Between November 15 and 18, Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict attended the launch of the Alliance for Child Protection in Humanitarian Action, formerly the global-level Child Protection Working Group, and inaugural annual meeting in Geneva, Switzerland. The meeting was attended by a range of UN and (I)NGO practitioners working specifically in the child protection in emergencies (CPiE) sector at the field and global levels worldwide. The overarching question posed by prominent panelists was why, despite the overwhelming evidence of impact of interventions on the ground, the field of CPiE continues to be chronically underfunded, misunderstood, and deprioritized in humanitarian settings.
Several presentations made linkages between humanitarian interventions and the implementation of the UN’s Children and Armed Conflict (CAC) agenda, covering topics such as child protection in peacekeeping, including sexual exploitation and abuse (SEA) by peacekeepers, engagement with non-state armed groups, and reintegration challenges and opportunities for girls formerly associated with armed groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
The community of practice that gathered under the new Alliance umbrella directly encounters the issue of child recruitment and other grave violations in the course of their day-to-day interventions on the ground, especially in conflict-affected countries. Given the many risks faced by children in humanitarian settings, the aim of their work on child protection is ensuring that boys and girls are protected from abuse, neglect, exploitation, and violence.
Actors delivering on child protection in complex humanitarian emergencies often have to interface with UN peacekeeping and political missions, which requires a clear understanding of each other’s roles and responsibilities for monitoring and reporting on, and responding to, violations of children’s rights. In order to facilitate a greater understanding of such roles and responsibilities, the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) presented its newly-developed child protection policy in conjunction with the Department of Political Affairs (DPA) (to be officially launched by the end of the year), which administers peacekeeping missions on the ground and has clear child protection mandates from the UN Security Council. The policy will prove useful to humanitarian actors in terms of awareness of key focal points for child protection within the system, which should in turn facilitate greater cooperation among these actors and staff of UN peacekeeping and political missions. Those actors will also be able to use the policy as an accountability tool for DPKO and DPA to deliver. For example, jointly to this discussion, UNICEF briefed on the inter-agency response to prevent SEA, a relevant debate to UN peacekeeping given that peacekeepers have a duty to uphold and promote children’s rights, not violate them as has happened in the recent past with the case of the Central African Republic. In their interventions to address violations by peacekeepers, humanitarian actors require the knowledge of this newly created inter-agency structure for monitoring compliance with respect to SEA, as well as ensuring prevention.
A presentation by Watchlist’s Associate Member Geneva Call offered another perspective relevant to humanitarian actors who interface with armed groups as they negotiate access for the purposes of delivering aid. Non-state armed groups comprise the majority of the perpetrators of child rights violations, and have responsibility under international law to provide basic protections for children under their control, including, granting humanitarian actors access to provide basic services if the armed groups themselves are unable to do so. Geneva Call explained its methods for engaging such actors for the purposes of promoting their understanding and compliance with international norms and standards on child protection, and stressed that many groups have an openness to engage and many cannot and should not be labeled as ‘extremist’. For instance, Geneva Call shared that of all those groups currently listed in the annexes of the Secretary-General’s annual report on CAC, less than ten percent are found on existing ‘terrorist’ lists.
Lastly, when delivering programs in emergency settings on the ground, humanitarian actors face reintegration challenges for numerous children that are released or have escaped from armed groups. For instance, another Associate Member of Watchlist, Child Soldiers International (CSI), shared new research on the particular reintegration challenges for girls in eastern DRC, offering a hopeful perspective. In the words of the girls interviewed before and after one reintegration intervention, education and the ability to return to school also meant the return of social value, which they felt was lost because of community stigmatization due to their former, sometimes forced, association with armed groups. Based on this knowledge, CSI is calling on the UN and (I)NGOs to support the DRC Government in adopting and implementing a national demilitarization, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) strategy that would include provisions making education more accessible to girls in particular, be it through the formal system or catch up programs, or literacy and numeracy classes.