UNITED NATIONS – Over 250,000 child soldiers are still participating in armed conflicts around the world and tens of thousands of girls are being sexually exploited by combatants, a senior U.N. official said.
While the situation for children has improved markedly in recent conflict zones Sierra Leone, Burundi, Liberia and Congo, "children continue to suffer" as witnessed most recently in the Middle East, Undersecretary-General Radhika Coomaraswamy told the U.N. Security Council.
"Since 2003," she said, "over 14 million children have been forcibly displaced within and outside their home countries, and between 8,000 and 10,000 children are killed or maimed each year by land mines."
"Over 250,000 children continue to be exploited as child soldiers by armed forces and groups around the world. Tens of thousands of girls are being subjected to rape and other forms of sexual violence. Abductions of children are becoming more systematic and widespread," she said.
Coomaraswamy, the U.N. special representative for children and armed conflict, spoke at an open council meeting examining the impact of a resolution adopted a year ago aimed at halting the use of child soldiers and exploitation of youngsters in war zones by governments and insurgent groups.
Under the resolution, the council for the first time established a group to report on the killing, maiming, rape and sexual abuse of children in conflicts, the recruiting and use of child soldiers and the abduction of children. The council also reaffirmed its intention to consider imposing targeted sanctions such as arms embargoes, travel bans and financial restrictions against parties that continue to violate international laws protecting children in armed conflict.
UNICEF Executive Director Ann Veneman told the council that "children continue to be targeted in today's armed conflicts" and are the first to suffer from poverty, malnutrition and poor health as a result of the upheavals caused by war.
"In every region of the world girls and boys endure the consequences of being caught up in war," she said. "The children who are used by armed groups, or who are displaced from their homes by war, orphaned or separated from their families, and who are targeted by gender-based violence, experience violations of their fundamental rights and freedoms."
Since 1996, approximately two million children have died as a result of war, at least six million have been injured or physically disabled, and 12 million have been left homeless, Veneman said.
Ian Bannon, a senior World Bank official, said over 300 million young people under the age of 25 — representing nearly 20 percent of the world's children and youth — still live in countries affected by armed conflict.
China's deputy U.N. Ambassador Liu Zhenmin said children in more than 30 countries "are harmed in various ways by armed conflict" and he urged the Security Council to step up efforts to promote peace.
Coomaraswamy and Veneman welcomed last year's landmark council resolution, saying much has been accomplished — but much more remains to be done.
"It is now time for the council to take effective action against repeat offenders," Coomaraswamy said.
She cited the case of a Sierra Leone boy named "Abou" who was abducted from school when he was 11-years-old by rebels from the Revolutionary United Front. When he was demobilized at the age of 15, he was an RUF commander and although his community accepted him back, he was feared and isolated. Six months later, he disappeared and went to fight first with rebels in Liberia and then in Ivory Coast where he was disarmed again at age 18.
"Abou" told U.N. workers he only knew how to fight, Coomaraswamy said, urging that much more must be done to keep youngsters from being recycled from conflict to conflict.
Saying "Band-Aid" solutions are not sufficient, she called for children affected by conflict to receive education and job training. She also urged the council to expand its monitoring and reporting program to more countries.
Veneman said children also need psychological and social support, and protection against persecution and exploitation after conflicts end because they remain vulnerable to recruitment by armed groups unless their economic prospects improve.
France's U.N. Ambassador Jean-Marc de La Sabliere, the current council president and chairs of the council's working group on children and armed conflict, read a statement at the end of the meeting calling for "a reinvigorated effort by the international community to enhance the protection of children affected by armed conflict."
The statement, approved by all council members, underlined "the importance of a sustained investment in development, especially in health, education and skills training, to secure the successful reintegration of children in their communities and prevent re-recruitment."