U.N. Condemns Child Exploitation in War
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RAY SUAREZ: From the dangerous streets of Iraq to the battlefields of the Congo to the jungles of Colombia, around the globe children are living in war zones, sometimes even taking up arms themselves.
A recently released UN report on children and armed conflict cited five grave abuses: Child soldiering; abduction; abuse; attacks on schools; and sexual violence. Fifty-four groups were specifically named as perpetrators in eleven countries.
The UN estimated some six million children have been injured in the last decade from war, and two million have been killed. Thirteen million are internally displaced because of war, and two hundred and fifty thousand are child soldiers.
As part of what it calls a “name and shame” strategy, the report cited the armies of three nations as alleged violators: Congo, Uganda and Myanmar.
In northern Uganda, conflict between the government and the Lords Resistance Army is now in its 18th year. The anti-government force actively abducts children, forcing boys to become fighters and girls to become sex slaves.
And in Sudan, thousands are displaced and have been forced into refugee camps as fighting continues in the Darfur region.
Of those in the camps, many of them are children. The Janjaweed in Darfur continue the practice of using children within their ranks.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict was also discussed for the first time in the report. Also for the first time, the UN report issued recommendations for change and punishments.
They include a monitoring system to report violations, and international enforcement of travel bans and blocked arms sales.
Two other countries who are permanent members of the Security Council were included in the report: Great Britain, where the 37-year conflict in Northern Ireland drew criticism for the recruitment of children by paramilitary groups.
And Russia was noted for last September’s terrorist siege at a school in Beslan, in North Osetia. More than 300 children, parents and teachers were killed.
RAY SUAREZ: Joining me to tell us more about this year’s report and the ongoing discussions at the Security Council to get these measures adopted is UN Undersecretary Olara Otunnu.
He’s Kofi Annan’s special representative for children in armed conflict. And Mr. Undersecretary, maybe we could begin by getting your overview of the state of children in conflict areas around the world. Is it improving?
OLARA OTUNNU: Well, children exposed to war are among the most vulnerable anywhere in the world. We’ve been working on this issue for a few years.
And there are areas of improvement, but there are situations which continue to be very difficult.
For example, in Sierra Leone, in Angola, in the Balkans, in Liberia, in East Timor, these are all situations in which the conditions of children have improved relative to what they were a few years ago.
The number of child soldiers has gone down from about three hundred thousand maybe five years ago, to about a quarter of a million.
But beside this progress, there remains a situation which is entirely grave and unacceptable in most of the places where war are going on today, where children are being used as child soldiers, girls are being raped, where there is abduction going on, schools are being attacked, and children are being killed and maimed. And we’ve got to stop this.
RAY SUAREZ: You know, here in the United States I think a lot of people live lives, pretty ordinary lives. It would make it very hard for them to imagine the kind of children you and your investigators saw out there in the world.
Maybe you could tell our audience a little bit more about the kinds of situations you found individual people in.
OLARA OTUNNU: Well, typically these are situations in which war, mainly civil wars, have been going on, not just for months and for years; in many cases for decades– in Colombia, in Sudan, in Burundi, in Sierra Leone, in Liberia, in Angola, in Myanmar, in Nepal.
So most of these are wars which have gone on for years and therefore subjected generations of children to ruin. These are ordinary children like children anywhere else.
They are very bright kids; they are curious, they’re thirsty for knowledge. They want to develop and be the future leaders of their countries.
But the conditions in which they are born and the exploitation and abuse by the cynical leaders of groups which are fighting is ruining their lives, and they need the support of the international community to assure their protection and to assure relief for them.
RAY SUAREZ: Is there any particular child who caught your attention or whose story you heard that stuck out in your mind?
OLARA OTUNNU: Well, I recall very well visiting a place outside Bogota in Colombia and meeting a group of kids who couldn’t have access to school and to social services.
They were displaced children. But they were so bright. I came with one ball, a soccer ball, and the excitement in their faces. They began playing like any children anywhere else, and there were volunteers who had come to help them do some very basic lessons in reading and writing.
But these children, you see them in Sudan, in Wao, in Jubah, you seem them in Sierra Leone — which I visited, in Angola– you see them in Kosovo.
Everywhere I’ve gone, what is so striking is simply how eager and bright and spirited these children are, and how they do not deserve to be condemned to this life of ruination.
Fortunately today we have the means in the international community. We have the standards, we’ve got the institutions, and we’ve got the means of influence to make this happen.
RAY SUAREZ: The means, but does the international community have the will, Mr. Undersecretary? Is there an appetite in the UN to start slapping bans on travel, to stop sending aid to some of these countries, to make it impossible for them to buy weapons, for instance?
OLARA OTUNNU: Well, this has been a building process, block by block. It’s taken several years to arrive at this turning point, and we’re at a turning point of great consequence.
I believe that the Security Council will adopt the measures which are now before it. They’re discussing it right now.
That is entirely feasible, and I hope the Council will be able to adopt these measures.
RAY SUAREZ: By publicly naming the regimes, the parties, the institutions that are using children in this way, victimizing children in this way, by shaming them publicly and then calling for the UN to back this up with action, have you seen in the last several weeks that the UN as an institution is really willing to do this?
After all, we’ve known about children soldiers, about the use of rape as a tool of political violence for years.
OLARA OTUNNU: Well, this very fact of accepting this issue as an integral part of the Security Council agenda is a major achievement, is a relatively recent development.
We have been naming and listing offending parties over the last three years, and that has caused tremendous pressure on them. What we now want is not just to name and list, but to name and hold them accountable, and to do that you need both a carrot and a stick.
You need to have the names listed, impose sanctions, and then give the opportunity for these parties within a time-bound frame to clean up their act, to stop these violations on the ground. That is what we now need.
RAY SUAREZ: Stop those violations on the ground, or else what? What is the UN arguably prepared to do that might keep these regimes from continuing to victimize children?
OLARA OTUNNU: The Security Council can impose sanctions on the offending parties. Whether the parties are governments or they’re insurgent groups, it doesn’t matter. But the target is the party, not the country, not the state, but the offending party.
In addition, we’ve now got various juridical institutions. There are ad hoc tribunals, there’s the international criminal court that can hold individual leaders accountable. And we’ve got the pressure of international public opinion.
These groups do not want to be exposed in the media. They don’t want their names to be listed and be held accountable for abusing children.
RAY SUAREZ: Have any of the parties that were named in your report since contacted either you or another part of the UN and said, “We’re sorry we’re on that list. We want to do what’s necessary to get off it,” and started to work with you?
OLARA OTUNNU: Yes, indeed. In fact, this year’s list has eight parties dropped relative to the previous list, which means that there are eight parties which have, in fact, complied with what the Security Council asked.
There are a few other parties added, especially from Darfur in Sudan. But since this latest report came out, for example, we’ve had several parties make contact, including the LTTE of Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers, who contacted us to say, “We’ve noticed that our name has been listed. We want to discuss and we want to see how best we can address the violations for which we have been cited.”
We welcome this message by the LTTE, but we insist that immediate steps should be taken to bring an end once and for all for the violations for which they have been cited.
RAY SUAREZ: United Nations Undersecretary Olara Otunnu, thanks for being with us.
OLARA OTUNNU: Thank you. Thank you, Ray.