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How Armed Conflict Impacts Children: 10 Year Review

November 10, 2009

By Juontel White

The Washington Network on Children in Armed Conflict (WNCAC) is a community of NGOs, scholars, practitioners and government agencies dedicated to improving the protection of children affected by armed conflict. Initiated in 2004 by SFCG and USAID’s Displaced Children and Orphans Fund, the network convenes at bi-monthly meetings, each highlighting a relevant issue through a panel discussion.

The most recent meeting, hosted at John Hopkins School of International Studies in late October, was a discussion on the Machel Study 10-Year Strategic Review.

In 1996 Graça Machel, an international women’s and children’s rights advocate, was appointed by the U.N. to chair a study on how armed conflict impacts children. The results were devastating, Machel discovered the myriad of harmful effects armed conflict has on children. Her report included several recommendations which served as the basis for creating UN resolutions to protect children affected by armed conflict.

More than a decade has elapsed since the Machel Study was introduced and the 10 year Strategic Review is an analysis of the progress of and challenges faced by practitioners in the protection of children in armed conflict since that time.

The WNCAC meeting on the Review included panelists Bo Vikor Nylund, UNICEF Senior Advisor for Child Protection in Emergencies, Stephane Pichette UNICEF program manager and Tonderai Chikuhwa, special assistant to the UN Office for Children and Armed Conflict.

Chikuhwa began the discussion by explaining that that armed conflict in general has experienced notable changes during the last decade. In particular, the primary victims of armed conflict are now the most vulnerable citizens of society (women, elderly and children). And, children are now both victims and weapons of war.

He continued saying the Strategic Review addresses four key areas: ending impunity, care and protection of children, knowledge of state building capacities, and preventing conflict and building peace.

A key point in the Review is the paradigm shift in addressing children’s rights. Children’s rights is no longer addressed as only a human rights issue, but is now of concern to the international security council—in accordance with Machel’s recommendation.   

This has been a crucial change, says Chikuhwa, because for children in armed conflict humanitarian responses must be paired with military/security force in order for protection efforts to be effective.

This change is groundbreaking because children’s rights is the first human rights issue to be placed on the Security Council’s agenda.

“This is because there exists a resounding moral consensus surrounding children’s issues,” says Chikuhwa. This consensus makes it easier for the international community to find common ground and join forces in support of the protection of children.

In addition, the shift has forced the Security Council to alter its mode of operation. Traditionally it was a reactive institution, responding to security breaches in specific countries as they happen, but now “the council is having to deal preemptively with situations if it is to evenly deal with children,” said Chikuhwa.

Humanitarian groups have also implemented preemptive measures. UNICEF’s Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism (MRM) is an example of this. As of October 2009, 15 countries have local MRM task forces dedicated to monitoring for behaviors that could lead to grave violations. These countries are the most notorious for violations against children and include; Columbia, Sudan, Myanmar and Uganda. 

As manager of MRM task force in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Pichette is responsible for helping ensure the release of children from child soldiering.

“It is our job to work ourselves out of a job,” he jokes.  The audience laughs but the irony is that it could happen; as it did for many of his colleagues involved with the Treaty to Ban the use of Landmines. The team had met their goals of banning landmines throughout the world and their positions were no longer relevant.

As of now, grave violations—which includes the killing and maiming, sexual exploitation, and recruitment and use of children in armed conflict—are still occurring against children and Pichette still has job security. He owes his job, in part, to the 1996 Machel Study which confirmed the relevance of and even helped create several of the panelists’ positions.

Prior to the Machel Study, there weren’t any international standards addressing children in armed conflict. According to the Strategic Review, the more than 10 UN resolutions formed in response to the report have been powerful in protecting the rights of children in armed conflict during the past decade.

In particular, Chikuhwa notes that since the adoption of UN resolution 1612 back in 2005, approximately 13,000 children have been released from recruitment and use in armed conflict. This is an early estimation and more details will be announced by the UN in coming months.

Overall, the Strategic Review is a positive assessment of the years since the Machel study, but there is still much work to be done. For instance, in regards to child soldiering, Nylund and Pichette remarked that though thousands of children have been released, there are some states in which practitioners are left asking themselves: what do we do next.

Negotiating the release of the children is a tedious process but the next step is developing a plan to reintegrate them into society—in a timely and efficient manner so the children are not tempted to return to soldiering.   

Because of the success thus far in the protection of children in armed conflict, particularly in regards to its incorporation into the security council, children’s rights has now become a key UN actor, setting an example for other groups such as women’s rights and disabled rights. This was a highlight of the Review and is a motivator for members of the WNCAC to keep working hard.

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