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HUMAN RIGHTS COUNCIL HOLDS PANEL DISCUSSION ON THE RIGHTS OF THE CHILD, WITH A FOCUS ON CHILDREN IN HUMANITARIAN SITUATIONS

5 March 2018

The Human Rights Council this morning held the first part of its annual full-day meeting on the rights of the child, with a panel discussion which focused on children in humanitarian situations.

In his opening statement, Vojislav Šuc, President of the Human Rights Council, said the objective of the meeting was to bridge the gaps between the human rights and humanitarian communities to ensure that the needs and rights of children were upheld in humanitarian situations.  The panellists were Helen Durham, Director of International Law and Policy at the International Committee of the Red Cross; Sikandher Khan, Director of the Geneva Office of Emergency Programmes at the United Nations Children’s Fund; Alejandro Gamboa, National Director of Plan International Colombia; and Monica Ferro, Director of the Geneva Office of the United Nations Population Fund.  Carl Hallegard, Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative of the European Union to the United Nations Office at Geneva, moderated the discussion.

Kate Gilmore, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, in a keynote statement, said that the urgency of the need to step-up the protection of children in crisis settings was evidenced by sheer scale.  She recalled that in 2016 alone, 43 million children across 63 countries required humanitarian assistance, and that today 357 million children lived in conflict zones, which was an increase by some 75 per cent since the past century’s last decade and which accounted for one in six children globally.  Millions of children in every region of the world were let down by adults. 

Carl Hallergard, Ambassador and Deputy Head of the European Union Delegation to the United Nations and other international organizations in Geneva, said that across the globe, humanitarian situations had been undermining the rights of the child.  The right to life and protection from abuse was integrated in the framework of protection of children’s rights, but it was the implementation that was the problem. 

Helen Durham, Director of International Law and Policy at the International Committee of the Red Cross, stated that the selective application of international law was the main problem occurring in humanitarian situations, as seen in the area of health and education.  Special protection was granted to children under refuge law, international human rights law and international humanitarian law.  Yet today, children made up more than half of all refugees and in 2016 over 8,000 children were maimed or killed in conflict situations.

Sikander Khan, Director of the Geneva Office of the Emergency Programmes at the United Nations Children’s Fund, estimated that 535 million children – nearly one in four children in the world – lived in countries affected by humanitarian crises, often without access to medical care, clean water and sanitation facilities, proper nutrition, quality education or protection.  Children were also forcibly displaced as a result of conflict, violence and natural disasters.  Across the world today, more than 10 million children were refugees and 17 million were internally displaced. 

Alejandro Gamboa, National Director, Plan International Colombia, said Plan International was an independent non-governmental organization which worked in over 70 countries for the rights of children.  It carried out preventive activities, working with girls, boys and adolescents and their communities, in changing attitudes, standards and conduct related to gender.  He then proceeded to inform the Human Rights Council about the activities that Plan International implemented in Columbia and Nigeria. 

Monica Ferro, Director of the Geneva Office of the United Nations Population Fund, stated that adolescent girls were overlooked in turbulent times of disaster and conflict.  Traumatized, constrained by tradition, torn from school and family structures and familiar social networks, they could be lost in the crowd in a refugee camp or a disrupted community.  Millions of adolescent girls were in need of humanitarian assistance.  The risk of pregnancy-related death was twice as high for girls aged 15 to 19 and five times higher for girls aged 10 to 14 compared to women in their twenties. 

In the ensuing discussion with the panel, speakers condemned the horrendous situation which children were being subjected to in humanitarian situations.  They agreed that a humanitarian response must be a priority, and that the rights of children must be guaranteed by all stakeholders.  While the primary responsibility lay with States, international solidarity and cooperation played an important role in the fight against this scourge.  Some issues that needed special attention were education and gender-based violence in emergency settings, as well as the inter-sectionality of vulnerability.  In this direction, speakers called for the endorsement of a Safe Schools Declaration, which had already been endorsed by 73 States.  Due to the increased vulnerability of women and girls, sexual and reproductive health and education required special attention.  

