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Press Briefing by UNICEF Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa

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Press Briefing - 20000208
Armed conflict and the HIV/AIDS pandemic had made sub-Saharan Africa the only region in which the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) was working where the conditions of children had continued to get worse over the past 10 years, UNICEF's Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa, Urban Jonsson, told correspondents at Headquarters this afternoon.

Speaking at a press briefing preceding UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy's two-week tour to South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique and Burundi, Mr. Jonsson reviewed the general situation facing children throughout eastern and southern Africa, in particular, the situation in the countries Ms. Bellamy would be visiting. Mr. Jonsson was introduced by UNICEF Communication Officer Alfred Ironside.

Mr. Jonsson said armed conflict, which had caused some 200,000 deaths in southern Africa last year, seemed to have an unlimited budget and high media attention. HIV/AIDS, however, with only limited media attention, had killed 2 million people in the same period. Very little progress towards peace had been made in the areas affected by armed conflict. Every third country was affected. In the Great Lakes region, the Lusaka Agreement was constantly being violated by all the partners.

He expressed the hope that former President of South Africa Nelson Mandela would get the Arusha process on the right track in Burundi. In Angola, the war was escalating, and civilians, particularly women and children, were suffering enormously. The situation in Somalia had not changed, and, in the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, both sides seemed to be preparing for new military attacks. The Sudan and Uganda offered one of the few promising signs -- the Nairobi Accord had resulted more normal relations between the two countries, as well as the return of some of the children abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army. The UNICEF and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had been helpful in that process.

He said that in most sub-Saharan countries, armed conflict was still regarded as a legitimate way to solve problems. Meanwhile, the HIV/AIDS pandemic had a greater impact - 10 times as many people had been killed by HIV/AIDS, and that number was rapidly increasing. Millions of orphans lived in the region and their extended families could no longer cope with the situation. In Zambia, the number of street children had multiplied by 10 every year for the last 10 years.

HIV/AIDS was the greatest social catastrophe in modern history, he said. It had an economic impact and was also threatening the little political stability left in some of the countries. It was important to get away from the view that African problems should be solved by Africans. Armed conflict and HIV/AIDS must be recognized as international problems. The international community should address those issues with the same vigour with which it had addressed problems in Kosovo and East Timor.

South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique and Burundi were all affected by the pandemic. Namibia and Burundi were also involved in armed conflict. The UNICEF response was to assist all of its country programmes in preparing for the possibility of an expanded crisis or emergency. Countries like Zambia and the United Republic of Tanzania were stocking up stores in preparation for a greater influx of refugees. The UNICEF was also integrating its emergency response in normal UNICEF programmes, so that when a crisis occurred the entire office could move into an emergency mode in 24 hours. It had also strengthened the coordination unit in Nairobi for the eastern and southern African region. Extra resources were obtained in order to improve regional analysis, as regional conflicts could only be understood in a regional context..

He said that UNICEF priorities with regard to the HIV/AIDS crisis were to continue to try to break the conspiracy of silence; accelerate support for preventing the spread of the disease among young people; reduce mother-to-child transmission of the virus; and assist AIDS orphans, who fared worse than war orphans. He noted that AIDS orphans were ashamed that their parents had died from AIDS. Ms. Bellamy would see some of the projects in which UNICEF was involved and determine how UNICEF's priorities could be implemented.

A correspondent asked if Ms. Bellamy would visit any of the regroupment camps in Burundi -- it would be a good way to spotlight the horrendous conditions in the camps.

Mr. Jonsson said that Burundi's President, Pierre Buyoya, had begun to discuss how to dismantle some of the regroupment camps. The UNICEF had reviewed the situation of how to respond to a large number of people coming out of the camps. Its stores in Angara in north-western United Republic of Tanzania were prepared to provide supplies.

Mr. Ironside added that the agency was considering whether it would be helpful for the Executive Director to visit the camps. No decision had been made yet.

Mr. Jonsson pointed out that UNICEF was sensitive about the risk involved, particularly since a UNICEF representatives had been murdered a few months ago when he tried to visit one of the camps.

Asked if Ms. Bellamy would discuss the subject of children involved in armed conflict, Mr. Jonsson said that she would bring up the subject when she met with the President of the Association for Community Development in Mozambique, Graça Machel. He recalled Ms. Machel's involvement in the cause of children in armed conflict.

Mr. Ironside pointed out that Ms. Bellamy would meet with all the heads of State in the countries on her itinerary, and the issue of children in armed conflict would be part of their discussion.

A correspondent asked for information about the "hijack" situation in the Sudan. Mr. Jonsson said that negotiations were continuing. The Government in Khartoum was cooperating in trying to find a solution. He hoped it would be possible to secure the release of the four people who had been captured.

In response to a related question, he said he did not know if the Secretary-General was involved in the effort to find a solution.

Mr. Ironside pointed out that it was not correct to call the incident a hijacking. The plane had been on the ground on a routine surveillance mission when the four members of the Operation Lifeline Sudan team were detained.