On February 10, 2016, Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict hosted a panel event commemorating the International Day against the Use of Child Soldiers, also known as ‘Red Hand Day’, and the 15 years of working towards the protection of children in armed conflict since its founding in 2001. The event was hosted at UNICEF headquarters and featured Ms. Leila Zerrougui, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict (SRSG-CAAC) as a keynote speaker. Included on the panel were Mr. Cornelius Williams, UNICEF Associate Director Child Protection, Programme Division, and Ms. Debra Jones, Director and UN Representative for Save the Children and Vice-Chair of Watchlist’s Advisory Board.

On Thursday, February 12, Watchlist spoke at an event organized by the White House to commemorate Red Hand Day, in Washington, DC. Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Mr. Tom Malinowski, provided opening remarks, followed by a panel discussion moderated by A/S Malinowski, which also included – beyond Watchlist – Uzodinma Iweala, author of the book Beasts of No Nation, and Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire, founder of the Roméo Dalliare Child Soldiers Initiative. Afterwards, the 2015 film Beasts of No Nation was screened, followed by a cocktail reception, attended, among others, by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. During the panel discussion, Watchlist was able to raise the Safe Schools Declaration, as well as the United States Child Soldier Prevention Act, and its (lack of) implementation.

On the occasion of the February 10 event, Watchlist gathered key figures involved in the Children and Armed Conflict (CAC) agenda to reflect on the successes of the last 15 years in the fight to end recruitment and use and other grave violations against children, and to discuss ways to combat emerging child protection challenges in the context of evolving security realities and threats. In her keynote address, Ms. Leila Zerrougui highlighted the important relationship between her office and the NGO community. NGOs provide crucial insights and alerts for the office on children’s rights violations that can be followed up on for the purposes of reporting to the UN Security Council. Ms. Zerrougui additionally commended NGOs for their important work on the Safe Schools Declaration and pushing Member States to endorse. As far as challenges go, the SRSG-CAAC expressed concern regarding the development of the counter-terrorism agenda, and the increasing treatment of children as security threats rather than victims for their alleged or real association with armed groups. An additional challenge lies in the number of multiple, protracted crises faced by the international community, with more and more conflicts spilling over borders, and the increasing use of extreme tactics by armed groups and sometimes governments. Despite these among other challenges, Ms. Zerrougui highlighted areas of progress, including new engagement with armed non-state actors (ANSAs) and progress towards the ‘Children, not Soldiers’ campaign. Towards the future, Ms. Zerrougui noted that reintegration must be prioritized in peace processes and particular attention must be given to the specific needs of girls in reintegration programming.

Mr. Williams drew attention to UNICEF’s successes over the course of 2015, including the release of over 10,000 children associated with armed forces or groups. UNICEF and the child protection community, however, continue to face many challenges at a practical level, including the need for multiyear support for reintegration programming and socioeconomic rehabilitation; addressing how to assist girls returning from armed groups with babies; and ensuring that judiciary processes are working when child soldering has been criminalized. Other considerations include the changing types of conflicts the child protection community is faced with, as they increasingly become more brutal and more continuous, with some actors having no interest in negotiating. Going forward, Mr. Williams indicated UNICEF will work to strengthen community-based mechanisms for preventing recruitment and use; engage with the donor community for multiyear funding for reintegration programs; push for the release of children in the absence of peace negotiations; and build upon the progress of the ‘Children, not Soldiers’ campaign, particularly by focusing on working with all groups, regardless of their labels, to abide by international norms and standards.

The establishment of the Monitoring and Reporting Mechanism (MRM) was a key achievement within the development of the CAC framework, noted Ms. Jones. Action plans similarly are effective tools for combatting recruitment and use, but more must be done to facilitate access to ANSAs for engagement. Complimentary efforts coordinated with NGOs can be utilized when and where the UN lacks access. Speaking to challenges, Ms. Jones highlighted the difficulties in securing the release of abducted girls, funding gaps for reintegration programs, and the need for long-term psychological and psychosocial support for children and families. To continue to make progress and improve prospects for reintegration and rehabilitation of children, more work must be done to support education and livelihoods, and more thinking must be done towards the various factors that contribute to the recruitment and use of children, including poverty and the lack of education or employment. Ms. Jones highlighted the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals as a new opportunity to address these factors and work towards the elimination of recruitment and use of children.

The progress made towards the normative development and implementation of the CAC agenda has been a result of partnerships between the UN, Member States, and civil society groups. Such partnerships will continue to be imperative to addressing the above-mentioned challenges and meeting the needs of children affected by armed conflict.