In a world where “460 million children were living in contexts of conflict in 2022”, child protection systems must be strengthened, said Ms. Ghada Waly, Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), at a high-level conference at the European Parliament.
At the Protection of Children in Armed Conflict conference in Brussels, organized by the European Parliament Intergroup on Children's Rights and the Universities Network for Children in Armed Conflict (UNETCHAC), Ms. Waly was joined by Parliamentarians, students, and young researchers – some of whom came from areas affected by armed conflicts – in an effort to include these groups in policymaking.
Ms. Waly laid bare the grim statistics on children in conflict zones, emphasizing their plight in crises like Gaza, Ukraine, Sudan, and Afghanistan. She detailed how children are not only uprooted from their homes, but are also often victims of trafficking and exploitation, and denied basic rights like clean water and education.
“Everywhere, heart-breaking stories and images of children affected by conflict have become a mainstay in our news," Ms. Waly lamented. “We must not become de-sensitized to these images, or let their suffering be normalized.”
Ms. Waly emphasized the crucial role of the international community in protecting children in conflict zones, advocating for the full application of international humanitarian law and an end to the hatred that drives dehumanization.
At the heart of Ms. Waly’s vision is the creation of a protective environment in which the needs and rights of children are paramount.
“This means strengthening systems capable of preventing and responding to violence against children, helping and protecting victims, and promoting rehabilitation and reintegration,” Ms. Waly stressed.
Holding perpetrators of crimes against children accountable, investing heavily in prevention, strengthening caregiving skills, and paying attention to children’s mental health is also crucial, she added.
Ms. Waly noted that UNODC, together with the Office of the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence Against Children, launched a new 2023-2030 Strategy to End Violence against Children in November 2023.
“The Strategy prioritizes children in contexts affected by conflict, terrorism and organized crime, while also recognizing settings in which violence can be more silent, but no less dangerous,” she added.
UNODC has extensive experience working to protect children. Since 2015, Ms. Waly highlighted, the End Violence Against Children Team has provided assistance to 66 Member States, helped produce 33 national policy and guidance documents, and engaged directly with children and communities in different parts of the world.
“UNODC also reached millions of families in conflict-affected settings with caregiving advice,” Ms. Waly said.
Ms. Waly noted UNODC’s expanding cooperation with parliaments, including the International Parliamentary Union, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Mediterranean, and the Arab Parliament. She noted that additional coordination with the European Parliament and others can help “foster the right conditions for preventing and responding to violence against children, including in contexts of insecurity.
“Violence is not an event but a cycle,” she concluded. “Our best hope to end that cycle is to protect our children, and to empower them to create a more peaceful world than the one we have managed.”