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Tuesday, 21 May, 2002, 14:18 GMT 15:18 UK
Olara Otunnu: UN Representative for Children and Armed Conflict

  Click here to watch the forum with UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, Olara Ottunu  


A special United Nations summit in New York has adopted an action plan to improve children's lives in the coming decade.

High on the agenda was the suffering of children in the midst of armed conflict in more than 50 countries around the world.

As highlighted most recently in the Middle East and in Afghanistan, the effect of war on children can be far-reaching and devastating.

Over the past decade, two million children were killed, six million seriously injured, one million orphaned and 20 million children displaced by conflict situations.

More than 300,000 young persons under the age of 18 are currently being exploited as child soldiers and sex slaves in as many as 30 areas of conflict around the world, despite a United Nations treaty banning such exploitation.


The topics discussed in this forum were:

  • His role
  • Child soldiers
  • Age of conscription
  • Middle East
  • Balkans
  • UN session
  • Landmines


    His role


    Robin Lustig:

    Wherever there is war or armed conflict, people suffer. Children suffer more than most - often they lose their parents or their homes. Sometimes they're forced to become soldiers themselves. The effects of their experiences in war can last for the rest of their lives. So what can be done to help children who are the victims of war?

    Our special guest today is Olara Otunnu, who is the United Nations special representative for children and armed conflict. His job is to act as an international advocate for the protection and promotion of children's rights and he's just been Angola in West Africa doing just that.

    So Olara Otunnu welcome to the programme. Thank you very much indeed for being with us. Let me ask you a question if I may before we take our first call. Everybody, I am sure, agrees that children must be protected. So huge United Nations conferences held at vast expense, complicated United Nations declarations - do they do any real good?


    Olara Otunnu:

    Yes, they do because first we need to make people aware, we need to let the world know what we do to our children in situations of conflict - they don't always know. Then we need to develop and agreed on standards for protection. In most societies there are boundaries which are drawn around the conduct of warfare - it isn't a free for all.

    Children, women, the elderly often are outside the targets of war. You face the armed enemy to overcome and to disable the armed army on the otherside. But this is breaking down so we need international standards banning child soldiering, banning the targeting of children and women, banning attacking schools and hospitals, banning sexual violence - systematic sexual violence against girls. Then once we've got the standards, as we now do, we then need to mobilise to monitor and report on what parties in the conflicts are doing on the ground for children and women and then use those who have influence - the Security Council of the United Nations, the Government of the UK, the OAU in Africa, the European Parliament - to lean on the parties in conflict and use their collective influence to protect children.

    Return to the top of the page


    Child soldiers


    Robin Lustig:

    Our first caller is on the line from Kampala in Uganda - your home country Mr Ottunu. Napoleon Adok, who is originally from Sudan. Napoleon you were yourself a child soldier weren't you?


    Napoleon Adok:

    Yes, I was a child soldier myself in the Sudan.


    Robin Lustig:

    How did that happen? How did you become a child soldier?


    Napoleon Adok:

    I became a child soldier as one of many circumstances. I was forced out of my village as a result of the war and I was not forced to become a child soldier but rather I found myself being lured into it by services like education.


    Robin Lustig:

    What do you think of the work that Olaru Otunnu and the United Nations does? I know that you've become a campaigner now for children's rights.


    Napoleon Adok:

    Yes, I've become a campaigner and I support the work of Olaru Otunnu although I have my own reservations about it.


    Robin Lustig:

    What are your reservations?


    Napoleon Adok:

    My reservation is that in the campaign against child soldiers seem to be targeting only the rebel movements, leaving the sovereignty governments - like the government of Sudan - to get away with it - also the government of Liberia. Recently I witnessed the mobilisation made by the Sudanese Government and it is recruiting children and nobody is talking about it. We have only concentrated on the rebels who have opened doors for campaigners to come in - human rights like the progress made by the SPLA.


    Robin Lustig:

    Let me see what Olara Otunnu says about that. You only target rebels - not governments.


    Olara Otunnu:

    Well first of all it's wonderful to hear Napoleon Adok's voice. I know him. We met in Nairobi a couple of years ago - it's wonderful to hear your voice.

    The new international treaty, which came into force in the middle of February, banning child soldiering, it applies to both government forces and to rebel forces. No person below the age of 18 may be conscripted, may be forced to join armed group and they may not participate in hostilities - that's across the board. In terms of our own campaign, in every country I've visited, I engage both the government and the rebel forces.


