No Time for Child’s Play: The UN Hones its Child Protection Responsibilities, Dr. Robert Zuber

26 Jul

This past Friday, the UN held a celebration of the 10th anniversary of UN Security Council resolution 1612 on Children and Armed Conflict (CAAC).

The most direct institutional consequences of resolution 1612 are the Working Group on CAAC originally chaired by France, later by Germany, Mexico and Luxembourg, and now by Malaysia.  In addition, an office for CAAC was established, headed first by Olara Otunnu and now by Leila Zerrougui.  This office has had its share of controversy over 10 years, in part due to its (at the time) groundbreaking relationship to the work of the Council, and in part because of its methods (including listings) to expose states’ willful tolerance or even direct mistreatment of the children under their jurisdiction.

Both the WG and Office for CAAC successfully expanded global interest in the security dimensions of the broader children’s rights outlined in the 1990 Convention on the Rights of the Child.  The Convention boasts record setting state ratifications. Moreover, virtually all other development, peace and security resolutions now highlight the special care and protection needs of the most vulnerable of persons.  The Convention itself was not without controversy, especially among those who feared the ability of children to assert rights in direct contradiction of parental wishes or who were concerned with an expansion of “compelling state interests” that ostensibly prioritized “the best interests of the child” over the wishes of family members or other guardians.  Nevertheless, the Convention and Resolution 1612 together have done much to address some of the residual “instrumentalizing” of children as mere extensions of adult expectations and needs that still exists within many societies.  In addition, as the UN’s responsibilities to protect civilians have evolved, the special protection needs of children have more readily been identified if not always addressed with sufficient urgency.

At Friday’s celebration, assessments of past practices and expectations regarding future objectives were mixed.   Many speakers representing a broad array of member states and UN agencies, including Ms. Zerrougui herself, highlighted the “architecture” that now exists to help promote CAAC objectives at country level, including national task forces and action plans, and what Luxembourg referred to as the “global horizontal note”. Along with child protection officers in peacekeeping missions and CAAC office efforts to identify and publicly list offending parties – a particular concern in this session for both Myanmar and Israel – this architecture represents elements of an evolving, system-wide commitment to end abuses committed against (and by) youth at the tip of a gun or edge of a blade.

In this instance as in others, child protection is impacted by some of the limitations characterizing our general “protection of civilians” assumptions and strategies.  We sometimes forget, as Morocco reminded event participants, that child soldiers must always be seen as victims (rather than as enemies) regardless of the crimes they were coerced to commit.   Sometimes, though thankfully in rare instances, those mandated to protect children are guilty of adding to their abuse.  Sometimes, efforts of child protection advisors to peacekeeping missions are compromised or overlooked by virtue of overstretched, under-resourced and increasingly coercive operations.  And our lack of a viable preventive strategy too often results in placing response capacities in the field long after such placement is optimal, with implications for the emotional and physical safety of children even more dire than for their guardians.

This lack of prevention goes beyond unhelpful limitations in UN capacity for early warning and mediation.  It also, as we have written previously, involves insufficient regard for effects of trauma of children in conflict zones for which the only viable remedial strategy is one that ensures their absence from such zones.   Calls during this Friday celebration from UNICEF’s Yoka Brandt, the Russian Ambassador and others for more rehabilitation services were welcome, with Brandt reminding the audience that the release of children from armed groups is only the first step in child reintegration and rehabilitation.  Children can be remarkably resilient, but for many of these abducted, brainwashed or otherwise abused children, attaining anything approaching mental health will require a long and treacherous climb.  The abuses inflicted on children will likely be visited upon their own children as well as the communities of which they are a part. There are only so many tools (and funds) at our disposal to redirect that dangerous course once it has been embarked.

On top of all this, we are often slow to adjust to a rapidly shifting security environment with active child recruiters such as ISIL and conflict-motivated migration patterns that blur lines of individual state responsibility.  The shifts to which we must respond are numerous. The representative of UNRWA highlighted the increasing uses of explosive weapons and the devastation these cause to civilian populations.  The representative of UNHCR highlighted the special monitoring and protection challenges that impact children moving across borders with our without their families.  And of course we are now regularly confronting what the French rightly noted as “shocking” instances in Syria and elsewhere where children are essentially being held hostage to conflicts that cannot even be convinced to pause in order to feed and bandage the desperate.

Despite these challenges, it appeared to be the will of most diplomats that child protection from armed violence, recruitment and related abuses become even more of a cross-cutting, systemic obligation of the UN system and its member states, an obligation assumed to bind permanent Council members as much as other UN stakeholders. Such insistences were part of what made the early work of Otunnu’s CAAC office such a breath of fresh air from the start.  That the consensus promise has yet to culminate in a consensus strategy for successfully ending abuses of children in conflict zones is a situation that many in the global public (including diplomats) can neither understand nor tolerate for much longer.

As Luxembourg noted, we need to do all we can to ensure that CAAC is much more than a “side event” to the core UN agenda, while avoiding what Belgium referred to as a “creeping cynicism” regarding our ability to fully implement the CAAC mandate. Indeed, a bit of cynicism-invoking sentimentality crept into the celebration in the form of one or two presenters saying things such as, “even if we save one child, our efforts were worth it.”  It was Canada who bluntly noted that ending CAAC violations completely and without reservation can and must be our objective.   To employ an over-used UN phrase, we fully align ourselves with Canada’s statement.

We simply must continue to set the bar high for children in armed conflict.  With all the global problems now tugging at our diplomatic shirt sleeves, it is worrying indeed that so many needlessly damaged children will become adults likely to be still reeling from the gaps between their own emotional capacity and the increasing logistical complexities of modern life.  We have full confidence that Malaysia will keep child protection issues in full view of the Security Council during its peacekeeping mandate renewals and related deliberations.  We urge other diplomats, NGOs and child advocates to keep CAAC issues in front of all relevant UN and government actors to whom they have access.

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