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Press conference on Children and Armed Conflict in Central African Republic

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Children in the Central African Republic were being abducted, recruited into armed groups and denied humanitarian assistance, according to a new report by Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict and the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, entitled An Uncertain Future? Children and Armed Conflict in the Central African Republic.

Outlining findings from the report, which was launched at a Headquarters press conference this morning, Watchlist Director Eva Smets said a field mission conducted in January and February confirmed that four of the six grave violations defined by Security Council resolution 1612 (2005) were currently being committed against children in the Central African Republic. Specifically, children were being abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and being used as child soldiers by the LRA, as well as by the rebel group, Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace (CPJP), and local community-based self-defence militias. Access to life-saving humanitarian aid was being denied to children, while schools and hospitals were being attacked.

Ms. Smets said the report’s launch this week coincided with the Security Council’s deliberations in its Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict on the situation in the Central African Republic. Stressing that “now is the time to act”, she said the January re-election of President François Bozizé provided an opportunity to consolidate the ongoing peace process and create a lasting peace in which the country's children could reclaim their future.

“The ultimate success of our efforts to bring lasting peace to the Central African Republic will and should be measured against our ability to better protect its children,” she said, calling on the Government of the Central African Republic, as well as international supporters and major donors, including the United States, to take action and to prioritize children's needs in their funding.

Providing further details on the report’s findings was its author, Laura Pérez, who serves as Country Analyst for the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre. Also participating in today’s briefing were Patrice Effebi, Protection Manager for the Danish Refugee Council in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Jan Grauls, Belgium's Permanent Representative to the United Nations and Chair of the Peacebuilding Commission’s Central African Republic Configuration.

Ms. Pérez stressed that the LRA was quite active in the south-east corner of the Central African Republic along the border with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Since it began operating in the Central African Republic in 2008, the Ugandanrebel group had steadily increased its activities year by year. Its latest attack had occurred in March, during which at least 50 people had been abducted, including children. Typically, abducted children were taken to the Congo where girls were used as sex slaves and boys were used as child soldiers; all were forced to conduct atrocities.

She went on to say the report analyzes all LRA activities since a March 2008 in which more than 100 people were abducted, half of them children. Roughly 30 of those children were still in the hands of the LRA, while those that had managed to escape and return home — like all children abducted by the rebel group — had no humanitarian assistance or psycho-social care. According to the report, those who attempted to return home faced barriers to repatriation, with some reporting that the time it took to repatriate was equal to the time they had spent in captivity.

Turning to the issue of child soldiers, she said that children as young as 12 were being recruited by self-defence militias, owing to the failure of Government forces to protect civilians. Among other things, the Danish Refugee Council had found that more than 1,000 children had been recruited into those militias in the country’s north-west. Further, the Convention of Patriots for Justice and Peace — the only armed group that had not signed a peace agreement with the Government — was also recruiting child soldiers. Although firm numbers were impossible to pinpoint, it was clear that in the zone under that group’s control, there were no humanitarian services.

In light of that analysis, she said the report recommends that the United Nations increase its presence in the conflict areas, particularly in the zone controlled by the CPJP. It also calls for the establishment of a further United Nations presence in the south-east, in areas controlled by the LRA. There was an urgent need for funding of humanitarian assistance to those affected by the LRA's presence, particularly to provide needed care of former child abductees. Better coordination and logistics were also required to decrease repatriation time.

The report also recommends that the Government of the Central African Republic call on the self-defence militias to stop child recruitment, noting that it must invest in and properly train its armed forces in the protection of civilians and local populations, she said. In addition, the report calls on the Security Council to urge the Government to sign a ceasefire and peace accord with the CPJP, following that group’s recent announcement that it was willing to do so.

(Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict, established in 2001, is a global network of non-governmental organizations striving to end violations against children in armed conflict and to guarantee their rights. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre was established by the Norwegian Refugee Council in 1998, upon the United Nations request. It is considered a leading source of information on internal displacement caused by conflict and violence worldwide).

Speaking through a translator, Mr. Effebi noted that the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) had launched a child protection plan with the support of the Security Council and the Peacebuilding Fund to demobilize children from the Popular Army for the Restoration of Democracy. To date, 525 children had been demobilized from that group, allowing the Democratic Republic of the Congo to withdraw 417 children. Of the 108 children demobilized by the International Rescue Committee, all had been provided assistance, including education in farming and animal husbandry, as well as other practical skills.

Saying funding and resource constraints of that re-entry programme did not allow for a sustainable solution, he underscored the report’s call for flexible and sustainable funding for reintegration programmes that conformed to the Paris Principles.

Mr. Grauls expressed strong support for the report’s findings and recommendations. Underlining its timeliness, he noted that the Secretary-General’s report on the situation of children in the Central African Republic had been presented yesterday to the Council's Working Group on Children in Armed Conflict.

He said that during his trip to the Central African Republic in April, he had discussed the plight of the country’s children with President Bozizé, as well as with other Government officials and members of civil society. It was his belief that those meetings had helped prioritize the issue for the country’s leaders. While the Central African Republic remained a “donor orphan”, he hoped an upcoming donor conference would help identify funding for the various necessary programmes.

Regarding the Peacebuilding Commission’s work, he said its first priority was reinstating physical security to the region, with a particular focus on using disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programmes. The Commission was also working towards security sector reform and sought to increase legal security by boosting the rule of law and good governance, and fighting impunity. Together those efforts were aimed at aiding the situation of children, among others.

Responding to a question on the report’s recommendation that the United Nations should establish a presence in the southeast of the country, Ms. Pérez said it was within the Organization's power to so, specifically noting that two non-governmental organizations were already working in that area to provide education and health services. Moreover, there were flights to that region — including a United Nations flight — each day. Current travel restrictions required United Nations personnel to travel with military escorts, but that was not yet possible due to a lack of resources.

Asked if there had been sufficient efforts made to apprehend those LRA members indicted by the International Criminal Court, Ms. Pérez said Uganda's armed forces were present in the Central African Republic under a mandate to apprehend the LRA leaders, including Joseph Kony. However, that mandate did not include the protection of civilians, she added.

Replying to a request for further details about the process for naming a new Special Representative of the Secretary-General for the Central African Republic, Mr. Grauls said the selection process was proceeding and a final decision was expected soon. He noted a “growing nervousness” within the international community that something must be done in the region to address the presence of the LRA.

Echoing that thought, Ms. Perez stressed that that was regional problem and required regional action.

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