Sierra Leone

High Commissioner for Human Rights: No child under 18 should participate in armed hostilities

Following is the statement of High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson addressed on 14 January 2000 to the Working Group on a draft optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict.

"One of the clearest messages to emerge from the events marking the 10th aniversary of the entry into force of the Convention on the Rights of the Child was that the situation of children in armed conflicts and the use of child soldiers, are without doubt among the most serious challenges to the Convention.

This working group of the Commission on Human Rights has been established to draft an optional protocol to the Convention raising the minimum age for recruitment and participation in hostilities. The discussions in this working group are vital in that you are charged with devising higher standards for the protection of children in armed conflict. I would like to express my fervent hope that a consensus will be reached during these two weeks for the adoption of an optional protocol which is acceptable to all State parties. I believe the question at issue is not the difference between 16, 17 and 18 years of age; the fundamental point is the distinction between children and adults. It is essential to ensure that any standards established by the United Nations are consistent in making this distinction.

I have made my own view on this issue clear and I repeat it here - I believe that no child under 18 should either be recruited into the armed forces, voluntarily or otherwise, or participate in armed hostilities. The expression of this in the form of an optional protocol would send a strong signal to governments and others, as to the international community's views on this matter. I was, therefore, happy to associate myself with the message which was circulated yesterday and which demonstrates the united view of the agencies working in human rights and humanitarian affairs.

I would like to make a few particular points:

(i) For states for whom the "straight 18" position is not possible, it should be borne in mind that the protocol is "optional" in nature, and such states should be encouraged not to block a consensus being reached by the vast majority of states who now support the "straight 18" position;

(ii) National legislation should not be presented as an obstacle to new and more advanced international standards;

(iii) I recognise that certain states would face difficulties if they were to accept the "straight 18" position, including those created by the need to achieve an acceptable definition of a "military school", and that of seeking compliance of the optional protocol by non-state actors, but I hope that consensus can be achieved over these very sensitive issues;

(iv) Fourthly, we all have to work to implement existing and new legal standards and to demobilise, rehabilitate and reintegrate children who have taken part in armed conflicts.

The Secretary-General, in his report to the Security Council on the protection of civilians in armed conflict, highlighted the extent of the problem and suggested a number of measures which could be taken to increase attention on the plight of children. He also made a number of recommendations to which I would like to draw your attention:

(i) Measures to eliminate the use of children as soldiers should be aimed at rebel movements as well as States, and both should be subject to targeted sanctions if they continue to use children;

(ii) Arms embargoes should be imposed on parties to armed conflict which recruit child soldiers;

(iii) Every encouragement should be given to all states to ratify the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court;

(iv) And peace agreements and the mandates of peacekeeping operations should include specific measures focusing on the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of child soldiers.

I would like to pay tribute to the chairperson Ms. Catherine von Heidenstam, and thank her for her vigorous efforts throughout 1999 in pursuit of achieving a consensus in order to finalise the draft optional protocol at this session, and also express my appreciation to both non-governmental and governmental representatives who have worked very hard towards this goal.

I have witnessed the effects of armed conflict upon children in various parts of the world to which I have travelled. In particular I was deeply shocked by the extent and cruelty of the violence that had been committed against children in Sierra Leone when I visited that country last July. Many children lost limbs as a result of the deliberate policy of amputation which was intended both to terrorise the population and prevent individuals from actively participating in the hostilities. I saw how those children who had been forced to fight were deeply traumatised at what they had seen and participated in. I was very encouraged to hear that progress has been made on a number of issues during your deliberations this week. In this context I now appeal to you to take the necessary measures to ensure that no child has to suffer again in this manner."