    Robin Lustig:

    Including in Sudan?


    Olara Otunnu:

    Absolutely. I engage all the parties in a conflict. Let me give you an example, when I went to Colombia in 1999, at that time the government forces had within its ranks people below the age of 18 and they were recruiting people below the age of 18. The president then made a commitment that before the end of that year they would release all those below 18 and they would stop recruiting any person below the age of 18.


    Robin Lustig:

    And they did?


    Olara Otunnu:

    And they in fact did observe and respect this commitment. In December 1999, no person below the age of 18 was left in the army. I also raised this with the rebels - the Farc - in Colombia. So we engage both government and rebel forces.


    Robin Lustig:

    There is though an enforcement issue isn't there and it was raised in an e-mail from Nairobi from George Ondati, who said: The UN treaty which bans children from being drafted into combat came into force this year - but can it really be enforced in practical terms?


    Olara Otunnu:

    The answer is yes and the place to look is not so much in a court of law - that you would haul somebody before a court of law - the place to look is before the court of international public opinion.


    Robin Lustig:

    There's no such court.


    Olara Otunnu:

    Yes absolutely. We live in a world which has become in inextricably interdependent - all these groups, rebels or governments, they care what the BBC says about them, they care what is said in CNN or in the newspapers. The little transistor radios that they carry with them - they want to be perceived as the good guys as people who are there to fight for a just cause to build a new society and not as destroyers of children and not as people who attack women and the elderly. So it is important that we monitor and report what they do - expose this.


    Robin Lustig:

    Napoleon, do you believe that there is such a thing as a court of public opinion and that rebels and others take notice of it?


    Napoleon Adok:

    Yes, they do take notice of it and in fact they actually commercialise on it as Mr Otunnu has stated, that governments and rebels alike they care about what the major media says. But that's where my problem lies - the problem of children becomes a commercial issue, brought from others campaigners and institutions merely as a fund-raising issue rather than the issues of the children.


    Robin Lustig:

    Do you think Napoleon that this new UN treaty banning the recruitment of child soldiers, will it make any real difference in your view?


    Napoleon Adok:

    Indeed I attended the ceremony - I was in Geneva in February and my statement was clear that this treaty is very important. It is very important because it is a landmark - it's the beginning of the way forward. If the human rights body, like the United Nations, has any activities planned, this is the road map to it and I think this will not stop us from continuing making a campaign from grassroots level.


    Olara Otunnu:

    Can I just say on that that to make this work you need to encourage support and empower local people at the grassroots levels - civil society groups, religious institutions, the women organisations, the youth groups - to campaign right there on the ground against the abuse of children. You need reinforcement internationally by key international institutions, you need the media to do their own work of exposing or naming and shaming those who exploit children - it is a combined strategy of all the key actors using their influence to protect children and to lean on those who are transgressing international standards.


    Robin Lustig:

    We'll take another call now. This is Zeinab Shyllon, who is in Sierra Leone also in Africa another country which has had plenty of conflict and plenty of children as victims of conflict.

    Zeinab, what do you think about the work that Olara Otunnu does?


    Zeinab Shyllon:

    Definitely he is doing a great job. I am a working partner in UNICEF here and UNICEF is a great supporter to those activities here. I am working here with street children and child soldiers happen to be among that category of street children. Now the focus here in Sierra Leone is the reintegration of the street children which makes up the ex-combatants and to actually reintegrate them into their communities and their families. So he is doing a great job and what we are looking for here in Sierra Leone is how the international body can actually support community-based organisations, local NGOs and even international NGOs to actually push this issue of integration forward.


    Robin Lustig:

    Do you mean financial support?


    Zeinab Shyllon:

    Well definitely - for every developmental effort there has to be financial, technical support, moral support and the like. I totally agree with him talking about people from the bottom actually believing and agreeing with the international world there that this thing is bad and we should refrain from it. Yes, we should start from the top here but definitely from the bottom we need the support from the local people.


    Olara Otunnu:

    You see that the future of advocacy and protection for children in situations of conflict lies with the local people within the countries which are affected which is why they need support in material terms by the international community.


    Robin Lustig:

    Money.


    Olara Otunnu:

    Money - they need support to build up their capacity for doing advocacy and for reaching and organising programmes to rehabilitate children.


    Robin Lustig:

    That means training I take it? Zeinab, training presumably also is an issue?


    Zeinab Shyllon:

    Training yes - in every aspect - training of the local people, training of the workers working with these communities to actually give these children a future and a choice out there.


