Last week, Special Representative Leila Zerrougui was the keynote speaker at the Global Pediatric Health Conference on Violence against Children at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.  The conference brought together a wide range of medical professionals and humanitarians who discussed ways to better protect children from the effects of conflict. The Special Representative talked about the consequences of conflicts on children’s right to health care, the difficulty for them to access health services in times of armed conflict and the challenges faced by medical care providers to address children’s basic needs.

This is a summary of her presentation:

The impact of armed conflict on children

Graca Machel, the former Minister of Education in Mozambique, pointed out in her 1996 ground-breaking report “Impact of Armed Conflict on Children” that contemporary wars often go hand in hand with the disintegration of communities, the breakdown of support systems and the destruction of education and health services.

Armed conflict affects all aspects of children’s development. The wounds are not only physical, but also psychological.

Health under attack

“We don’t often think of armed conflict as a major public health hazard,” said Leila Zerrougui, during her presentation. “Thousands of children are injured or die every year as a direct result of fighting. They suffer from malnutrition and diseases caused or accentuated by wars.”

Attacks on hospitals, health workers and patients strike at the heart of the protection of children affected by armed conflict. Health services save and sustain lives. Violence against health care has a significant compound effect, causing dramatic increases in the mortality rate of patients.


Hospitals should be protected from attacks at all times and they should not be used for military purposes. Unfortunately, this principle stands in sharp contrast to reality.

Both the recent initiative of the International Committee of the Red Cross named “Health Care in Danger”and the report of the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health emphasized that the provision of medical care is increasingly under attack.

The civil war in Syria serves as a tragic example demonstrating how the strongest principles of humanity can be trampled by warfare. The latest report of the Commission of Inquiry on Syria illustrates how the deliberate targeting of hospitals, medical personnel and transports, the denial of access to medical care and ill-treatment of the sick and wounded, has become one of the most alarming features of the Syrian conflict.

 A Legal Framework to protect children

In the past two decades, the United Nations Security Council has firmly placed the protection of children affected by armed conflict on its agenda. Six grave violations against children have been identified: the recruitment and use of children, killing and maiming, sexual violence, attacks on schools and hospitals, abduction and denial of humanitarian access.

Over the years, the Council adopted eight resolutions that form the core of a strong framework to address violations against children.

In 2011, Security Council resolution 1998 identified attacks on schools, hospitals, education and medical personnel as major concerns for international peace and stability and asked the Secretary-General to list those who commit such attacks in the annexes of its annual report on children and armed conflict.

“My office, together with our partners, including UNICEF, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, civil society organizations and others – are strengthening our efforts to monitor incidents affecting children’s right to health in situations of conflict.  We are also enhancing our advocacy and dialogue with perpetrators to stop the violations,” said Leila Zerrougui.

Concerted action needed to protect healthcare

The Special Representative concluded her presentation by calling for concerted action to protect hospitals and their personnel in conflict zones.

“I am encouraged to see the interest and energy of civil society to push the international community to make this issue a priority,” said the Special Representative.

She added that everyone – MemberStates, the UN, humanitarian and human rights organizations, civil society partners, the global health community and parties to conflict- has a role to play to protect the delivery of health care in countries affected by war.

(Source: Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary General on Children and Armed Conflict)