Speaking during the discussion were Jordan on behalf of the Arab Group, Togo on behalf of the African Group, European Union, Australia on behalf of a group of countries, Norway on behalf of a group of countries endorsing the Safe Schools Declaration, Senegal on behalf of the International Organization of Francophonie, Latvia, speaking on behalf of the Nordic-Baltic Group, United Kingdom,  Slovenia, Qatar, Bulgaria, Israel, Georgia, Brazil, Holy See, Italy, Belgium, India, Mexico, Mongolia, Philippines, United States and Portugal.

The following non-governmental organizations also took the floor: Conselho Indigenista Missionario CIMI, Save the Children, Plan International, Human Rights Watch, Sudwind, and World Environment and Resources Council.

The Council will next continue the interactive discussion with the Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence, Pablo de Greiff, and the Special Adviser of the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Diengwhen.  It will then hear the presentation of reports by the Special Rapporteur on the enjoyment of a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment, John Knox, and by the Special Rapporteur on the right to food, Hilal Elver.  At 4 p.m., it will hold the second part of its annual full-day meeting on the rights of the child.

Opening Statements

VOJISLAV ŠUC, President of the Human Rights Council, in his opening remarks, said that the first panel of this year’s full-day meeting on the rights of the child would focus on the theme of protecting the rights of the child in humanitarian situations.  The objective of the meeting was to bridge the gaps between the human rights and humanitarian communities to ensure that the needs and rights of children were upheld in humanitarian situations.  The annual full-day meeting would start with the panel which would examine practices and lessons from different levels in meeting children’s needs and rights in humanitarian situations, said Mr. Šuc, and proceeded to introduce panellists: Helen Durham, Director of International Law and Policy at the International Committee of the Red Cross; Sikandher Khan, Director of the Geneva Office of Emergency Programmes at the United Nations Children’s Fund; Alejandro Gamboa, National Director of Plan International Colombia; and Monica Ferro, Director of the Geneva Office of the United Nations Population Fund.  Mr. Carl Hallegard Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative of the European Union to the United Nations Office at Geneva would moderate the discussion, concluded Mr. Šuc

KATE GILMORE, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that the urgency of the need to step up the protection of children in crisis settings was measured not only by the harsh metric of the failure to do so, it was evidenced by sheer scale.  Recalling that in 2016 alone, 43 million children across 63 countries required humanitarian assistance, and today 357 million children lived in conflict zones, up by some 75 per cent since the last century’s last decade and accounting for one in six children globally, Ms. Gilmore noted that millions of children in every region of the world were let down by adults.  Alan Kurdi washed up on a shore, Omran Daqneesh huddled in an ambulance, countless unknown children had lost their lives in terrified transit in the Mediterranean sea, thousands had been violated under deliberate attack in Myanmar’s Rakhine state, girls subjected to sexual abuse and exploitation by Blue-helmeted troops, children violated at the hands of unknown numbers of religious and secular aid workers – the tragedy of those all too adult failings were borne by children, but the shame was surely not the children’s to bear, stressed the Deputy High Commissioner.

The vast majority of the populations of countries most affected by conflict, by abject poverty, most exposed to climate change, were children.  In crisis, children were separated from their families, faced abduction by combatants, recruitment and exploitation by armed forces; in flight, they faced additional sexual abuse and exploitation, child labour and trafficking; in transit, they met further abuse, neglect and deprivation of essential services; at reception, children more often met unlawful detention, xenophobia and an absence of care for trauma to which they had been subjected.  Children made up half of the world’s displaced people and over half of all the world’s refugees, and although children’s rights never abandoned them, it seemed that duty bearers often did.  Adult tolerance for the abuse of children was so high that no matter what was learned of its scale, breadth, and the deep and long-lasting damage of its cruel affliction, the world still struggled to put its responsibilities to children front and centre, lamented Ms. Gilmore.  “Our cruelty to children exacts harsh costs in currencies none of us can afford – least of all children – and that should shame us all”, she further added, highlighting that the United Nations too must own its shame.  In the context of the seventh decade of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the universal applicability of international human rights law, the Deputy High Commissioner strongly reaffirmed that children’s rights were human rights, and that the best interest of the child must be put at the forefront of all decision-making processes, always and everywhere.