    Olara Otunnu:

    But the international community - meaning the donor communities - UN agencies, international NGOs - we profess and we are committed to helping to build local capacity and partnership. But we haven't done as much as we should to translate our words into reality - to actually make this a real partnership in which local people assume responsibility and ownership and we trust them to do this work themselves.


    Robin Lustig:

    Let's another call also from Sierra Leone. Akim Ture is on the line from Freetown. Now you've lived through some bad times in Sierra Leone like everybody else I imagine - you grew up in war?


    Akim Ture:

    Yes I did.


    Robin Lustig:

    What was it like?


    Akim Ture:

    It was terrible - Olara Otunnu can testify to that. In fact I have some reservations about his work - he is doing fine work - but I do have some reservations about his work.


    Robin Lustig:

    What are those reservations?


    Akim Ture:

    The last time he came to Sierra Leone, I forced my way in and spoke to him at the amputee camp. He gave me this promise that he would turn his attention to Sierra Leone and help the children of Sierra Leone.


    Robin Lustig:

    You are talking to him directly now Akim. What do you want him to do?


    Akim Ture:

    I want him to pay to attention to the Sierra Leoneans who have suffered here. What the children of this country went through has never happened in the history of mankind. We were maimed, we were beaten by our colleagues that we had played hide and seek with - our friends and colleagues - we were killed by them. For 12 - 13 years - we were tortured physically, morally and in every way - it is unimaginable.

    Mr Otunnu can testify to that - he knows that. When he came to the amputee camp, there was a girl three months old, both her two hands were chopped off - so that girl is growing up without hands - there is no man that can marry her. He promised me that would pay attention to Sierra Leone - but he never did.


    Robin Lustig:

    Let's see what he has to say to that? Olara Otunnu, you've ignored Sierra Leone?


    Olara Otunnu:

    Well Akim is absolutely right that actually very few places have had children suffer as unbelievably as in Sierra Leone because of war. Sierra Leone is actually is one of the countries where I've paid most attention. I have visited Sierra Leone now four times since I took over this responsibility and I've helped to bring the issue of Sierra Leone to the Security Council of the United Nations at a time when attention was in East Timor, Kosovo and elsewhere.

    Part of my reason for visiting Sierra Leone in 1999 especially was to highlight the situation of Sierra Leone and get the international community to pay even more attention to it. Since that time, certainly in the work of the United Nations, Sierra Leone has become central. The peacekeeping in Sierra Leone has worked. The ending of the rebel activities has worked - indeed Sierra Leone is a success story which is now entering a new era of elections being freely held.

    What we need to do and we must work more on this is obviously the longer term issue of rehabilitation. The children who have been maimed physically, who suffer from trauma, who have lost out on their education, the abducted girls who were abducted in January 1990 from Freetown - 60% of those abducted were girls - how to rehabilitate and attend to the needs of these children is of course a big task.


    Robin Lustig:

    But you haven't done it yet?


    Olara Otunnu:

    It's a long-term task, it's a continuing task - it is going on as we speak. NGOs are busy in Sierra Leone, both local and international. UN agencies are very active in Sierra Leone. Bi-lateral donors - I visited Sierra Leone in the year 2000 with the foreign minister of Canada and I went with him in order to mobilise more support for Sierra Leone, especially for the Commission on war affected children.


    Robin Lustig:

    There's a long list there. Akim, Olara Otunnu says he's done a lot in Sierra Leone but you seem to be suggesting you haven't noticed any of it.


    Akim Ture:

    I would have loved it if Ambassador Otunnu had witnessed the elections in this place. I happened to observe the elections for one organisation called Africa Agency for Research and Implementation and Constitutional Rights. They came from Atlanta, Georgia - I happened to be one of their local observers. I went to a village and I saw a girl - she was about 18 - both her hands were chopped off. The girl went to vote and I asked her if she voted and she said yes. I asked her if she was happy to vote and she said yes. I asked her why - she said because peace has already come.

    We have the most the peaceful election in Africa - in the world - this year. Even the Americans can't compare themselves to us. I wanted him to come to this country and to come and see for yourself. I am appealing on behalf of the children of this country - please Ambassador, please pay your attention to the children of this country so that they will really reap the benefits of what you're trying to plan for them.


