I thank you, so much, Mr. President for chairing this session, and for all the work you and your team have done to shine a light on how children are faring around the world in your time on the Security Council. Mr. Secretary-General, thank for your briefing, and for giving the issue of children in armed conflict consistently the attention it so clearly deserves. Special Representative Zerrougui, we are grateful to the determined efforts of you and your team to bring to light the plight of affected children, and thank you, Executive Director Lake, for your lifelong dedication to supporting and protecting children. I also want to single out for thanks the diverse range of ambassadors and diplomats who have turned out today – I think, a reflection in this turnout, of how important the broader membership of the UN deems this issue.
Let me begin with what should be a non-controversial point, which is that – two decades after Graça Machel’s groundbreaking report highlighted the disproportionate and devastating impact of armed conflict on children – the Secretary-General’s annual report continues to be a valuable tool for documenting abuses and for identifying those responsible. The Security Council’s mandate on children and armed conflict – which includes monitoring, reporting, and listing of parties for violations – is crucial, and must be maintained. The Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism must play a central role in this process, subjecting incoming reports to what needs to be a transparent, independent, impartial, and thorough review. Yet to continue to be effective, adequate measures must be put in place to ensure sound methodology and to protect sources; the methodological approach needs to be continually strengthened to meet the highest standards, and victims, UN agencies, and others must be able to provide information without fear of their identity being revealed or fear of reprisals.
Member States – all of us – have a responsibility to cooperate with the Secretary-General’s reporting on this issue. We do not expect governments to agree with everything in the SG’s report; in fact, we encourage Member States to engage with the UN early and often, and to challenge findings they deem inaccurate or unjustified, as well as to present evidence to support their views. That means Member States and the UN working together in good faith to share information and address concerns, ascertain the facts, and look for ways to improve. Even if we governments do not ultimately agree with certain UN findings or conclusions, we must maintain support for the United Nations, such a vital organization that is aiming, as we’ve heard today, to help children everywhere.
The Secretary-General’s report provides a bleak, yet unsurprising, picture of the human rights violations committed against children in conflicts, many of which are actually worsening. The examples are myriad. In Yemen, the UN verified a five-fold increase in the number of children recruited during 2015, and a six-fold increase in the number of children killed and maimed during 2015, compared to the year before. In Afghanistan, 2015 saw the highest number of child casualties since the UN began systematically documenting them in 2009 – with an average of more than 50 kids killed or injured every week. In Syria, the Secretary-General’s report highlighted the “massive” recruitment of children by ISIL, including child foreign fighters as young as seven years old. Seven. That is the age of my son, who’s about to start the second grade. The report also documents the detention – and in some instances, torture – of children by the Assad regime.
For a sense of the horrors children are enduring in real time, just look at the Assad regime’s current siege of Aleppo. Of the 300,000 civilians trapped in the city, an estimated 100,000 are children, the overwhelming majority of whom do not have clean water to drink. When kids hear the sound of a helicopter or fighter jet overhead, one medical worker said, “they start screaming, hugging you, and crying.” It’s not hard to understand why. An NGO that runs an ambulance network said that approximately one-third of the casualties in Aleppo are children. One relief worker described arriving at the scene of an airstrike to help dig through rubble for survivors, and seeing a small boy – who couldn’t have been older than 10 years old – walking toward him. The boy was holding his amputated left arm in his right hand, and shouting, “Sir, please, put my arm back.”
Wounded children like that little boy arrive at the few hospitals that are still standing only to find there are no doctors or nurses to treat them, because they are so overwhelmed by patients. Or they find medical professionals who cannot help them, because they lack basic equipment or have run out of medicine due to the siege. Oftentimes, as we all know, hospitals themselves are bombed. On July 23, a pediatric hospital in Aleppo was hit by airstrikes not once, but twice in a single night. The second blast shut down the oxygen supply to the room where newborns were being held, forcing the staff to evacuate the babies to a bomb shelter in the basement. An infant who had been alive for just two days reportedly died when he was taken from the room. A two-day-old infant. This is the world that the children in Aleppo – and so many other Syrian cities and towns – are growing up in, day after day. For children younger than five years old – it is all they have ever known.
So, once again, we call on the Assad regime to lift its deadly siege of all the other Syrian cities and towns where it is using these barbaric starve or surrender tactics – or perhaps more accurately: starve, get bombed, or surrender. In Aleppo, the regime and allied militias must immediately allow all non-military traffic, including humanitarian and commercial suppliers, to move along Castello Road, in order to address the tremendous needs exacerbated by the deadly siege. We also call on Russia to stop its airstrikes on civilian targets, as well as to halt its support for the regime’s encirclement of the city.
In addition to protecting children in conflict, we must address the mass displacement of children caused by conflict. As we all know, at the end of 2015, more than 65 million people were displaced worldwide. More than half are children. Not only are more children displaced than at any time since the Second World War, but – and it is worth pausing on this – it is increasingly common for kids uprooted by war to spend their entire childhoods as refugees. Yet the world is not doing nearly enough to provide for child refugees, or for refugees in general, for that matter.
To help address this problem, President Obama is convening a refugee summit in September on the margins of the UN General Assembly to try to get Member States to take on more of their share. Together with Canada, Ethiopia, Germany, Jordan, Mexico, and Sweden, we are asking governments to make a deeper commitment to funding UN and humanitarian organizations and appeals, and to welcome more refugees into their countries. And we’re asking frontline countries, which are already doing way more than their fair share, to take additional steps to facilitate refugee education and employment. To that end, we hope all members of this Council who have not yet made new commitments will send word back to their capitals about the need to step up. The lives of millions of children depend on it.
Let me conclude, Mr. President. In June, I traveled to Germany, where I had the opportunity to meet with dozens of refugees. One was a 16-year-old Syrian girl named Noujain Mustafa, who has cerebral palsy and relies on a wheelchair to get around. Noujain and her family used to live in Kobane, which was taken over by ISIL in 2014. When ISIL arrived, Noujain told me, one of two fates awaited her: either she would be killed for being a Kurd, or she’d be thrown into a mental institution, because that is how ISIL treats people with disabilities. So, together with her older sister, Noujain fled, first across northern Syria and Turkey, and then Greece, Croatia, and Slovenia. She traveled by train, taxi, inflatable dinghy, and on her own two wheels, before arriving in Germany, where she was reunited with her older brother.
When we met, Noujain told me that if one thing made her sad, it was that people found her optimism so rare. “When did being positive become so unusual?” she asked. But Noujain also recognized how exceedingly fortunate she was to have made it out of Syria, and to have survived her journey on her wheelchair. “People are dying every day for a normal daily routine,” she told me, “for the chance to get up and brush their teeth in the morning and go to school.” It can be easy to forget that, for millions of children living in conflicts around the world, that simple routine is a dream. A routine every kid deserves, something countless children would risk their lives for. No child should be put in that position. We must do everything we can to ensure that they do not end up in that position.
I thank you.