OLARA OTUNNU, SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE OF THE SECRETARY-GENERAL FOR CHILDREN AND ARMED CONFLICT
This is my fourth visit to the country in my present capacity. I first came here on the very day the democratic government was restored to power in 1998 and then I came for a full-fledged visit in 1999 when I met many of you. I returned in April 2000 with the then Foreign Minister of Canada Lloyds Axworthy for a very brief one-day-and-a-half visit confined to Freetown. This is my fourth visit, my second full-fledged visit to Sierra Leone.
Sierra Leone, and in particular, the fate of children and young people affected by armed conflict has, been one of particular priority to the UN and for my office. We have especially focused on this situation. We've been working with the government and UNAMSIL and with NGOs in this context.
I've come primarily for several reasons. First and foremost, to offer my congratulations and to join you the people of Sierra Leone and UNAMSIL in rejoicing at what has been a dramatic transformation of the situation in this country. For many years Sierra Leone signified an absolute hell for the people, especially for the children. Today you've got a full-fledged restoration of democracy. You've got a definitive return to peace and a credible measure of security in the country.
A lot of the people who I met many years ago who were displaced within the country or in Guinea have now returned to their home areas. When I visited in 1999, one of our biggest concerns was thousands of children had been abducted and enrolled as child soldiers. They have all been released and are now in the process of rehabilitation and resettlement in their home areas. There has been a tremendous process of reunification. All of which is to say that there are major and very noteworthy developments that can be called without any contradiction as tremendous progress in Sierra Leone for the children of Sierra Leone. I have come to see this for myself and to cheer you along and to congratulate both the government and UNAMSIL for this tremendous progress that has been made.
I've also come because I've realized from all the reports I've received that Sierra Leone is not yet out of the woods. There are major challenges that remain ahead and I want to see what these challenges are for myself and continue working with you to address these challenges but also to serve as your advocate before the international community to alert them to these challenges and to urge them to join you and support your efforts to address these challenges. I want also very much to be here because there are a number of initiatives you've taken with some support from the UN and certainly by my office.
The National Commission for War-Affected Children is the first of its kind. Other places are now seeking to do the same thing. I'm very happy to be here on the occasion of the inauguration of this commission. I'm also here because of another initiative you've taken, the Voice of Children, establishing radio programmes especially devoted for the benefit of children and by young people themselves. Again this is the first of its kind. We hope it will be emulated in other places. I'm very happy to join you on the occasion of the launch of these initiatives.
I have to mention another exceedingly important initiative - the integration of child protection, making the well-being and the rights of children an integral part not only of peacekeeping mission but also of any effort to reestablish peace and consolidate peace. Sierra Leone is also the first in that regard to do it in a very systematic way. Sierra Leone is also the first peacekeeping mission with a child protection adviser, an expert on children, attached to the office of the SRSG. Now there are other places in which this has been copied as well. I'm very keen to see how this is working and again to work with you to strengthen and consolidate this role. We have here today two child protection advisers. I've also come here to ensure that not only in Sierra Leone but within the sub-region of West Africa beginning in the Mano River area - Sierra Leone, Liberia, Guinea - you could add to this Côte d'Ivoire, where there are cross-border activities and developments concerning peace, security, children that we need to address.
Two weeks ago I was in Dakar for the ECOWAS summit at which an action plan for children was presented, and the ECOWAS heads of states welcomed this. So Sierra Leone working with the others will be very much a case in which you want to make sure that cross-border activities affecting children will be very much addressed. In that context I would like to say that I'm deeply concerned about the developments in Liberia where we seem to be witnessing some sort of regression in terms of peace and security, in terms of the well-being of children. I'm very deeply concerned about the developments in Côte d'Ivoire which for decades was the model for peace, prosperity, and unity in Africa. Today the war drums are beating and increasingly we're seeing an appeal made to young people. They're being mobilized, and they could soon be part of the conflict. Everything must be done to prevent this, to preserve peace and unity in Côte d'Ivoire, and also to prevent in any way enrolment and involvement of young people in that conflict. So these are some of the concerns that bring me to this region, to Sierra Leone. Again I'm delighted to be here. I look forward to the next few days and I'll be happy to take any questions you may have. It's wonderful to see you all again, and thank you for taking the time on a Saturday especially.
QUESTIONS & ANSWERS:
Lansana Fofana (BBC): You seem to be pretty much emotionally happy about the progress made in the peace process in Sierra Leone. You also mentioned the challenges that lie ahead. My concern is to do with these very challenges. We have had fairly recently some bit of security problems here concerning Johnny Paul Koroma and the attacks on the military barracks for example. Considering all of those developments, are you very sure that the peace process in Sierra Leone will hold?