    Olara Otunnu:

    I hear you Akim and I share your preoccupation entirely. I assure you that there are very few places and there are very few children and youth who are as important to me in my work as Sierra Leone. Let's just bear in mind to put things in perspective. Sierra Leone is a country where war has definitively ended - peace has returned in which free elections have been held, where peacekeeping has worked. It is a country alas where the task of long-term rehabilitation remains but the work has started. In terms of progress, it has made more progress than the Congo, than Angola, than Liberia, than Sudan, than Uganda, than Sri Lanka, than Afghanistan.

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    Age of conscription


    Robin Lustig:

    Let's go now to Northern Ireland - Daniel Monaghan, Belfast, Northern Ireland. Daniel you're just 16 aren't you. So you have grown up in a country in conflict?


    Daniel Monaghan:

    I have grown up for the most part of my life in Northern Ireland - since I was 11 years-old so all my ideas have been formed there. I must say that the conflict here is easing an awful lot - there's a lot less of the extremely violent problems that you always see in the news.


    Robin Lustig:

    So what are your thoughts on this whole issue of how best to protect children and young people from the effects of war and conflict?


    Daniel Monaghan:

    I agree with some of the things that have been said that a lot of the responsibility lies with the people who live in the country and come into contact with this sort of thing day-in-day-out. For example, the situation at Holy Cross last year, where people on two sides of a very, very divided community were involved in hurling abuse at each other and very small children were involved there. But I'd also like to draw some attention to the fact - as your first caller mentioned - that not a lot of attention is drawn to governments and their use of child soldiers. Now the British Government is known to recruit under the age of 18 itself - you can join the Armed Forces at 16.


    Robin Lustig:

    It is odd isn't it - Britain which prides as being a developed nation, allows people to join the army under the age which the United Nations regards as the proper one?


    Olara Otunnu:

    Let me just clarify it. No participation may occur below the age of 18 - no conscription below the age 18 - but voluntary recruitment can occur at the minimum age of 16 with certain conditions being met but they cannot be sent into combat before 18.


    Robin Lustig:

    So what's your definition of a child? When does a child stop being a child?


    Olara Otunnu:

    A child under the Convention of the Rights of the Child is any person below the age of 18. That is why we insisted on no participation in combat or hostilities below the age of 18. But we had to compromise on the issue of voluntary recruitment - we had wanted that also to be put at the threshold of 18 but in the negotiations we had to compromise on that. Voluntary recruitment under certain very careful conditions can take place at a minimum of age of 16.


    Robin Lustig:

    So you see when we get an e-mail for example, as we did from David Grogan, Berkshire, UK. He said: Whenever people talk about the plight of child soldiers, countries such as Sierra Leone are usually the focus of discussion - but what about apparently "civilised" countries such as the UK and USA who still recruit children under the age of 18 into the army?

    So your answer to that is - it's a compromise?


    Olara Otunnu:

    It's a compromise. In terms of voluntary recruitment, no compulsory enlistment below 18 and no participation below 18 years-old.

    But let me say with regard to Northern Ireland - I have now twice visited Northern Ireland - first in 1999 and then just before Christmas last year. It's one of the conflict situations where children have been very gravely affected by the separation among the communities and by the involvement of young people in the conflict itself especially through the paramilitary groups who have youth wings. Increasingly kangaroo justice which is metered out with the children being at the receiving end for so-called anti-social activities in certain communities by the paramilitaries. And of course the indoctrination - it is us and them - the indoctrination that comes from adults. One of my hopes is that the efforts which are now being made in Northern Ireland will lead to healing. We hope that soon a Commissioner for Children will be appointed in Northern Ireland and with Northern Ireland being the first peace agreement that mentioned the interests and the rights of children specifically.

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    Middle East


    Robin Lustig:

    That issue of indoctrination - that issue of separation obviously is one which applies in many different conflict situations. Our next caller is in Ramalla in West Bank. Dr. Jumana Odeh, Ramallah - what are your thoughts on this issue?


    Dr. Jumana Odeh:

    I do believe that as a mother first and as a paediatrician that children all over the world have the right to live in peace and dignity. Unfortunately our children, as with many other children all over the world, don't live in peace nor in dignity. But I have a question for the Ambassador. You mentioned several countries where there are children in a war conflict and you didn't mention the Palestinians - you mentioned Pakistan, Sierra Leone etc. - you didn't mention Palestine. What do you think of that?


