Despite progress to protect children living in war-affected countries, the evolving character and tactics of conflict are creating unprecedented threats for children, particularly in Mali, the Central African Republic (CAR) and Syria, according to a top UN envoy.
Briefing reporters in New York on Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s latest report on children and armed conflict, his Special Representative on the issue, Leila Zerrougui, said: “In 2012, we saw positive developments in some areas of the world, but also worrying situations in places such as Syria, Mali and CAR.”
The report reviews situations in these and 18 other countries, as well as the regional conflict involving the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), whose activities impact children in the DRC, CAR and South Sudan.
The report also “names and shames” parties engaged in the recruitment and use of children, sexual violence against children, the killing and maiming of children in contravention of international law, recurrent attacks on schools and hospitals or recurrent attacks or threats of attack against protected personnel.
This year the list includes 55 armed forces and groups from 14 countries, including 11 new parties in the CAR, the DRC, Mali and Syria.
Two countries previously listed – Nepal and Sri Lanka – have been removed. Additionally, new action plans have been signed with the DRC, Myanmar, Somalia and South Sudan as roadmaps to potential delisting.
In Mali, where children account for more than half of the population, the UN cited instances of children “severely affected” by the conflict – killed, injured, as well as sexually assaulted and recruited by armed groups operating in the northern part of the country.
“The serious deterioration of the security situation in Mali last year was characterised by a large number of violations against children by various armed groups,” according to Secretary-General Ban’s report.
Hundreds of children, mainly boys between 12 and 15, were enlisted during the reporting period, mainly to man checkpoints and conduct patrols, while others joined out of poverty and religious affiliations.
The UN also received and looked into reports of sexual violence against girls which are believed to have been “widespread and systematic in northern Mali” since January 2012. At least 211 girls were raped, forced to marry or otherwise sexually abused.
Also in Mali there are reports of children being killed or maimed by weapons, mines and explosive remnants of war during the French and Malian military campaign initiated in January 2013 including during aerial bombardments.
“I am working to make sure the deployment of a peacekeeping mission in conjunction with the work of UN agencies and partners already on the ground will allow us to improve our collective response to children’s needs,” Zerrougui said with reference to the UN Multi-dimensional Integrated Stabilisation Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).
In the CAR, the reporting period saw a decrease in the occurrence of grave violations against children but “all progress made earlier has been erased” due to fighting restarting in December 2012 between Government and the Séléka rebel coalition, she said.
“The UN received alarming reports continuing into 2013 of recruitment and use of children by armed groups and pro-Government militias, killing of children associated with those groups in the course of military operations and sexual violence against children by armed groups,” the report noted.
Although these developments do not fall within the reporting period, the progress achieved and the violations committed in 2012 need to be placed against the backdrop of the recent deterioration of the security situation, the UN said.
In addition to the Séléka coalition, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) was also responsible for abuses against children including the majority of the at least 41 cases of recruitment of children.
Zerrougui said half of the country’s schools are closed and access to humanitarian assistance is extremely limited. More than two million children do not currently have access to basic services.
On Syria, the Secretary-General said in his annual report the toll conflict is taking on children is “unacceptable and unbearable” and urged immediate measures to protect the lives and dignity of all children.
“I urge the Syrian government immediately to cease bombardments of civilian areas. It should be held responsible for all grave violations committed by groups affiliated to it.”
The office of the Special Representative last year received verified reports of Syrian children killed or injured in indiscriminate bombings, shot by snipers, used as human shields or victims of terror tactics.
The report cites instances of children being detained and mistreated, including boys as young as 10 years of age recruited by armed groups to work as combatants, porters, messengers and to perform other support tasks.
Meanwhile, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) repeated that all parties to armed conflict must do everything to ensure the safety of children and the protection of their rights.
In particular, the UN agency noted as “horrific” the continuing trend of schools being attacked and used for military purposes, including car and other bombs detonated near schools.
“In conflict, schools must be seen by children, parents and families as protected safe havens where children can learn and grow to their full potential, while benefitting from a sense of normalcy in a context that is anything but normal for children,” UNICEF said.
A reported 167 education personnel, including 69 teachers, were killed up to the end of February 2013 and 2 445 schools are reported damaged the UN agency noted, adding that in some areas children have not been to school in over 18 months.
Zerrougui stressed the importance of ending impunity for grave violations against children. “International justice must step in when national courts lack the capacity or willingness to bring alleged perpetrators to justice. But it’s essential we support governments to reduce the accountability gap.”