Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield
U.S. Representative to the United Nations
New York, New York
June 28, 2021
Thank you, Madam President, and thanks so much to Estonia for hosting this important debate today. I also would like to thank the Secretary-General for his presentation. I want to thank Director Fore for her presentation and everything that UNICEF does around the world to protect children. Mr. Whitaker and Mr. Onisimus, thank you also for your briefings today.
Over the course of my nearly four decades serving as an American ambassador and American diplomat, I have visited countless refugee camps, and I’ve met with so many victims of armed conflict. Of all the tragedies you see, those involving 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. These children are often no taller than the guns they actually carry. They are taught to commit war crimes before they even know how to count. To choose just one example, earlier this month, in the village of Solhan in the Sahel region, a non-state armed group killed more than 130 civilians – many of whom were children. That armed group? Mostly 12- to 14-year-olds. Children killing children – children killing children.
I also recall, more than 20 years ago, meeting a young 15-year-old who had been abducted in Sierra Leone from her family at age 12. And she was taken to the bush, she was gang raped, she was married to a combatant, and she was trained to fight. And when she finally escaped and found her way home to her family, she was rejected. I still recall her dark eyes, and I still hear the sound of her hollow voice, ringing in my ears, saying, “All I want is my mommy.” And in certain countries, where the majority of populations are under 18, this is more than a tragedy. It is the decimation of an entire generation. It’s murdering the future. From Sierra Leone to Colombia, Somalia to Afghanistan, countless boys and girls are facing violence, or being forced to commit violent acts themselves.
We established the Children and Armed Conflict agenda 25 years ago. A quarter-century later, we have not done enough. And as a result of the pandemic, this year has been one of the worst. Because of the pandemic, countless schools shut down. I visited a UNICEF exhibition in early March on the UN compound displaying empty chairs and backpacks, showing that 214 million children had missed three-quarters of their in-person learning, and more than 880 million continued to face disruption. Without schools, children became much more vulnerable to domestic violence in isolation. Girls in particular face systemic discrimination and their communities are at higher risk of gender-based violence and sexual exploitation both during and after conflict. Even the fear of attacks on schools are often enough for parents to keep their girls home, disrupting their education and stifling their futures.
Imagine if you were a parent now in northern Nigeria, as we heard from Onisimus, where schools are regularly attacked and children abducted for ransom. Those descriptions that we heard were chilling. Just last month, we saw a horrific attack in Afghanistan on schools in which at least 90 girls were killed. This can no longer be a side-issue for us. This is a generation-defining crisis. And we need to act now. At a minimum, the UN must ensure that where child protection advisors are mandated and funded, they are trained and deployed immediately. We must be deliberate and thoughtful – and acknowledge the unique and distinct risks faced by girls and boys and make certain that our approach is informed by gender-disaggregated data.
In addition, we need to focus on some of the hotspots where children are facing the most dire threats, like in Syria, in Burma, in Cameroon, and now in Ethiopia. In Burma, we’ve seen the Tatmadaw unlawfully recruiting children and subjecting them to violence. The Syrian regime continues to have no regard for the welfare of vulnerable children or youth. In the Cameroon Anglophone region, we are deeply concerned by the impact of the continued violence on children. Children have been threatened, and in some cases killed, for attending school. This is a generational loss, my colleagues. And it is truly unacceptable. We need to deploy every diplomatic tool we have to advance dialogue and end the violence. Hold accountable perpetrators and get kids back in school.
Similarly, we must focus on emerging conflicts where children face acute protection challenges, like in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. It is high time the Security Council met publicly on this issue. So, again, I thank you again, Madam President, for Estonia hosting this important debate. And it is past time we take the immensity of children’s’ suffering more seriously.
Around the world, if we want to give the future a fighting chance, we need to act now. The United States is the leading donor to UNICEF. We’re a strong believer in its core mandate. And we urge others to generously contribute. Because this is not some small subset of the population. In many places, particularly in countries facing conflict, children are most of the population.
I once had the great honor and fortune of a lifetime to meet Nelson Mandela. And I think of his far-seeing leadership often and I believe his mighty words should steer our vision now. Madiba once said, and I quote, “there can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” Today the world’s soul is at stake. Let us avert our eyes no longer. Let us protect our children. Let us treat them right. And let’s right this wrong, now.
Thank you, Madam President.