    Olara Otunnu:

    The list of countries where children are affected by war - either in the midst of on-going war or imposed conflicts - I list at least 50 countries - on-going conflicts, I list 30 countries. I have been deeply preoccupied by the situation in the Palestinian occupied territories and Israel. Preoccupied by the danger which has when posed to civilians, especially children and by the fact that the children need to have access to school - they need to be secure, they need not to be killed and detained. And equally, which is very important, that all children on both sides of the divide - some of the people, for example, who have been killed in suicide bombings - the killer has been a child and the victim has been a child. Both are unacceptable.


    Dr. Jumana Odeh:

    It is not acceptable for me too and I believe that both of them are victims.


    Olara Otunnu:

    Yes both are victims.


    Robin Lustig:

    Dr Odeh do you believe that somebody like Olara Otunnu and an organisation like the United Nations, can actually make a difference and can do any good or is it just one of those situations where the warring parties themselves - the two parties to the dispute - have to sort it out and have to find a solution to it?


    Dr. Jumana Odeh:

    No I do have faith in these organisations - especially UNICEF and UNESCO. The problem that during the last period after Jenin and the invasion of Israeli occupiers again into the West Bank, we couldn't feel that they could do a lot. I don't think the Israeli Government was listening and children always are the ones who suffer most.


    Olara Otunnu:

    May I just say that actually just a few weeks ago at the Commission of Human Rights in Geneva, I issued a very strong statement about the situation in the Palestinian occupied territories and Israel with regard to the protection of civilians and with regard to the issue of the application of international norms of human rights and humanitarian law. I also condemned the use of suicide bombers and said that the few children who have been involved in doing this and some of the victims who have been killed have also been children and of course the United Nations presence on the ground - the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine - UNRWA - is based on the ground. Now the work of the Security Council that is a different matter because that is not the UN Secretariat - that is member states who are members of the Security Council - they assume responsibility for their own actions.


    Dr. Jumana Odeh:

    I am not trying to find excuses for the suicide bombers especially some of them that were used were children - 17, 18 years-old, they are still children. I feel so sorry for them too and for the children from the other side who were killed too. But when they live all their lives in camps where there's no future, no hope - they feel so humiliated - every day there's humiliation. They're fathers are not working, they are so poor - so sometimes they find no future - like suicide bombers all over the world.


    Robin Lustig:

    That is a point which was made to us by a number of other people in e-mails, including a British woman living in the West Bank - Alison Cooper who wrote to say: As a UK citizen in the West Bank, I witness the resentment of Palestinian mothers and fathers. But if parents cannot stop the cycle of hatred in their children then how can we stop a 14-year-old child from strapping explosives to his chest in the name of freedom?

    Olara Otunnu, it comes back to the same question. If there is conflict children will suffer, the solution is to end the conflict.


    Olara Otunnu:

    The solution would be to prevent conflict occurring in the first instance and our efforts in every direction must continue addressing the social, political, economic causes of conflict - the exclusion, the discrimination, the denial of human rights, the playing on diversity to gain or retain power - we must address those issues. But if alas, conflict breaks out, it is an excuse to abuse, to exploit and to target children. In the midst of conflict in every society I know there are boundaries which are drawn regulating the conduct of organised violence - you don't attack children and women. You don't spear somebody who is not armed - an elderly person sitting by his house. This exists traditionally in many societies - it is now enshrined in international instruments. We must apply these instruments and insist on the special space for protection for children and for women and civilian populations. No attacks on hospitals or schools - on the targeting of children and women, on the sexual abuse of young girls and the recruiting and using of children as child soldiers - this is a no, no - unacceptable.

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    Balkans


    Robin Lustig:

    We have a caller on the line from Serbia. Tiana Tosic, who is 17 and is in Kragujevac, Serbia. Tiana, what are your thoughts as you listen to Alara Otunnu.


    Tiana Tosic:

    I heard what he was saying and I can only agree but I can tell him that it is not always the case. When Yugoslavia was bombed by Nato in 1999 and some hospitals, some public services and buildings were bombed. So lots of children died although this shouldn't be happening.


    Robin Lustig:

    So what has been the effect on children in Serbia of the conflict since that time? Do the effects last?


    Tiana Tosic:

    Yes of course. Yugoslavia has been in war conflicts for the past 10 years - since 1990 and we had a lot refugees - we really have a lot of problems. But of course there are still some consequences and children are feeling them the most because of the main consequences are some psychological traumas that children are carrying from the wars. Lots of children left without their parents and a great many children are without their homes right now - they're practically strangers in their own country.


