict. They have created a special working group and a system for monitoring and reporting on grave violations against children in all conflict areas using United Nations verified data.

This development is an important step for the rights of children everywhere. The process is now almost complete. Violators are listed in the Secretary-General's report. If shaming them into releasing their children doesn't work, then we can move toward sanctions.

The Security Council's attention to this issue, a unique shift for a body that does not normally focus on punishment of individuals for humanitarian violations, is welcome. However, we await a more robust implementation so that these actions will truly make a difference. That will give us all more reason to hope.