TOPICS > World

Children at War

December 25, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: For the first time the United Nations has issued a report denouncing by name governments and guerrilla groups that have recruited children to fight their wars. The UN Children’s Fund estimates that some 300,000 child soldiers are active in 40 countries — most of them in Africa and East Asia. The report focuses on 23 parties to conflict in five situations including three factions in Afghanistan. Joining us now to discuss this new report is UN Undersecretary General Olara Otunnu, Kofi Annan’s special representative for children and armed conflict. Mr. Otunnu, welcome.

OLARA OTUNNU: Thank you. Delighted to be here.

TERENCE SMITH: In your report, you decide this time, this year, to name names, and that’s a change. Why?

OLARA OTUNNU: Well, this is really breaking new ground, because the signal, which is being sent by the Security Council is that the international community is now prepared to move from the elaboration, the development, the enunciation of standards and norms and rules into their application on the ground where they can make a difference in the lives of children. And secondly, it’s a notice to parties in conflict that the international community is watching and that they will be held responsible. They will be accountable for what they do to children in zones under their control. So it’s the beginning of a process of not only spotlighting the conduct of parties in conflict, but monitoring and reporting on what they do to children, and then mobilizing international public opinion and pressure to change their conduct.

TERENCE SMITH: Let’s talk about some of the specifics that you do identify, beginning with Afghanistan, where you cite in the report this activity by the Northern Alliance which was, of course, a U.S. ally in the recent fighting there, as well as the Taliban and another group in the South. So the Northern Alliance, a U.S. ally.

OLARA OTUNNU: Well, the situation for children in Afghanistan has changed much for the better. The sense of newfound freedom, children — both boys and girls– going back to school — the hunger for knowledge — I visited Afghanistan in July and was very heartened by what I saw. They need more support for schooling, for nutrition as well as for health facilities. But, of course, the issue of child soldiering remains relevant in some of the factions which are still operating in the provinces. The government itself is not recruiting underage, young persons. Its policy and practice is very clear. But some of the factions continue to recruit and use children as child soldiers. So we must bring influence and pressure to bear on them to stop doing this and join the positive movement towards change in Afghanistan.

TERENCE SMITH: What about some of the other nations and groups that you reference? What are some of the most egregious?

OLARA OTUNNU: Well, the Security Council on this occasion has confined the list… has asked for the list to be confined to situations on the Security Council’s agenda. There are other situations of conflict which are not on the list. For example, the situation in Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers has been one of the worst recruiters and users of children as child soldiers. In Myamar, various factions have been involved in recruiting and using children. In Chechnya, the insurgency enlist young persons. They also use them to plant land mines and explosives. In Columbia, in South America, the insurgency, the south defense paramilitaries are all very much involved in recruiting and using children. The government does not. The government now has set age 18 for recruiting and using young persons in the army.

But these are situations which are not on the Security Council’s agenda. So they’re discussed in the Secretary General’s report. They’re of deep concern to us but they’re not on the list. The list is only for situations on the Security Council’s agenda. That’s why the Democratic Republic of Congo is there, Somalia is there, and you’ve got Afghanistan there, and Liberia is there. There are other situations where war has ended: Angola, Sierra Leone, the Balkans, which only barely a year ago was a tremendous concern to us. But with the ending of the war, although the legacy of child soldiering is there, we are now talking about demobilization, rehabilitation, healing, and getting the children back to school. This is good news, and that’s why they’re not on the list.

TERENCE SMITH: When you use the term “recruit,” does that mean recruit at the point of a gun?

OLARA OTUNNU: There are various factors that lead to children being exploited as child soldiers. Some children are outright forced. Some are abducted. Many are enticed by false promises. “Come and join us. We’ll provide school for you. We’ll give you a scholarship.” There are others who join fighting groups because the authorities don’t exist because of the generalized socioeconomic collapse within society, fragmentation. There’s no schooling. The family is divided and fled, so the fighting groups in that situation look attractive, and then there are young people who are attracted by the appeal of ideology, whether it is ethnic, religious, regional or political ideology. “Come fight for our homeland, come fight for democracy. Come fight for our religion or for our ethnic group.” So there are many factors that lead to the exploitation of children. We need to address all these factors in order to end this particularly pernicious practice.

TERENCE SMITH: You’ve been working on this problem for some time. Do you feel you’re making some progress in terms of getting the international community to focus on it, and then to actually take steps to improve the situation?

OLARA OTUNNU: Oh, absolutely. This report, for example, demonstrates the fact that today the protection and well-being of children who are caught up in situations of conflict have become an important aspect of the peace and security agenda of the United Nations. This is very, very good news. We also have over the last few years money to put in place very important standards, conventions and rules. For example, the so-called optional protocol has now come into force. As of February this year, we set the age limit for any person to participate in conflict at the age of 18. The United States has just ratified this particular convention. It’s become a party to the optional protocol. We’re very pleased by this.

We’ve got the statute, which sets up the new international criminal court. In that treaty, there are a number of actions which have been classified as war crimes, actions against children, recruitment and use of children as child soldiers; the attacks on schools and hospitals; grave sexual violence against children. All these have now become crimes of war, which can be prosecuted. Individuals are held accountable for that. So that in terms of standards and norms, we’ve made tremendous progress. What we must now do is move to apply these standards on the ground, which is why the naming and shaming, the highlighting of the conduct of parties in conflict is so important. And this report is a major new step in that direction.

TERENCE SMITH: Mr. Otunnu, thank you very much.

OLARA OTUNNU: Thank you.