Statement by President Higgins at UNSC Open Debate on Children & Armed Conflict
Statement28 June 2021
Thank you, Madam President.
May I, first of all, congratulate you on Estonia’s achieving of such a successful Presidency of the Council and indeed thank you for organising today’s important debate. We are all, I am sure, grateful for the powerful insights and motivation we have received today from Secretary-General Guterres, Executive Director Fore, Mr Forest Whitaker and Mr Laban Onisimus.
I take the opportunity, too, to renew my congratulations to the Secretary-General on his appointment to a second term, director of a global institution that is our best hope for seeing a recognition that global issues require a global response – a response beyond any narrow interests.
While there has hardly been a child that has not been affected by the Covid pandemic, its impacts are, and have been, heaviest among the least resourced and most vulnerable, and additionally, of course, most severe for children affected by armed conflict.
This Council holds the grave responsibility of vindicating children’s rights, protecting them from harm, and holding accountable those responsible for violating the experience of childhood.
We are at an acute crisis as to the future of children. From the Sahel to Syria, Afghanistan to the Horn of Africa, children are bearing the brunt of unspeakable violations. In so many places of war, such as Syria, Palestine and Yemen, children have grown up knowing only war. They have inherited the pain and trauma, as we have heard, of occupation and unresolved conflicts.
In Tigray, Ethiopia, children are facing famine, while girls have been the victims of horrific sexual violence. Rape and sexual assault are the shameful practice of a growing number of military assailants.
Today, may I focus on three specific issues: education, protection and accountability, which I believe are foundational principles for us to advance from this nightmare.
I am sure that we can all agree that it is morally reprehensible that one in every three children living in countries affected by conflict or disaster is out of school.
Rather than their becoming targets, as they are becoming in some conflict areas, schools should be protected, be a safe shelter and space for learning and development.
The Secretary-General’s report before us shows that parties to conflict are not just continuing to violate such a sanctuary, and that attacks on schools are actually increasing: over 26,000 grave violations were verified by the UN in 2020. These included attacks on schools and hospitals and denial of the right to humanitarian access.
There were 101 verified attacks on schools in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 62 in Afghanistan and 53 in Somalia, to highlight just three countries. 2021 is sadly following the same trend. For example, in just over one week in Gaza, more than 140 educational facilities were bombarded, many left in ruins. In Myanmar, the occupation of schools by the military has compounded an existing learning crisis for almost 12 million children.
The deliberate targeting, the attacks on, and invasion and occupation of schools and hospitals by armed groups are actions that can never be justified. They constitute action that must be brought to an end – and it requires new and urgent action.
Ireland prioritises access to education in emergencies. We have committed to spend €250 million on global education by 2024, and that is why we are launching the Girls Fund to support grassroots’ groups led by girls, advancing gender equality in their own communities.
My second and very related point, is on the issue of Protection.
Last year, more than 8,000 children were killed or maimed in situations of conflict. The UN has also verified alarming increases in cases of abduction and sexual violence during 2020. Child protection is of such importance that it must be given ever greater and more urgent reporting at the heart of the Council’s work. Such will give us our best hope for the future.
Ensuring the safety and security of children helps, of course, break the cycles of conflict and insecurity that must not be the legacy for future generations. I wish the Council courage in calling for and ensuring that UN peacekeeping operations have the mandates, resources and capacity to save children’s lives and secure their welfare. This must extend to safeguarding child protection in peacekeeping transitions, and with an acknowledged privileged role for the experience and views of women who have experienced conflict. These essential protections serve as the foundation for future peace.
I do so commend UN child protection staff, monitoring teams, and civil society partners for protecting children, and monitoring violations, often in dangerous environments. Humanity is indebted to you.
My third point, Accountability, is a theme which Ireland champions at this Council.
Pervasive impunity for egregious violations is unacceptable. Eschewing legitimation for actions, it threatens every shred of democracy, undermines multilateralism and meaningful cooperation. This is why the Secretary General’s annual report, and particularly its listing mechanism, is critical in the effort to publicly identify the parties responsible and to ensure accountability.
The UN must, of course, ensure that the impartiality and integrity of this monitoring and reporting mechanism is protected and maintained. Landmark rulings, such as Lubanga and Ongwen, demonstrate the influence and power the International Criminal Court can have.
However, with the principle of complementarity existing at its very core, together with its own requirement for action, the work of the ICC must be accompanied by greater efforts at national level. For example, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the courage of 178 survivors who testified helped to secure the conviction of Ntabo Ntaberi last year sent a powerful message of hope that impunity will not be tolerated.
Any child associated with an armed group, we must always recognise of course, is primarily a victim.
As such, while the release of nearly 13,000 children last year is a cause for celebration, as a means to help restore some aspects of their childhoods, a comprehensive, gender- and age-sensitive approach to re-integration, inclusive of children with disabilities, is vital in the efforts to recover and sustain peace.
In conclusion, as we mark the 25th anniversary of the creation of The Children and Armed Conflict Agenda, let us confront all of the uncomfortable realities of where our actions are insufficient. We are all looked to to give a lead on this.
Since 1996, this Council has shaped and advanced such an agenda, and its actions have profoundly improved the lives of many children impacted by conflict. Let us commit to generating even greater political will, and the provision of resources, for the integrity, safety and fulfilment of all children and the hope of our future generations.