A United Nations child rights envoy joined the Government of Colombia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in Havana, Cuba, yesterday to witness the signing of an agreement to separate and reintegrate children associated with the guerrilla force.
“I feel privileged to be here today with the Colombians and welcome this important commitment, which puts the issue of children at the heart of the peace process and promises to change their lives. This is an urgently needed step for children who have never known a country at peace,” said Leila Zerrougui, the UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, speaking at the event in Havana, which has been hosting talks between the Colombian Government and FARC since 2012.
Ms. Zerrougui congratulated the parties who led this process, as well as the guarantors and others, in particular the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Resident Coordinator’s Office in Colombia, which have supported these negotiations from its onset.
“The signing of this agreement is a historic moment for all the Colombians. It is an opportunity we cannot miss, to give children a present and future they deserve,” she declared.
As part of the commitment, children under the age of fifteen will be released first, following by the separation of all children under 18. Today’s commitment includes core principles to ensure that separated children will be treated primarily as victims, and that their best interests will be considered as a matter of priority in the reintegration into their communities.
“Today we celebrate, but tomorrow the work begins to help children rebuild their lives and transition into a peaceful civilian life. The United Nations and partners stand ready to support this process,” concluded the UN Special Representative.
According to the UN, hostilities in Colombia between the Government and the FARC have disrupted the lives of more than a quarter of a million children since peace talks began three years ago between the parties to the conflict.
Later in the day, UNICEF also welcomed the agreement by the Colombian Government and FARC-EP, Colombia’s main armed opposition group, for the release of all children under the age of 15 from FARC’s ranks.
“This is a historic moment for the children of Colombia,” said Roberto de Bernardi, UNICEF Representative in Colombia. “UNICEF stands ready to support the release of all children and their reintegration into their families and communities, in accordance with national and international law,” he added.
Peace talks between the Government and FARC to end over five decades of conflict started more than three years ago, leading to significant improvements on the ground: Between 2013 and 2015, the number of children killed or injured by landmines and unexploded ordnance halved while the number of displaced children dropped by 40 per cent, according to a recent UNICEF report.
However, the report, Childhood in the Time of War: Will the children of Colombia know peace at last?, also notes that an estimated 1,000 children were used or recruited by non-state armed groups during that period, and over 230,000 children were displaced.
“As the country moves closer toward peace, it is critical that all children who have paid the price of this conflict, either directly or indirectly, receive the protection, support and assistance they need,” Mr. de Bernardi said.