Compliance Symposium: The Role of the United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict

Compliance Symposium: The Role of the United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict

[Anne Schintgen is currently the Head of the Europe Liaison Office of the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict. She previously worked in New York as a Political Affairs Officer with the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict.  Photo © Anne Schintgen – OSRSG-CAAC Field Mission to Wau Shilluk South Sudan in August 2017 – Military use of a school

The United Nations first duty is to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”. While much has been done to live up to these opening words of the Preamble to the Charter of the United Nations our efforts to protect conflict affected children are being seriously challenged. Not only are millions of children the victims of war, far too often they are its principal targets and even its instruments. This is as true today as it      was 24 years ago when the international community came together to bring the protection of children affected by war the attention it deserved.

The mandate

The mandate of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict was created by the General Assembly (Resolution A/RES/51/77) following the publication, in 1996, of a report by Graça Machel titled the “Impact of Armed Conflict on Children”. The Machel Report provided the first comprehensive assessment of the multiple ways in which children are abused and brutalized in the context of war. It highlighted that contemporary warfare was changing and that the lines between civilian and combatant were no longer clear, with children often on the frontline and directly targeted. It stressed the disproportionate impact of war on children and identified them as its primary victims. The report also comprised a set of recommendations, including the nomination of a Special Representative of the Secretary-General on children and armed conflict to keep the protection of children “very high on the international human rights, peace, security and development agendas.”

Resolution 51/77 mandated the Special Representative to assess progress achieved, steps taken and difficulties encountered in strengthening the plight of children affected by armed conflict. It recommended that he/she raise awareness and promote the collection of information about the plight of conflict-affected children and encourage the development of networking. Further, the Special Representative was mandated to foster international cooperation to ensure respect for children’s rights in these situations and to contribute to the coordination of efforts by Governments and relevant UN bodies, specialized agencies as well as other competent bodies and non-governmental organizations. Finally, the Special Representative was requested to report annually to the General Assembly and the Human Rights Council.

In August 1997, the UN Secretary-General acted on this call to action and created the position of Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict. Four remarkable figures, Olara Ottunu, Radhika Coomaraswamy, Leila Zerrougui and Virginia Gamba, have occupied the position since.

As a former ambassador to the UN, Ottunu as first Special Representative saw the potential for engagement of the Security Council on the issue. He was determined to make the Council recognize that children and armed conflict constituted a core peace and security issue and he succeeded. In 1999, the Security Council adopted its first resolution on the topic, resolution 1261, and noted in 2000 in resolution 1314 that violations of international humanitarian and human rights law, including those relating to children, in situations of armed conflict, may constitute a threat to international peace and security.

The systematic engagement of the Security Council on the issue of children and armed conflict has become a key element of the advocacy strategy of subsequent Special Representatives. Hence, the Council adopted to date 12 resolutions and multiple presidential statements on the topic, developing ever new tools for the better protection of children in conflict situations, including

  • The development of a naming and shaming exercise of parties to conflict committing grave violations against children;
  • The establishment of a monitoring and reporting mechanism on the so called six grave violations against children (Recruitment and use of children, rape and other forms of sexual violence, killing and maiming, abductions, attacks on schools and hospitals, denial of humanitarian assistance);
  • The creation of the Security Council Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict;
  • The endorsement of action plans, UN contracts with parties to conflict to halt and prevent violations and
  • The adoption or mere threat of sanctions against parties to conflict.

The Special Representative and his/her Office are at the heart of this architecture set up by the UN General Assembly and the Security Council and his/her role can be articulated around four main pillars: protect children used and abused by, for and in armed conflict; prevent violations committed against children from occurring in the first place; raise awareness and strengthen partnerships for children and promote lessons learned and best practices.      

Within this framework, the work of the Special Representative must be viewed in the context of a division of labour between advocacy and operational actors. The Special Representative does not conduct operational activities or programme development on the ground, such responsibility resting mainly with UNICEF, the Department of Peace Operations and the Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs, as well as with NGOs. The Special Representative articulates ideas and proposes initiatives that are implemented by operational actors. Further, he/she provides advice and guidance for UN partners in the field and travels to countries concerned in order to support their efforts. The Special Representative uses every opportunity to engage with parties to conflict both armed forces and non-State armed groups, in support of actors on the ground, for the adoption of measures and commitments to end and prevent grave violations against children, including in support of action plans, and to strengthen existing child protection frameworks. Importantly, he/she is a high-level, independent voice, capable of raising questions that might be too sensitive to be addressed by partners in the field who need to preserve their humanitarian space.

In parallel, at Headquarters, the Special Representative serves on behalf of the Secretary-General as the UN system focal point for the Security Council-related children and armed conflict agenda and the implementation of the monitoring and reporting mechanism. He/she serves as the primary interface with the Security Council and provides substantive support to the Security Council Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict. The Office of the Special Representative is the UN Headquarters-level focal point for the preparation of the annual Report of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict; and it also receives, reviews and compiles information and provides quality control for the country reports of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict. In return, the Office feeds back to the country level relevant information such as the conclusions and recommendations of the Working Group that can be used for advocacy purposes with parties to conflict.

As the highest UN advocate for the protection of conflict-affected children, the Special Representative uses his/her voice to regularly call for their increased protection and to raise awareness about their plight. He/she also aims to take forward the agenda of war-affected children through building support networks and partnerships at the      global, regional and national level and through ensuring the mainstreaming of the concerns of children within and outside of the UN.      

The successes

Since 2000, over 155,000 children associated with armed forces and armed groups have been released as a result of dialogue and action plans by the UN. A monitoring and reporting mechanism has been established in all countries where parties are listed to provide timely and reliable information to the UN Security Council through the Office of the Special Representative. Thirty-two action plans and joint commitments have been signed with parties to conflict, including 15 action plans currently under implementation. Thirteen parties to conflict have been delisted from the annexes of the annual report of the Secretary-General after action plan implementation – to only name a few of achievements of the mandate.

The need for continued attention

Protecting conflict-affected children is a constant and evolving endeavor. In the past two decades, the action generated by the Special Representative has represented a beacon of hope for millions of children. However, in a context of more complex, long-lasting and intense wars we face extremely serious and ever-growing challenges to protect children. As an international community we regularly talk about the importance of preventing conflicts and leaving no one behind but the fact remains that children affected by war are often simply forgotten. Time and again it is important to underline that if we want to build strong and resilient societies and break cycles of violence we must put children front and center.

The role of the Special Representative remains thus as relevant today as 24 years ago to:  bring together key actors within and outside the UN to promote concerted responses; build awareness about the specific needs of war-affected children and propose ideas and approaches to enhance their protection; undertake diplomatic initiatives to unblock difficult political situations; and  to assess progress achieved and difficulties encountered in strengthening the protection of conflict-affected children.

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