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Conflict-Affected Children at Heightened Risk of Grave Violations due to COVID-19, as 2020 Marked OPAC’s 20th Anniversary

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Annual Report of the Secretary-General on Children in Armed Conflict to the Human Rights Council

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated children’s vulnerability to grave violations in situations of armed conflict and restricted the realization of their rights, highlighted the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict in her annual report to the Human Rights Council, which covers the period from December 2019 to December 2020.

While children continued to suffer the consequences of atrocious wars, the response to the outbreak often had an unintended adverse impact on children’s fulfilment of their rights to education and health, as well as their access to justice, social services, and humanitarian aid. School closures made children even more vulnerable to other grave violations, in particular recruitment and use, and children in camps for internally displaced people and those deprived of their liberty have been particularly exposed to further protection risks.

“I am deeply concerned about the adverse impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on children affected by armed conflict”, said the Special Representative, Virginia Gamba. She further urged Member States to take into account child rights when designing and enforcing measures to contain the spread of COVID-19 and to ensure that child protection services can continue despite the pandemic. The Special Representative also highlighted the importance for parties to conflict to respect the civilian nature of schools, health infrastructure, and associated protected personnel. “The military use of schools can never be justified, including when buildings are temporarily closed due to lockdowns, particularly in countries with fragile education systems where education is a scarce commodity”, she emphasized.

Preventing Grave Violations Through OPAC and Other International Instruments

While 2020 marked the 20th anniversary of the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict (OPAC), the report highlights that despite being disproportionately impacted by conflict, children still stand at the margins of transitional justice processes. Their inclusion and participation in all aspects of transitional justice is critical to break intergenerational cycles of violence and prevent future violations. “Grave violations of children’s rights are not inevitable by-products of war: they are preventable”, said Virginia Gamba. “I call upon Member States that have not done so, to become a party to the OPAC and to enact national legislation and policies to prohibit and criminalize the recruitment and use of children by armed forces and armed groups”, she added. She also encouraged Member States to endorse instruments to improve the protection of conflict-affected children, such as the Paris Principles, the Safe Schools Declaration, and the Vancouver Principles.

The Special Representatives further urged all parties to conflict to endorse the appeal of the Secretary-General for a global ceasefire. “As the vulnerability of boys and girls living amidst hostilities is exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, processes such as ceasefires, peace negotiations, and security sector reform are opportunities to protect children,” she highlighted. In this regard, the Practical guidance for mediators to protect children in situations of armed conflict launched in February 2020 provided a framework for the United Nations on the ground to push for the inclusion of child protection elements in the intra-afghan peace negotiation initiated in September 2020.

Progress for Children Amidst the Challenges

Despite this challenging context, notable progress was made to end and prevent grave violations against children. In the Central African Republic, the Child Protection Code promulgated in June 2020 criminalized most of the grave violations, including recruitment and use of children, and enshrined the concept that children associated with armed forces and groups are to be considered primarily as victims. Other key achievements include the Comprehensive Action Plan signed by the government of South Sudan in February 2020, which remarkably includes elements to end and prevent all six grave violations, and the Joint Action Plan signed by the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army in November 2020, the first armed group to enter into an action plan with the United Nations in Myanmar. Furthermore, the continued engagement of the UN supported by the ongoing advocacy by the Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict in Myanmar, DRC, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen, among others, resulted in the successful release of children by parties to conflict.

While the pandemic significantly affected the Special Representative’s ability to undertake country visits, she nevertheless continued to engage with Member States, armed groups, UN partners, human rights bodies and mechanisms, civil society organizations, as well as regional organizations. Increased collaborations helped reinforcing global alliances, disseminate lessons learned and best practices and inform innovative actions to better protect children in armed conflict. The Special Representative continued to spearhead the Global Coalition for Reintegration of Child Soldiers and published within this framework three briefing papers throughout the year. By focusing on all six grave violations in an effort to promote a holistic approach when responding to violations against children, the campaign “Act to Protect Children Affected by Armed Conflict” proved to be an essential part of the Special Representative’s global advocacy. She continued to launch the campaign at the national level to promote its ownership by countries and communities of concern, notably in South Sudan, during her visit in February 2020.

Read the full report

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For additional information, please contact:

Fabienne Vinet, Communications Officer, Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict

+1-646-537-5066 (mobile) / vinet@un.org

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