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Friday, June 25, 1999 Published at 15:36 GMT 16:36 UK


World: Africa

The child victims of war

Tim Sebastian spoke to UN envoy Olara A Otunnu

Children are the biggest victims of modern warfare and need special protection, a United Nations special envoy has told the BBC.

UN special representative Olara A Otunnu, who deals with children and armed conflict, said the healing of young victims' minds was one of the greatest challenges facing the new millennium.

Mr Otunnu told BBC World's HARDtalk: "Children are precisely innocent and therefore you can fashion them into the most ruthless, unquestioning tool of war.

"Some of the worst atrocities we see in conflict situations, have been committed by young child soldiers, who don't know what they are doing.

"Now some of the children are forced to join up - they are drugged, they are kidnapped. Others are enticed through deception.

"But there are others who are also attracted by ideological propaganda."

Healing 'takes time'

According to the UN there are 300,000 child soldiers operating in 30 different conflicts across the globe.

Mr Otunnu a former Uganda government minister, has travelled to many of these war zones including Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Colombia.

He has seen child victims co-opted into armies, carrying weapons bigger than themselves.


[ image: Mr Otunnu: Protecting children's interests]
Mr Otunnu: Protecting children's interests
"The older ones begin to understand what has happened," he said.

"But there are also many of them who have now become so used to the culture of violence, to seeing bloodshed, to being in danger and to putting others in danger, that it has become a normal way of life.

"And a process of healing for them is a long-term project."

One of the aims of the United Nations is to raise the age limit for recruitment of soldiers from 15 to 18. But the real message, said Mr Otunnu, is to appeal directly to the war leaders themselves.

"Most of the wars today are internal conflicts - they pit neighbour against neighbour, compatriot against compatriot," he said.

"Civilian populations are the key targets."

"That is the reason why this office was created. To drum up greater awareness, to make people know more clearly what we are doing to our children in situations of conflict."

Mr Otunnu goes into war zones with UN teams and agencies to meet armies and urge them to think of their international image.

International pressure

"It isn't just governments," he said. "Precisely because most of the wars there are civil wars, we have many parties and we live in a world, fortunately, which has become inextricably interdependent.

"That is an ally on our side, because in such a world, to prosecute your war effort you need the co-operation of the wider world to get political legitimacy, diplomatic recognition, to receive arms.

"And once I come into a country and meet a leadership of a particular fighting group I then make it clear to them that we live in a world today in which the international community will judge them by how they treat civilian populations.

"I say to them, whatever may be your political cause, whatever may be the reasons that have given rise to your struggle, the international community expects to you protect civilian populations, especially children and women.

"The international community cannot accept that abduction, kidnapping, should be used as a means of political struggle.

"The international community can no longer accept that children, innocent children, should be cynically used and exploited as child soldiers.

"In every case when I've told them in the clearest terms what the international community expects, on humanitarian principles, they've accepted these concerns as legitimate concerns."

The vast majority of the victims of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo are children, Mr Otunnu told HARDtalk's Tim Sebastian. He visited Kosovo last autumn and in April he travelled to Macedonia and Albania.

Children are the most vulnerable people in any war, Mr Otunnu said. Schooling is interrupted, they cannot play together as children should - and the long-term trauma is deep and long-lasting.

"When families are separated children are the ones who are worst affected by this," he said. "I get angry and upset that we could do a lot more.

"My hope is that on the eve of the new millennium, part of what we shall resolve to do is to make this new era the era of application.

"Translating into action the commitments which have been made on paper."

It seems Mr Otunnu has a long and difficult task ahead, but he remained optimistic.

"When there is concerted international concern we can do it," he said.


You can watch the HARDtalk interview in full at 1530 GMT and 1930 GMT on BBC World on Friday 25 June. UK viewers can see the programme on News 24 at 2030 BST, Friday 25 June and at 0330 BST on Saturday 25 June.




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