Mr. Olara Otunnu: There is no doubt in my mind that compared to a few years ago, compared to a few years ago, in 1998 when I first came on the occasion of the big event in the stadium when President Kabbah returned from Conakry and the heads of state were here, compared to 1999 when came and I spent a week here and from here I went to meet the refugees from Sierra Leone who were in Guinea, and compared to 2000 when I was here for about two days, there is no question. In 2000 incidentally, the last person I met before leaving was Foday Sankoh at his residence. Barely a few days afterwards, there was a storming of the residence and a whole new unraveling situation. At that time there were still fresh mutilations that were still taking place. There were parts of the country that were inaccessible; I couldn't go to certain parts of the country, neither could government or UN officials. The RUF was still in the bush; the refugees were still in Guinea. So compared to that situation, what we are seeing today is a complete transformation, there's no doubt about that. I'm completely confident that the peace that's been reinstalled in Sierra Leone is definitive. This doesn't mean that there won't be setback, insecurities here and there, political difficulties. This is natural in any peace process. From what I've been told by Ambassador Adeniji, by Sierra Leone authorities, and from everything I can see, the broad picture is a very positive one and one of definitive peace. The challenges have to be addressed and this is a continuing process.
The UN is committed to accompanying the Sierra Leoneans in this process of consolidating the peace, and helping you in whatever way to address some of these challenges. I should mention that among the initiative, Sierra Leone is among the countries that adopted the process of justice-seeking and truth-seeking in the aftermath of conflict. In the case of Sierra Leone, this is translated into two important bodies - the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Special Court. We have supported these exceedingly important institutions and we have worked with you to make sure that the interest of children are fully protected in these two processes. We clearly hope with regard to crimes committed against children, that children would participate in this, that they're fully protected. We're watching this development with a lot of interest. I'll also be looking to see how the establishment of these two bodies are proceeding.
Equally important to us and my colleagues have just been briefing me on this, are the training programmes that are put into place. You in Sierra Leone have a very comprehensive training programme to make sure that peacekeepers both military and civilian are fully conscious of the importance of respecting, protecting the rights of children. This is a systematic programme that is in place. Sierra Leone is one among the places where this has been set up in a most systematic and comprehensive way. It's very interesting to see how this would work in practice.
Christo Johnson (Reuters): You've raised so many concerns, the situation in Ivory Coast and Liberia. When you look at the international world today, there's much talk as to how to solve the problems in Ivory Coast rather than Liberia. You take recent meeting of the ECOWAS in Paris, the matter on Liberia was discussed there. Do you have intentions of going to Liberia and meeting with the government there?
Mr. Otunnu: Originally, my plan was to visit Sierra Leone and Liberia in the same trip. Unfortunately, this had to be changed for various reasons. On this occasion I am concentrating on Sierra Leone. I hope on another occasion to visit Liberia. I did have a brief discussion with President Taylor in Dakar on the occasion of the summit of ECOWAS. I discussed with him the situation in Liberia now. I'm concerned about the well-being of children there.
You will also be aware of a development that is very important. The Security Council of the UN has begun a process by which it seeks to spotlight parties in conflict that continue to abuse and exploit children, especially exploiting them as child soldiers. The first report with such a list that names and shames, if you like, came out in November last year and the Council debated it in January. There are 23 parties in conflict on that list. If you don't have that list, we'll make sure that list is distributed to you either today or Monday. In this part of Africa, the Liberian parties both government and insurgents are on that list. Sierra Leone, which would have a long list of parties on that list, is not on that list. That already tells the kind of development we're talking about.
It's the regression in Liberia that is of tremendous concern to us. The situation in Liberia is of concern to the UN and ECOWAS, quite rightly. We had thought the situation solved, right now clearly there are difficulties that needed to be addressed. Please don't believe that because of Côte d'Ivoire, Liberia's being forgotten. The Côte d'Ivoire situation came so unexpected at one level, assuming such dramatic proportions with an incredible impact on the sub-region, and is one we hope that with prompt and concerted action might yet be rolled back, and for Côte d'Ivoire not to plunge into that kind of experience that Sierra Leone and Liberia went through. That partly explains why there's so much focus in trying to roll back the development in Côte d'Ivoire. Liberia is also of some concern to us, definitely.
Mondeh Sankoh (Concord Times): You said you came to see for yourself what you described as a dramatic transformation. What are your expectations of our children in terms of your visit here.
Mr. Otunnu: What I'm very much looking forward to is meeting with the children and the young people again, as I did in the occasion of each of my visit and finding from them directly what they have experienced to date. What do they expect of the community, of the government, and of the international partners who are here to help you whether it's the UN or NGOs. In the past I've met children who are displaced, orphans separated from their families, sexually abused, mutilated. One thing that always impressed me very much about Sierra Leone and the children is their incredible intelligence and tenacity. What is needed really is to create conditions in which these children can thrive. The talent is there. I'm very much looking forward what more needs to be done for the creation of such conditions.
Ibrahim Kargbo (Wisdom newspaper): We have listened to quite a number of people explaining projects and ideas relating to children in this country. It will appear that the focus has always been on those children in urban centres such as Freetown, Makeni, Bo, and Kenema. Yet when you look at the war in Sierra Leone, the most affected people are children in the rural areas. How do you remove the focus slightly from children of the urban areas to the children in the rural areas?
