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Press briefing on children in armed conflict

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The Executive Director of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), Carol Bellamy, told a Headquarters press briefing this afternoon that education was the most important means of preventing the exploitation of children in armed conflict. The early re-establishment of education programmes must be part of any effort to protect and rehabilitate children once a conflict was over, she said.
Also speaking at the briefing were the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, Olara Otunnu; and David Hirsch, President of World Vision. The briefing followed the conclusion of a three-day consultation to help shape the Secretary-General's response to the implementation of Security Council resolution 1261 (1999) on children in armed conflict. The meeting was organized by World Vision and attended by representatives of the Organization, UNICEF, the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Children and Armed Conflict, and non- governmental organizations.

Ms. Bellamy said the adoption by the Security Council of resolution 1261 was a very important welcome confirmation of the world's renewed and, hopefully, energized determination to put an end to the devastation of all wars. It was one element of a bigger campaign that had resulted in much greater awareness, at least, of the impact of conflicts on children, she said. That campaign had also led to the adoption of the landmines treaty and of the Statute of the International Criminal Court, and the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. (The Security Council asked the Secretary-General to submit to it by 31 July 2000 a report on the implementation of the resolution, consulting all relevant parts of the United Nations system, and taking other relevant work into account).

She added that there was a need for a global movement for children that would unite the United Nations, its other partners, non-governmental organizations, civil society organizations, the private sector, and, most importantly, children and young people themselves, to take on issues relating to children in conflicts.

Reporting on the recommendations of the consultations, Mr. Hirsch, President of World Vision, said the situation of children in conflicts was a threat to the future. The lives of children and their families could be improved if steps were taken to implement the Security Council resolution.

The participants in the consultations believed that children should be at the heart of every discussion of the Security Council, and their needs should be brought before every leader of the world, he continued. Recommendations adopted by the meeting included prevention of children from involvement in armed conflict and from the impact of armed conflict. They also called for their reintegration into society.

He said the work of non-governmental organizations in ensuring implementation of the resolution could not be a substitute for political and economic action by world leaders. Concrete proposals were required, he said, adding that general pronouncements would not protect children. There must be specific actions and the will to move forward on action. Non-governmental organizations would persist in seeking specific amendments to protect children, until all necessary parties took action. They would support all those who spoke out for the rights of children and would call to account those who remained silent in the face of systematic violations.

Mr. Otunnu paid tribute to the World Vision for organizing the meeting and for the important role of the non-governmental organizations Committee for UNICEF. It was a very good example of the kind of collaboration his Office would want to see develop. He also paid tribute to Graça Machel for her important role in producing a compelling report, which catapulted the issue of children and armed conflict to public imagination.

Mr. Otunnu said the issue of protection of children in situations of conflict was much too important to be simply confined to the corridors of the United Nations. It had to be embraced by all. His Office was very keen on a genuine partnership with civil society organizations, non-governmental organizations, communities of faith, and regional organizations to really build a social and political movement for the protection of children from conflict situations.

Asked what could be done to prevent the abuse of children during conflicts, Mr. Hirsch said one of the issues discussed at the meeting was how the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child could be enforced. He said the non-governmental organization community was studying steps that could be taken to prevent the recruitment of child soldiers.

Ms. Bellamy stressed the importance of education and the ability of keeping schools open to prevent children from being used as child soldiers, messengers or sex slaves. She hoped the International Criminal Court would come into effect, to prevent individuals from acting with impunity in using children in that way.

Also replying to the question, Mr. Otunnu said there had been a very important development in the movement to curb child soldiers. It concerned a consensus agreement reached in Geneva last January during the drafting of the protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The protocol covered the recruitment and the participation of children in armed conflict.

Factors that facilitated the abuse of children - economic, social and political - should be dealt with, he said. Resources were necessary to meet the needs of children abused as child soldiers. He also called for the drawing up of best practices, based on lessons learned in the successful reintegration of child soldiers into society.

Asked whether there was special focus on the needs of girl soldiers during the meeting, Mr. Hirsch said the issue was discussed. The meeting was told that many young girls were becoming heads of households in certain countries where conflicts raged. Ms. Bellamy said there had been some definite increase of girls' attendance in school.

Responding to a question on political will of governments, Mr. Kirsch said leaders need to understand Security Council resolution 1261 (1999) and that the non-governmental organization community needed to ensure that was done. A global system was needed to identify child abusers. There was also need for better training for United Nations workers on peacekeeping missions on how to relate to the needs of children in conflict situations.

Ms. Bellamy said there was not sufficient political will. Unfortunately, humanitarian interventions ended up substituting for really horrific failure of political will in the world today, she added. The UNICEF and others would continue to work to ensure that children in conflict situations continued to exercise their right to health care, nutrition and education. "We'll do everything from negotiating days of tranquillity, or zones of peace for immunization campaigns", she said.

Mr. Otunnu said there had been some good news. The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child had been agreed upon as a consensus document that brought every one on board, including the United States. It was a major achievement. Security Council resolution 1261 was a landmark document, he said. The creation of Child Protection Advisers was also a good development. Mobilization was needed to ensure the commitments made by governments were carried out, he said.