France calls on world to protect children from war

United Nations – International “Protect Children from War” conference – Opening speech by M. François Hollande, President of the Republic (excerpts)

Paris, 21 February 2017


Two hundred and thirty million children live in countries or areas experiencing armed conflicts. Fifteen million of them are directly affected by the fighting, and 1.5 million risk dying of hunger unless we intervene. Violence has always been with us. Sadly, over time it has neither changed nor diminished. It’s still the same: murder, mutilation, conscription, attacks on schools and hospitals, sexual violence and abduction.

Those who attack children are attacking what is most sacred about humanity. To kill and brutalize children is to deny civilization. However, as I speak, I also want to emphasize some hope. In the 1990s – and we’ll have testimony to it here –, Liberia and Sierra Leone were plunged into civil war. Thousands of child soldiers were forcibly drugged, they killed or were killed, or they were reduced to slavery.

In 1997, the United Nations created the post of Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict. It was a first major step. And then, here in Paris 10 years ago, in 2007, we adopted the Principles and Commitments for peace, and today we’re celebrating that event. Those two diplomatic breakthroughs enabled us to begin the long struggle to liberate child soldiers. (…)

Our duty today, now we’re gathered – governments and non-governmental organizations – is to help you wage that struggle. France, as a permanent member of the Security Council, has been in the vanguard in terms of getting resolutions passed and ensuring, in 2005, that a Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism for the Secretary-General was voted for, whose scope has been broadened. This mechanism has brought several results.

Firstly, there’s a working group at the Security Council which conducts visits on the ground, gathers testimony on children who have been conscripted and prepares concrete recommendations so that warring parties can draw inspiration from them and, finally, so that there can be exemplary punishments for all those who violate children’s rights.

Today our conference is meeting to define the action we’re going to take in the next 10 years. I see four priorities when it comes to mobilizing the international community.

First of all, to further children’s rights in armed conflicts. To date, 105 states – and here I thank their representatives – have endorsed the Paris Principles. Our goal is to promote universality, i.e. for all states to be able to sign and rally together.

I thank Nigeria, Kazakhstan, Burma (Myanmar), Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iraq and Jordan, which have decided to join us. Taking the law forward also means combating impunity. In 2012, Thomas Lubanga was sentenced for war crimes by the International Criminal Court. He had taken part in conscripting and mobilizing children under 15 years old. For there can be no lasting peace unless there are exemplary punishments for torturers.

Second priority: to increase financial resources in order to improve conditions for children experiencing crisis situations. Laetitia Casta, you’re a UNICEF ambassador. You’ve been to the shores of Lake Chad. You’ve seen the abject poverty there, the drought, but also what terrorism can do to an area like that. Several suicide attacks have been carried out around Lake Chad by that barbaric group [Boko Haram].

You’ve understood, and above all you’ve said, that development must take place. We’ve heeded you. The French Development Agency, with the European Union, has decided to commit itself even more to Lake Chad, to enable people – particularly children – to return and, above all, live there. Thanks to this experience, we’ve been able to create a special facility for vulnerable countries which has funding of €100 million a year, is operational and will be able to support disarmament, demobilization and rehabilitation processes.

In 2015 and 2016, France contributed €30 million to UNICEF’s activities and, Executive Director, we’re going to take part in the action you’ve started in north-eastern Nigeria, in line with what I’ve said for Lake Chad.

The third priority is access to education and health. There too, France will contribute to the Education Cannot Wait initiative, because it’s not simply about disarming, demobilizing and rehabilitating but also educating those children who have experienced horror. There too, I pay tribute to UNICEF’s work, and we’ll be helping to finance this programme.

A few months ago I went to Lebanon, to visit refugee camps. The first request expressed by the humanitarian organizations hosting those families – more than a million in Lebanon – was education for the children. There are experiences there I won’t forget: women and men supporting very young children and teaching them their own language but above all the essential tools to live decently. So we decided that out of the €100 million in humanitarian aid France is providing to Lebanon over the period 2016-2018, €50 million – i.e. half – will be devoted to education.

Finally, France will support maternal and child health programmes in countries emerging from crises. We must do this for girls as well, because not having access to sex education also means a risk to their own future.

There’s another phenomenon, sadly also tragic, which is galvanizing the international community. It’s about refusing to allow hospitals and schools to be targeted by terrorist groups or by states, because this too can happen – we saw it in Aleppo. That’s why a declaration on security in schools was initiated in Geneva in 2015, and France will support this initiative.

Ladies and gentlemen, setting an example means defending children’s rights everywhere and under all circumstances, in times of both war and peace, in both the South and the North. Setting an example means respecting the fundamental right to asylum, and particularly for children. France is playing its part in the European effort. It also expects its partners to do the same, especially when it comes to unaccompanied minors. I call on the United Kingdom to shoulder its responsibilities to the teenagers currently in France who have families across the Channel. We’ve made the effort to shelter them, to take them in; they want to go to the UK; we have agreements with that friendly neighbouring country; they must be fully complied with.

Setting an example also means rejecting the violence of which children are victims, including in countries which know only peace. That’s why, in January 2016, France ratified the Third Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which enables individuals to submit communications to the Committee on the Rights of the Child in order to protect them [children].

So it’s very important that we have international institutions, that we also have major organizations like UNICEF, and that the UN can play its full role. I’m speaking at a time when this idea of international life is being called into question, when multilateralism is being challenged, when the notion of “everyone for himself” could prevail, when the contributions of major countries – including the most major one for the international organizations, particularly the UN – could be called into question.

It’s very important, through this initiative, for us to recall the nature of an international community which must act together and where there must be forces, instruments, institutions that take action on behalf of the world. That’s why, beyond the League of Nations, we were unable to promote a strong idea of the international community after the First World War.

After the Second World War, it was the UN system that was finally established and imposed, necessarily with its limitations. Today we must defend this UN system, these institutions, these organizations, because – as we see here in concrete terms – we can act in this way for the sake of human rights, and that’s why it was so important, 10 years after the Paris declaration, for us also to launch this appeal here for children and, more broadly, for international law and the institutions that uphold it. Thank you for your contribution./.

Published on 02/03/2017

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