'Children killing children': US ambassador to UN condemns child soldier recruitment

Linda Thomas-Greenfield says she has seen child soldiers not much taller than the rifles they carried

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Children caught up in conflicts are being taught to commit war crimes before they can count, said the US ambassador to the UN.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield referred to an attack in Burkina Faso earlier this month during which more than 130 civilians were killed by an armed group comprising “mostly 12 to 14-year-olds”.

Over the last five years, the UN has verified at least 70 children every day who experienced grave rights violations

She told the UN Security Council that many of those killed were children.

The horrifying raid on the village of Solhan in the West African nation involved “children killing children,” she said.

During nearly four decades as an American diplomat, Ms Thomas-Greenfield said she met many victims of conflict, and the children “break your heart the most”.

“Children will tell you stories that no child should be able to recount. Of being conscripted at gunpoint. Of being raped. Of being forced to murder their own siblings, their own parents,” she said. “These children are often no taller than the guns they actually carry.”

Ms Thomas-Greenfield also referred to a recent attack on a school in Afghanistan, in which at least 90 girls were killed, and the regular attacks on schools in northern Nigeria where “children are abducted for ransom”.

Twenty-five years after the UN started focusing on children in conflict, "we have not done enough", she said.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres told the Security Council that “the disregard for children’s rights at times of conflict and upheaval is shocking and heartbreaking”.

Last year, almost 24,000 crimes, such as child recruitment and rape, were committed against 19,300 minors in 21 conflicts, and the Covid-19 pandemic made it difficult for experts to reach them, the UN chief said.

More than 8,400 children were killed or injured in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen and Somalia, while nearly 7,000 more were recruited and used in fighting, mainly in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Syria and Myanmar.

The report said rape and other forms of sexual violence shot up 70 per cent last year, and abductions increased by 90 per cent. Attacks on schools and hospitals “remained excessively high”.

“I call on all parties to conflict to prioritise the prevention of violations against children and to engage in dialogue, ceasefires and peace processes,” Mr Guterres said.

Henrietta Fore, head of the UN children's fund, said the report showed the world's increased understanding of the devastating effect of conflicts on children.

But she said "it also shows how little progress the world has made in protecting children from the scourge of war" since the first UN report 25 years ago by Graca Machel, a campaigner for the rights of women and girls, and wife of the late South African president Nelson Mandela.

Ms Fore said conflicts were longer, increasingly complex and devastated the futures of children who bore no responsibility for the fighting but suffered "the deepest scars" and paid "the highest price".

“On average, over the past five years, the UN has verified at least 70 children every day who experienced grave rights violations,” Ms Fore said.

The secretary general’s report said girls were not only the victims of one quarter of all breaches – “they represented 98 per cent of the victims of rape and sexual violence”.

The council meeting was led by Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid, who singled out the serious consequences for children of the war in Yemen, the killing of children by Myanmar's junta and the killing of more than 150 children in Afghanistan in the first three months of the year.

She said it was among “the biggest challenges we are facing in the following decades".

The pandemic exacerbated inequities and severely disrupted health care, disproportionately affecting the most vulnerable women and children, she said.

Mr Guterres on Monday appointed Ms Kaljulaid as global advocate for Every Woman Every Child, a UN campaign to promote access to health care for women, children and adolescents.