Statements by the Moderator and the Panellists

CARL HALLERGARD, Ambassador and Deputy Head of the European Union Delegation to the United Nations and other international organizations in Geneva and moderator of the panel, said that across the globe, humanitarian situations had been undermining the rights of the child.  The right to life and protection from abuse was integrated in the framework of the protection of children’s rights, but it was the implementation that was the problem.  A question was raised on gaps and challenges in legal frameworks for the protection of children’s rights.

HELEN DURHAM, Director of International Law and Policy at the International Committee of the Red Cross, stated that selective application of the law was the main problem occurring in humanitarian situations, as seen in the area of health and education.  Special protection was granted to children across the refuge law, international human rights law and international humanitarian law.  The Convention on the Rights of the Child stipulated that in all actions concerning children, the best interest of the child should be a primary consideration.  The customary rule of international humanitarian law was that children caught up in armed conflict situations were entitled to special respect and protection.  Yet, today children made up more than half of all refugees and in 2016 over 8,000 children were maimed or killed in conflict situations.  The disruption of a health care system in wartime had exposed communities already enduring armed conflict to health crises, an increase in communicable diseases and exacerbation of child causalities.  Concerning the access to education, humanitarian law protected schools as civilian objects and required warring parties to facilitate access to education.  However, 25 per cent of the world’s school aged children lived in countries affected by a humanitarian crisis, but those children accounted for 43 per cent of all out-of-school children at primary and lower secondary levels.  The International Committee of the Red Cross was concerned about selective implementation of the law, whereby children who fell into certain categories were associated with certain labels, categories, such as migrant, or girl, or violent extremist, were at greater risk of facing lower standards of existing legal protections. 

SIKANDER KHAN, Director of the Geneva Office of the Emergency Programmes at the United Nations Children’s Fund, said today an estimated 535 million children – nearly one in four children in the world – lived in countries affected by humanitarian crises, often without access to medical care, clean water and sanitation facilities, proper nutrition, quality education or protection.  Children were also forcibly displaced as a result of conflict, violence and natural disasters.  Across the world today, more than 10 million children were refugees and 17 million were internally displaced.   Humanitarian crises compromised the realization of all rights enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child: the rights to education, to health, to grow in a family environment and many more.  Crises also damaged systems working to keep children safe – in their homes, schools and communities.  Children were being injured and killed, recruited or used by armed forces and armed groups, detained, trafficked, forced into economic exploitation, and subjected to physical abuse and sexual violence.  Schools and hospitals were made direct targets, in violation of international law.  Supporting the realization of the rights of all children, including in humanitarian situations was at the heart of UNICEF’s mandate, guided by the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which applied at all times, to all children, and in all situations.  Though devastating, humanitarian situations could also provide opportunities to work with governments and other partners to “build back better” and strengthen systems, including through legal reform and capacity building.  The three key areas of intervention for children by UNICEF concerned the release and reintegration of children, as well as fighting the detention and criminalization of children, and gender-based violence in emergencies.