Mr. Otunnu: I'm very happy you've asked this question. This is an issue about which I feel very strongly. The Sierra Leonean society needs to be one unified society, one in which every child feels they have an opportunity they have access to, that they have a sense of belonging that their natural resources are at their disposal in an equal and equitable fashion. When I visited Sierra Leone in 1999, among the issues I particularly underscored in my report was that dichotomy between the urban areas and the hinterlands and the importance of bridging that gap. It's the reason why in 1999 when the conditions were very difficult, I insisted on going upcountry and seeing things for myself in Koidu, Kenema and other places. It's also part of the reason why on this occasion I wanted very much a discussion with my colleagues to be sure that I spend my time not only in Freetown but to go upcountry to see for myself what the situation there is. The challenge of bridging that gap is an important challenge in Sierra Leone particularly in regard to two important issues - providing education and health services. These two things tend to disadvantage those in rural areas. I was just asking my colleagues what is the situation today. I'm very much conscious of this. I want to see what is being done to address this issue. I'm glad that you've raised it.
Barry Williams (Voice of Children): The children in this country are very much pleased for giving them a voice. What message would you give this country regarding this project?
Mr. Otunnu: The Voice of Children (VoC) is part of a larger idea - encouraging the participation of children and young people in all activities at all levels, and in particular, to have young people and children be active participants in the peace process, in the consolidation of peace in the development of the country. It's very important to give children and young people a voice so they themselves can tell their story, give their input, and have an authentic participation of their own. The VoC is part of that larger picture and I'm very glad that through the efforts of all of you here, UNAMSIL, the government and NGOs that this has now come to pass. My message to the young people is to take the fullest advantage of this opportunity and to participate actively and make the VoC your own voice that will be taken seriously by the country, and my message to the others is to take this very seriously. I hope that this then in turn may be copied by other situations around the world where the children, too, need to have a voice and to express themselves. Obviously, I hope to say a good deal more to you as I proceed on the trip as well as the end of the trip. In between, I'm available to give my views as I go around the country. I hope that as many of you will be in some of the places I would be visiting. I'm delighted to be back here, and again thank you very much for being here.
Mr. Yousef Hamdan: I would like to commend the efforts of Joseph Roberts-Mensah, the Executive Producer of the VoC, and his production assistant, Eritrea Bairu. They've been doing an excellent job working day and night, weekend and weekdays, working with some 80-100 children, training them. With their efforts, they have made it possible to go on the air. We all salute their efforts.
Mr. Otunnu: Just before we leave, my colleague Margaret Novicki, known to all of you, will just highlight some of the items on the programme for the week.
Ms. Margaret Novicki: Let me just begin by saying how happy I am to see all of you again. I've missed you all very much. It's great to be back in Sierra Leone.
Just to quickly highlight some of the programmes. We hit the ground running. We have a wonderful programme that's been developed by the Child Protection Advisor here at UNAMSIL. Starting this afternoon, we'll be meeting with the VoC. We will have a meeting with the Registrar of the Special Court this afternoon. Tomorrow, we will meet with the Children's Forum Network and then we will also go to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to meet with the commissioners and also we'll see some paintings that the children are doing there at the site.
On Monday, the SRSG will have a courtesy call on His Excellency the President. This will be followed by the inauguration of NaCWAC at the State House at 11am. That will be followed by a meeting with NaCWAC and a meeting with the Justice Attorney-General and meetings with UNAMSIL senior staff and country team. Late in the afternoon, there will be a meeting with the Child Protection Network. On Tuesday, the SRSG will meet with the Executive Secretary of NCDDR, the Vice President, and the Prosecutor of the Special Court. He will launch the VoC at 11 o'clock. He will also meet with some of UNAMSIL officers on a plan of action developed for child protection in Sector West at Murray Town. In the afternoon, we'll meet with a whole group of civil society representatives - SLANGO, the Human Rights Committee, Inter-religious Council, and Campaign for Good Governance.
On Wednesday, he'll go to Koidu. We have a very full schedule in Koidu... We'll see some of the projects PAKBATT developed including the playground and we'll be interviewed by Radio UNAMSIL-Koidu. Then he will meet with youth groups and representatives of the War-wounded and Amputees Association. From there he will depart to Daru that same afternoon where he will meet with the Child Welfare Committee. Then back to Freetown in the evening. The next morning, he will depart for Makeni and Magburaka. He will go to the Jimmy Gbagbo refugee camp. There are a whole series of events in Makeni and Magburaka. On the last day of the official visit, the SRSG will be back in Freetown where he will participate in media activities. He'll be in Radio UNAMSIL's 'Tea Break', he'll have a debriefing with the UNAMSIL country team and will have press briefing with you, his first activity and his last activity. We'll have copies of the programme.
Mr. Hamdan: Thank you, Margaret, and thank you Mr. Otunnu. Thank you all for coming and have a good afternoon.
UNAMSIL Headquarters, Mammy Yoko, P. O. Box 5, Freetown, Sierra Leone Tel: 232-22-273-183/4/5 Fax: 232-22-273-189