The EU updates its Guidelines on Children and Armed Conflict

Human Rights

Children are disproportionately affected by armed conflict. They face violence, injury and death, recruitment or use by armed forces and armed groups, displacement and uprooting, interrupted education, lack of health care, long-lasting physical and mental trauma and much more. 

On 24 June 2024, the EU significantly updated its Children and Armed Conflict (CAAC) framework by adopting revised guidelines for work in this area. In doing so, the EU has taken a strong stance to protect children caught in the crossfire of conflict and war across the world.

High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell underlined the importance of the adoption of Revised Guidelines: “Children worldwide endure the devastating impact of conflict, often being exploited, recruited, maimed, killed or suffering long-term physical and mental trauma. Armed forces and groups persist in recruiting and using children, taking them away from their families and communities, stripping them of their dignity, and shattering their lives and futures. Our updated Guidelines on Children and Armed Conflict act as a tool to help EU actors around the world to protect, promote and fulfil the rights of children affected by conflict.”

The UN Secretary General’s latest report on this topic, published on 13 June, points to a 21% increase during 2023 of grave violations against children in conflict situations, with the highest numbers being recorded in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory, as well as in DRC, Myanmar, Somalia, Nigeria, and Sudan.

The updated guidelines will strengthen the EU’s contribution to the respect, protection and fulfilment of the rights of children in armed conflict and other situations of armed violence by terrorist organisations or organised criminal groups. This update strengthens the EU’s ability to protect the rights and well-being of children throughout the conflict cycle, seeking to enhance prevention and post-conflict support and empowerment, as well as strengthening perpetrator accountability for violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.

Vice-President for Democracy and Demography, Dubravka Suica said: “From Ukraine to Gaza, from Sudan to Haiti, children in conflict zones are being deprived of essential, life-saving services. Being denied of education. Being made victims of sexual violence. Being abducted and forcefully recruited into armed groups. Children do not start wars. Children want and need peace. The European Union will continue to step up its efforts to protect and support children affected by armed conflict and is presenting the revised EU Guidelines on Children and Armed Conflict, today, to be more operational and effective.”

The update was elaborated in a process of close cooperation between the EU institutions working in this field and the EU Member States, upon consultation with international partners, civil society and other stakeholders alike. The Update represents a significant step forward in further enhancing the EU’s commitment to the CAAC agenda, setting out a more robust and comprehensive framework for protecting children affected by armed conflict. The guidelines provide a shared policy and operational framework for the entire EU, including its Member States and all EU institutions working in this area.

In parallel, the EU updated and published its Checklist for the Integration of Protection of Children Affected by Armed Conflict into the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) Missions and Operations. The CSDP Checklist is an operational and hands-on tool providing guidance for the planning and conduct of operational activities for more than twenty crisis management missions.

Commissioner for Crisis Management, Janez Lenarčič, welcomed the launch of the revised Guidelines, stressing that “nearly 470 million children live in conflict zones, around the world, with Gaza, Ukraine and Sudan only the most known examples on a long list. The need to take action to protect children in conflict has never been more urgent, with conflicts being on the rise globally. Through EU humanitarian aid, we are working to address the needs of children in a holistic way, including protection and provision of education. We advocate strongly for greater respect of International Humanitarian Law and access for humanitarian aid.”

The revised EU Guidelines and the CSDP Checklist acknowledge that the nature of warfare is evolving, and that children in conflict zones face increased threats not least from new technologies and the indiscriminate use of explosive weapons in populated areas. This revision brings the framework fully in line with the agenda established by the United Nations Security Council, notably the six grave violations against children during times of armed conflict: killing and maiming, recruitment, sexual violence, abduction, attacks on schools/hospitals, and denial of humanitarian aid. Calling for stronger global accountability mechanisms for these despicable violations of children’s rights, they also reinforce alignment with the mandate of the UN Secretary-General and promote closer cooperation with the UN Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict, at the global, regional and country level.

The Guidelines join a comprehensive toolbox for EU action to address child protection in armed conflict, including conflict prevention efforts, humanitarian aid, political engagement, long-term peacebuilding efforts, and crisis management missions and operations.

Read the Council Conclusions on the update to the guidelines here.

Read the CSDP Checklist here.

Read the 2023 UNSG report here.

A child-friendly version is currently under consultation and will be launched in coming weeks.


Children in Armed Conflict

The situation of children, particularly those affected by armed conflict, has been a longstanding priority of the European Union. In 2003, the EU adopted its first Guidelines on Children and Armed Conflict, which were subsequently updated in 2008 to bring together its policy in a practical tool to guide action. 

In 2006, EU adopted the CSDP Checklist for Integrating the Protection of Children Affected by Armed Conflict into CSDP operations. In view of the significant evolution of the global policy and developments within the EU since then, the 2024 update to the guidelines and the checklist will support continued effective EU action in line with a more comprehensive and holistic approach.

The updates include an emphasis on implementation responsibilities, strengthening capacity and coordination among all actors in a humanitarian-development-peace nexus; sustainable funding and resources; strengthening legal and policy frameworks for accountability; acknowledging the critical role of education as well as psychosocial and mental health services; and challenging harmful norms that impede child protection. 

In countries affected by conflict, where children are particularly vulnerable, the EU is working to ensure regular, coordinated and consistent, diplomatic and practical engagement on child protection objectives, child rights and the respect of international humanitarian law. In 2023 alone, the EU allocated EUR 142 million for child protection interventions in humanitarian settings, with a significant portion dedicated to activities targeting conflict-affected children. Moreover, the EU continues its commitment to dedicate 10% of its initial humanitarian aid budget to education in emergencies.

The CAAC guidelines are only one tool at the EU’s disposal to support the plight of children in armed conflict. Other tools include political dialogues, démarches, the mandate of the EU Special Representative for Human Rights, bilateral and multilateral cooperation, support to international, national and local non-governmental sectors, crisis management missions, and cooperation with partners.

The Rights of the Child

The guidelines also respond to the EU’s global commitment to promote, protect, fulfil and respect the rights of the child. The EU Strategy on the rights of the child includes a strong external dimension with the EU stepping up its work to promote, protect, fulfil and respect the rights of the child globally, eradicating child labour, fighting child marriage, investing considerably in education around the globe, and protecting children from all forms of violence, abuse and neglect, including in a humanitarian context. The EU is also fostering child and youth participation at the global level through the Youth Action Plan in External Action. 

The Commission Recommendation on developing and strengthening integrated child protection systems in the best interests of the child also called on Member States to adopt an integrated approach to protect children in their external action, such as protecting children in armed conflicts, eradicating child labour and protecting children from climate change and environmental hazards.

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