ALEJANDRO GAMBOA, National Director, Plan International Colombia, said Plan International was an independent non-governmental organization which worked in over 70 countries for the rights of children.  Above all it aimed to achieve equality of girls, in both humanitarian and developmental contexts.  The respect of human rights was at the heart of its work.  In the context of conflict and natural disasters, Plan International carried out preventive activities, working with girls, boys and adolescents and their communities, in changing attitudes, standards and conduct related to gender.  He told the Human Rights Council about the activities of Plan International implemented in Columbia and Nigeria.  Columbia had gone through one of the most horrible protracted conflicts, which had lasted 50 years, where those who suffered and were the victims of armed conflict were the most marginalised parts of the population, including rural persons and persons with disabilities.  There were almost eight million victims of the armed conflict, of which 30 per cent were girls, boys and adolescents.  In the agreement signed with FARC in 2015, the voices of these victims of the war were vital.  These were the new generations which would build up resilience.  In Nigeria violence committed by Boko Haram continued to affect 26 million persons.  Almost 1.8 million persons were displaced as a result.  The conflict had weakened an already weak education system, as well as livelihoods.  Both countries had seen the horrible effect of armed conflict on girls.  Plan International carried out livelihood activities with these communities, with a programmatic approach sensitive to age and gender.  It also had initiatives against gender based violence.  “Champions of Change” was an example of an innovative approach to preventing gender discrimination and violence, having in mind that child marriage was a serious problem in all humanitarian settings.  There was increasing evidence about the rise of child marriage, with a disproportionate effect on girls.  In both countries, it helped communities and schools consolidate the social fabric and build up cultures of peace through active participation, and through highlighting their future.

MONICA FERRO, Director of the Geneva Office of the United Nations Population Fund, stated that adolescent girls were overlooked in turbulent times of disaster and conflict.  Traumatized, constrained by tradition, torn from school and family structures and familiar social networks, they could become lost in the crowd in a refugee camp or a disrupted community.  Millions of adolescent girls were in need of humanitarian assistance.  The risk of pregnancy-related death was twice as high for girls aged 15 to 19 and five times higher for girls aged 10 to 14 compared to women in their twenties.  The United Nations Population Fund worked to ensure access to quality live-saving sexual and reproductive health services.  In 2017 they reached 1.5 million adolescents with adolescent sexual and reproductive health services provided in 36 countries and trained over 21,000 adolescents.  In 2009, the United Nations Population Fund developed the Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health Toolkit for Humanitarian Settings.  Effective interventions needed to start with planning and programming before or early in a crisis.  Such interventions were flexible, culturally sensitive, innovative and involved a multispectral and integrated approach.  Safe spaces provided adolescent girls with livelihood skills, psycho-social counselling for gender-based violence, and access to sexual and reproductive health information.  Mobile clinics and mobile outreach groups brought lifesaving services and supplies, including contraceptives.  Engagement and participation of adolescents and youth was a strategy that empowered and respected girls as part of humanitarian response.

Discussion

Jordan, speaking on behalf of the Arab Group, said that given the increasingly serious situation in the world, the humanitarian response must be a priority, in line with the principles of international solidarity and cooperation and the responsibility to protect.  Togo, speaking on behalf of the African Group, said that the protection of the rights of children must be guaranteed by all stakeholders, and while the primary responsibility was with States, international solidarity and cooperation played an important role.  European Union, reiterating the commitment to protecting the rights of children, including migrant and refugee children, said that in 2017, it had dedicated 6 per cent of its humanitarian funding to education in emergencies, and that it also carried the leadership of the 17 partners’ initiative on gender-based violence in emergency settings.

Australia, speaking on behalf of a group of countries, said that due to the increased vulnerability of women and girls to gender-based violence and increased rates of maternal mortality in humanitarian situations, sexual and reproductive health and education required special attention.  Norway, speaking on behalf of a group of countries endorsing Safe Schools Declaration, said that 73 States had endorsed the Declaration and underlined the critical role of education in protecting children and youth from the impacts of armed conflict.  Senegal, speaking on behalf of the International Organization of Francophonie, recognized that the impact of humanitarian crises was not only physical but psychological and social, and said that its Member States had adopted a list of concrete commitments to uphold the rights of the child, including to protect children from child labour, trafficking and exploitation. 

