Changing the narrative: Act now to protect children in armed conflict

As the New Year begins, it is time to bring new urgency to safeguarding the rights and protecting the lives of children affected by armed conflict.

Around this time last year, I reflected on the failure of the international community to protect children living through war. Today, I am writing at the end of another devastating year – and a deadly decade – for these children.

The United Nations verified some 10,000 grave violations against children in conflict zones during the first half of 2019 – sadly, almost on track to match the 24,000 violations confirmed in all of 2018.

The UN definition of grave violations includes killing, maiming, sexual violence, abductions, denial of humanitarian access, child recruitment and attacks on schools and hospitals. Over the past ten years, the UN has confirmed more than 170,000 grave violations against children in conflict.

And those were just the verified incidents. The actual numbers are likely to be much higher.

Today’s protracted, intensely violent conflicts have torn apart societies, communities and families. Children, who bear no responsibility for war, are hit the hardest. We need political solutions to end these conflicts. But while armed violence continues, we must better protect children at home or at school, in hospitals or in playgrounds – or wherever they may be.

We have to act now for the sake of children like 12-year old Moise, who I met in March in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Moise had fled violence in the continuing conflict there. He was forced from his home, leaving everything behind, and was now living in a camp for displaced persons. And yet, when we met, he was singing and playing along with about 500 other children.

Moise had not lost hope. He was an eager and good student. Like so many other children and young people I have encountered in conflict zones, he was courageous and resilient. He gave me hope for the future.

A man holds up a basketball for a group of children with ED Fore beside him.
UNICEF/UN0290987/TremeauUNICEF Executive Director Henrietta H. Fore, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock (to her right) and International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies Secretary-General Elhadj As Sy (in red) visit a child-friendly space at a camp for internally displaced people in Bunia, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

UNICEF and partners are committed to responding to the immediate and long-term needs of children like Moise. At the same time, we will keep on advocating for all parties involved to take the necessary measures, enshrined in international humanitarian law, to reduce the impact of conflict on children.

Despite the ongoing violations in 2019, we have seen some encouraging developments. The Safe Schools Declaration, for example – a political commitment to protect education from attack and to reduce the military use of schools – has now been endorsed by 101 countries. I was in Spain at the Third International Safe Schools Conference in May, and the level of engagement from governments was impressive.

But here again, we need action to put the Declaration into practice and realize the right to safe, quality education for every child. UNICEF and our partners stand ready to lend our support.

In another positive move, in November, more than 100 governments unanimously adopted the Oslo Action Plan for a landmine-free world by 2025. Importantly for the protection of children, the plan makes mine-risk education a top global priority for the first time. This is critical in countries such as Afghanistan, Syria and Ukraine, where children are harmed by landmines and explosive ordnance in disproportionate numbers. They are attracted by the shiny surface and coloured metal of these lethal explosives, which, set off accidentally, have a catastrophic impact on small, fragile bodies.

Current negotiations for a political declaration to tackle the widespread use of explosive weapons in urban areas could also save the children’s lives. Such an agreement would reduce the impact of these weapons on essential services, such as education, health care and water supply. I look forward to seeing the declaration on explosive weapons finalized in 2020.

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres stands with ED Fore in a sea of UNICEF backpacks.
UNICEF/UN0343641/McIlwaineIn September 2019, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres joined UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta H. Fore in a visit to the UNICEF backpack installation on the north lawn of United Nations headquarters in New York.

Indeed, I hope to be able to write a completely different narrative by the end of the year – a narrative in which violations against children in conflict have declined sharply, not because we have been unable to monitor and verify abuses, but because the violence itself has abated.

When world leaders gathered at the General Assembly session in September, UNICEF displayed 3,758 backpacks, in rows reminiscent of a graveyard, outside United Nations headquarters in New York. Each one represented the loss of a young life to armed conflict in 2018.

We should never have to do that again.


Henrietta H. Fore is the Executive Director of UNICEF.

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