    Robin Lustig:

    So whether it Serbia or whether it is Sierra Leone or whether it is Northern Ireland or whether it is the Palestinian Territories, the psychological trauma lasts perhaps for a whole lifetime.


    Olara Otunnu:

    These are the invisible scars of war. We see the physical maiming, we see the displacement at refugee camps, we see the starving children. We do not often see the psychological trauma created - and it is important to detect this as fast as possible and to seek to heal it.

    Let me say in connection with the question just asked. The Balkans - Bosnia, Kosovo and Serbia - these have been one of the zones where conflict has been deepest and where children have been worst affected. We are not talking about accidental casualties that children might become - we're talking especially about the targeting of children. When you deliberately uproot them, when you deliberately shoot at them, when you deliberately maim them, when you deliberately sexually abuse them because they belong to the so-called enemy group.


    Robin Lustig:

    But aren't these all the kinds of things which you were just suggesting a moment ago are generally regarded as outside the boundaries of acceptable conflict?


    Olara Otunnu:

    These are unacceptable by traditionally norms in many societies where war is not new and certainly by all the international standards.


    Robin Lustig:

    They happen, not only the Balkans, but in so many conflicts, civilians are targeted.


    Olara Otunnu:

    This is why we must now move from the elaboration of norms, the development of norms to their application on the ground. We must enter an era of application and that essentially is a political project. We have standards. Now we must move to lean on those who practice these abuses and sanction them by the collective influence and weight of international public opinion and influence.

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    UN session


    Robin Lustig:

    Our next caller is Tim Forbes, he is in Southampton in southern England.


    Tim Forbes:

    I'd just like to thank Olara very much for what he's doing and I fully support him. But his last comment and the comment he made earlier about naming and shaming and his recent comment about accidental death - the summit was held in America and I think it's disgusting that it was held in America when only a few months ago so many children were killed or made homeless in Afghanistan. And also in this summit they tried to suppress the Palestinian children.


    Olara Otunnu:

    I think the caller is referring to the United Nations special session on children which was held a few weeks ago. It was at the United Nations headquarters in New York - it was not so much in the US as in the UN headquarters in New York.


    Robin Lustig:

    Which just happens to be in the US.


    Olara Otunnu:

    It happens to be in the US. But let me say this was an enormously important session for children. First of all when the first session was held, ten years earlier, the issue of children and war was barely mentioned - today this is centre stage and the session was an occasion to highlight and underscore the importance of the impact of war on children.


    Robin Lustig:

    But what underlies Tim question, I think is the role that the US plays, first in hosting the summit but in his view also in being responsible for some of the victimisation of children and somehow escaping criticism for it.


    Olara Otunnu:

    No the US did not host the summit, the United Nations did. The US participated like any other member state and like any member state it has to explain its own action before other member states - whether it's action in Afghanistan or whether within the US or elsewhere. So there was no special role for the United States in that summit. But let me just mention that part of what happened in this summit, which is wonderful - we actually insisted and had children, young people themselves, participating in the summit.


    Robin Lustig:

    But before you get onto that, let's just stick with the US for a second. We had an e-mail from Rebecca who is here in London: How can we protect children? Let's start with the US signing the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

    Fair point?


    Olara Otunnu:

    The US has signed the Convention - it has not yet ratified it and we are lobbying for the US to join the rest of the international community in ratifying this.

    As far as the treaty banning child soldiering, the US was part of the compromise - there was a complete consensus. It has signed it and as I speak, the process is underway now in the Senate to ratify the treaty banning child soldiers.


    Robin Lustig:

    But you know there is a lot of domestic opposition in the United States to ratifying that treaty because there are people in America who think it's none of the United Nations' business how children are treated - that is the business of their parents.


    Olara Otunnu:

    Well that is not a view unique to the United States, there are other parts of the world where we hear these points of view. Our own view is that we can combine these various protective measures. Parents have a role obviously in the raising of children - the family has role. In many societies, the extended family and the village has a role to play. But that does not in any way contradict agreeing at the universal level on a number of standards which are common for the protection of children everywhere in the world - the world in which and in which we try to harmonise our actions and policies, especially with regard to vulnerable groups.


    Robin Lustig:

    Another call now from Belfast, Northern Ireland. Amy Magowan Green is on the line. Amy you're just 13 years old and you're interested and concerned by these issues? Tell me what you think about them.


    Amy Magowan Green:

    I was at the United Nations Special session a couple of weeks ago as part of the children's press and I was listening to some of the views there about America. Following on from what was being said there - it's not only the whole war that's an issue, it's also sex education that they're holding back on. I'd just like to say that children managed to come out with a document in three days and the governments just could not agree. That says a lot really.