Latvia, speaking on behalf of the Nordic-Baltic Group, asked for the elaboration of best practices for gender sensitive response, and noted that humanitarian crises affected boys and girls in different ways.  Child and gender sensitive disaster and humanitarian preparedness were fundamental for addressing children’s needs.  United Kingdom noted that child protection; prevention of exploitation, violence and abuse; and the provision of food, emergency shelter and clean water should be the immediate focuses of humanitarian action.  It asked how it could be ensured that girls had access to education in humanitarian situations.  Slovenia stated that the large movement of refugees and migrants two years ago had led to a more systematic development of meeting the needs of migrant and refugee children in Slovenia.  The empowerment of children should also be achieved through human rights education. 

Qatar noted that children were the weakest link in humanitarian situations, which was why Qatar focused on quality education and health for children in conflict situations.  It had reached four million children who were now enrolled in quality education programmes.  Ireland stated that it was deeply alarmed by the fact that children made up nearly half of the world’s displaced persons and over half of the world’s refugees.  It firmly agreed that it was imperative that all States afforded priority to the rights of children in humanitarian situations.  Bulgaria said that its priority was to uphold and protect the rights of the child, especially vulnerable and migrant children, whose needs should be addressed on a case by case basis.  It placed emphasis on education as key towards the integration of children in humanitarian situations.   

Indigenist Missionary Council drew attention to the dramatic situation of indigenous children in Brazil, whose high mortality rates were due to malnutrition, diseases and violence by various militias.  International Save the Children Alliance, in a joint statement on behalf of 25 child rights organizations1, stressed that human rights, including children’s rights, must be at the heart of humanitarian action and called upon States to firmly ground their humanitarian action in and uphold international humanitarian, refugee and human rights law.  Plan International, Inc underlined that adolescent girls remained a marginalized and excluded group, facing the double burden of being female and young, who in humanitarian contexts were highly vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence, and worst forms of child exploitation, including trafficking, sexual slavery, and forced prostitution.

Israel welcomed the inclusion of a gender perspective in the current debate and asked what could be done to ensure access to sexual and reproductive health services and information for girls in crisis contexts.  Georgia regretted that children, as the most vulnerable group in humanitarian contexts, were often the first victims of violence, and drew attention to the situation of Georgian children in the occupied regions who were denied their right to education in their native language.  Brazil recalled that one in four children in the world lived in a country affected by humanitarian crisis and were often subjected to violence, deprivation, abuse and exploitation.  Brazil lamented that the international community had been unable to effectively protect civilians in conflict.

Holy See noted that many innocent children were trapped in vulnerable situations just because they lived in the poorest parts of the world, because they belonged to ethnic or religious minorities, or because they were refugees or migrants.  Italy stated that a crucial precondition to address the challenges posed by complex emergencies and disasters consisted of legally reinforcing the compliance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and all international legal standards.  Belgium said that it was essential to ensure that children had access to quality education to avoid having so-called “lost generations.”  It reminded that only one per cent for humanitarian innovation could offer new solutions to protect the rights of the child. 

India reminded that under the Convention on the Rights of the Child, children under the age of 18 should neither be recruited nor conscripted into armed forces.  It reaffirmed its commitment to national and international efforts for promoting and protecting the rights of children.   Mexico said that humanitarian situations exposed children to violence and abuse, including detention, especially in the context of migration.  It had devised a special programme to ensure that at all times the rights of children in emergencies were protected.  Mongolia stated that due to its extreme climate it was vulnerable to a wide variety of natural hazards, leading to children’s withdrawal from school.  Stronger regional and international cooperation was vital for strengthening disaster risk preparedness at the national level. 