    Robin Lustig:

    Amy you were there, you took part in some of the discussions. Did you feel that you were being listened to? Did you feel that anybody was paying any real attention to what you and the other children were saying?


    Amy Magowan Green:

    In a way it is being heard because they can only do so much. They're trying to listen to what they're saying and I think that they are bringing some of it into account. But also it's just a shock for many people that young people do have very serious views on it all.


    Robin Lustig:

    And you were depressed were you that you and the other children could come up with an agreed programme on, for example, sex education, that you mention but that the adults couldn't?


    Amy Magowan Green:

    Yes. I was the press so I wasn't actually saying things but I was reporting on what they were saying and what they saying is yes it's amazing that only this one time - this first time they are saying it and they can do it so well and in so many cases they just can't seem to do it to the governments.


    Robin Lustig:

    Olara Otunna, you were saying how important it was in your view that there were children present there. But apart from the symbolic nature of it and I can understand that - does it make any difference? Did the children say anything that the adults hadn't thought of already?


    Olara Otunnu:

    No absolutely. The participation of children and young people themselves in shaping policies and programmes that affect them is very import. That is why at this special session of the United Nations, we were delighted to have carved out a space - a significant space - for the direct participation of young people. When I visit situations of conflict - from Northern Ireland to Angola, to Kosovo, to Sudan, I insist and spend a good deal of time meeting directly with young people and children - in schools, in the refugee camps, in the transit centres, in the institutions for orphans - to hear directly from them their views.


    Robin Lustig:

    What do they tell you that nobody else tells you?


    Olara Otunnu:

    What they always say - it's very important for children and their mothers - peace - we just want to peace - tell the outside world to help us and this war.

    Secondly, schooling - education - they want to have access to schooling and many of them are denied this because of the conflicts. And then the children are the only ones to ask for recreational facilities. They want soccer balls so they can play, they want toys. In Angola the children were asking me, please send us some toys - send us a crayon to draw pictures. In other words, children want to be children again - they want to be given the opportunity to be children again.


    Robin Lustig:

    And that was something the adults hadn't thought of?


    Olara Otunnu:

    They had not particularly underscored this. But also what I find striking is the resilience, the sense of hope, the optimism of young people. I met them in the most incredible conditions but their optimism, resilience and spirit of hope comes through. With a little help, it's amazing what young people can do even when adults are having difficulties to do the same thing.


    Robin Lustig:

    Amy was just talking about what depressed her watching the conference in New York. Do you not get depressed? You go around the world talking to and seeing children in the most appalling circumstances - victimised, suffering after sometimes decades of conflict. Does it not sometimes make you wonder why you bother because it must look to you sometimes as if in fact nothing ever gets better?


    Olara Otunnu:

    I see a lot in the places I visit - I see suffering, I see hatred, I see atrocities - I see sometimes the worst aspects of our humanity. But I also see sometimes the best and most incredible aspects of what we human beings can bring forward. Usually it's ordinary people - children, women, the mothers - ordinary people doing extraordinary things making incredible sacrifices to protect the child of a neighbour, to take in and bring up orphans.

    In Rwanda, I went and met girls who were taking care of the their siblings because their parents had all died. In Kosovo and in Macedonia the refugees as they came out - it was poor people, ordinary people that were opening their homes, sharing their bread and soup with these refugees. The woman in Burundi who herself had lost eight of her children - all her children in an intercommunity fight but then offered to be a mother to the orphans and told me that taking care of these children has given back to her the dignity of the mother again.

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    Landmines


    Robin Lustig:

    Tamzin Jans, is our next caller in Paris, France. What do you think about this?


    Tamzin Jans:

    I've lived a little bit all over the world and I was Angola as well in 1985/86. I was in Vietnam and I was also in Iran at the time when there was the Iran/Iraq conflict as well. So I've seen some of the effects of warfare on children as well and seen some horrific pictures of children who have been maimed and mangled by landmines.


    Robin Lustig:

    Do you think that conferences and declarations change any of that?


    Tamzin Jans:

    That's what I'm wondering because when you see how even Lady Diana highlighted the fact of landmines and they're still being used - cluster bombs are being used in Afghanistan - so obviously nothing has been done.

    I am wondering if something is being done? Can a commission help to stop the manufacture of these horrible weapons?


    Robin Lustig:

    Let's just talk about that for a second - landmines and cluster bombs because wherever they are used children particularly are victims of them because they lie there for years and years.


    Olara Otunnu:

    Absolutely. We see this in Afghanistan, we see it in Angola and in so many other places where the use of landmines which has contaminated the countryside - children suffer worse because they're going to school - they step on the landmines, they are playing in the fields - they step on landmines, they go to fetch to water - they step on landmines.

    What is being done is the following: the most urgent is the landmine awareness campaign - I've seen this from Eritrea to Afghanistan to Angola where children are taught to detect and to be careful when they see things that look like toys, that are colourful and attractive and when in fact they are landmines.


    Robin Lustig:

    But shouldn't there at least be a rule which says to the people who make these things - you cannot make them look like toys, look like food parcels, look in such way that children in particular can easily confuse them for something else?


    Olara Otunnu:

    This campaign is already going on. Even better still is for them to adhere to the landmine convention - the Ottawa Convention - a treaty which bans the sale and use of landmines - this is already in force.


    Robin Lustig:

    So what about cluster bombs?


    Olara Otunnu:

    Cluster bombs belong to a different category to the Ottawa Convention about landmines. But if we began already with landmines being banned that would be a huge improvement and we must work to apply that ban.

    But let me also say that when you look and say what has improved. Look at Afghanistan - the ending of the war, look at Angola, look at Cambodia today. Look at the Balkans - only a few years ago when I visited in 1998/99, it was chaos and displacement, trauma and refugees - today we have a new situation which is emerging there.

    East Timor, which today celebrates its new independence. South Africa, Namibia. Central America - El Salvador, Nicaragua - Guatemala which I visited just a month ago.


    Robin Lustig:

    But all these countries that you mention are countries where conflicts have come to end one way or another.


    Olara Otunnu:

    And where the process of healing and rehabilitation is in full course.


    Robin Lustig:

    So the best way to protect children is to end the conflict.


    Olara Otunnu:

    Absolutely and this is what you'll hear over and over again. Please help us - please lean on our leaders, please tell the international community we want this war to end. So ending the war is the beginning of wisdom. That's why in Angola today, there is a hugely new situation because the war has ended.


    Robin Lustig:

    Well on the subject of Angola, we had an e-mail from somebody who said that he had been brought up in Angola - Paulo Mendes now in Portugal. Born in Angola and fled the country in 1975: I dreamt of returning and rediscovering my birthplace. Hopefully peace will prevail and my dream will become a reality.

    Let's take another this one is from New Orleans in America: Thiruvengadam Ramakrishnan, is there. What are your thoughts on this whole issue?


    Thiruvengadam Ramakrishnan:

    I am very interested to hear of this. I think there are a number of interconnected issues involved. The United Nations and other international organisations are doing a very good job in bringing the problems to the fore and to dissect it out and understand it better. But beyond that, in a practical sense, I doubt they could do much. But they are still necessary because unless we understand the problem, one cannot formulate any course for action. As regards children's rights - there are many rights - for instance the young person from Ireland talked about sex education - these are the social issues.

    But the right to live is what happens in countries where there is a war or a civil war. With regard to that issue, unless we end the war, we cannot just protect the children when the war is going on. In fact even if by some magical means you are going to protect the children from dying, if the parents die then the children become orphans - so we have to end the war and each place is a separate issue.


    Olara Otunnu:

    But you know that part of the progress which has been made over the past years is the fact that the Security Council of the United Nations - the inner sanctum for international peace and security has now integrated the well being and the protection of children as part and parcel of the international peace and security agenda. That their reports which come to the council, their resolutions which are issued, there are measures which are undertaken and in the field peacekeeping operations have child protection advisers to ensure the protection and well being of children.


    Robin Lustig:

    I want to ask you just very briefly before the end of the programme to respond to a text message which has just come into us from Ghana. Betram Turkson: How can someone like me and few friends, help child soldiers deal with pain and trauma?


    Olara Otunnu:

    First of all we must take care of child soldiers, traumatised children, displaced children, those who have no access to schooling - all these are victims of war and you can do so right where you are by joining an association, a local NGO, a church group - begin a programme, take care of an orphan. Right where you are, you can do something to help a child in need and a child who has been victimised.

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  • See also:

    08 May 02 | Americas
    08 May 02 | Africa
    27 Apr 02 | Middle East
    12 Feb 02 | In Depth
    17 May 00 | Africa
    21 Nov 01 | Africa
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