Philippines took pride that its laws and policies integrated the rights of children and in particular that it had enacted several laws addressing the protection of children in the context of disasters, the latest of which was the children’s emergency relief and protection act which set standards of accountability in child protection before, during and after a natural disaster.  United States would continue to raise its voice to call attention to the horrors faced by children around the world like those in Syria where more than 26,000 had been killed since 2011, and said that those responsible for the deaths of innocent children and those who shield them from accountability must be called out.  Portugal stressed the critical importance of children continuing education during humanitarian situations and having uninterrupted access to vaccines and medicines, and the urgency to ensure access to sexual and reproductive health services to avoid preventable maternal mortality and morbidity.

Human Rights Watch noted that in Syria, widespread enforced disappearances, torture and killings of children had been documented, Eastern Ghouta was “hell on earth”, and yet Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan had closed their borders with Syria and Russia had abused its role on the Security Council to maintain impunity in Syria.  In Yemen, where millions of children were malnourished and up to a third of the fighters were children, the Saudi-led coalition unlawfully restricted imports of civilian goods and opposing Houthi forces confiscated humanitarian supplies.  Verein Sudwind Entwicklungspolitik spoke of the devastating circumstances for children in west Iran in the aftermath of the November 2017 earthquake, noting that most people still lived in tents and at least nine children had died from the cold.  World Environment and Resources Council urged Pakistan to pass strong laws to punish violators of children’s rights, and to adopt policies which would strengthen the protection of children.

Concluding Remarks

HELEN DURHAM, Director of International Law and Policy at the International Committee of the Red Cross, noted that the international community should think of sexual and reproductive health rights within a broader context of healthcare systems.  The destruction of medical infrastructure had a huge negative impact on sexual and reproductive health rights in humanitarian situations.  As for access to education, a number of legal provisions were very clear about guaranteeing quality education in conflict situations.  Ms. Durham urged States to look at and honour feasible precaution about attacking civilian infrastructure.  Children should also be taught about protection measures in case of attacks on schools.  States should look at laws to resolve dilemmas with respect to protecting children in humanitarian situations.

SIKANDER KHAN, Director of the Geneva Office of Emergency Programmes at the United Nations Children’s Fund, stressed that children should be kept at the heart of humanitarian assistance, while prioritizing and planning humanitarian programmes.  As for girls’ education, he noted that education was still not seen as a life saving measure.  Education was still interrupted when humanitarian crises took place.  Families could be assisted in order not to drop their girls from school.  The Convention on the Rights of the Child applied at all times, and further strengthening of legal and social measures was needed.  One of the key ingredients for losing generations was the psycho-social situation of children.  Too many children had been lost already, Mr. Khan noted.

ALEJANDRO GAMBOA, National Director of Plan International Colombia, said that experience on the ground, particularly in Columbia and Nigeria which had had long-lasting protracted conflicts, had demonstrated the importance of youth empowerment.  The Champions of Change programme which sought protection also envisaged empowerment and increasing the resilience of youth, ensuring that they were the agents of change for the next generation.  Young people had to be aware of their rights, and all relevant issues, including climate change.

MONICA FERRO, Director of the Geneva Office of the United Nations Population Fund, highlighted several key messages from the panel.  There was a need to ensure the access of girls to sexual reproductive health, meaning that issue had to be mainstreamed in all issues. Girls needed to be central to all programmes.  Safe spaces and mobile clinics were integral to those efforts.  All parties were invited to join the Compact of young people in humanitarian situations, which was led by the United Nations Population Fund.  Also, youth peace and security consultations had been held in Geneva, and the conclusions had pointed out that it would be very important to have adolescents present in commissions of inquiry.

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1Joint statement: International Save the Children Alliance; Child Rights Connect; Defence for Children International ; Foundation ECPAT International (End Child Prostitution, Child Pornography and Trafficking in Children for Sexual Purposes); International Catholic Child Bureau; International Movement ATD Fourth World; Plan International, Inc; Stichting War Child; Women’s World Summit Foundation.

For use of the information media; not an official record

HRC18/022E

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