Addressing a press conference at the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) Headquarters in Freetown following a brief meeting with Ambassador Oluyemi Adeniji, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General in Sierra Leone, Mr. Otunnu said that during the decade-long conflict, Sierra Leone had been "an absolute hell" for children, a "symbol of the worst that could happen to civilians" during conflict. He said, however, that the country had undergone "a dramatic transformation" since his first visit in 1998, with "a definite return to peace and a credible measure of security".
Noting that the fate of children affected by the Sierra Leone conflict had long been a priority of the United Nations and of his office, Mr. Otunnu said "tremendous progress" had been made in rehabilitating child ex-combatants and reunifying them with their families and communities. He cautioned, however, that Sierra Leone "was not yet out of the woods", as there were still major challenges ahead for the nation's children, which he pledged to examine during his visit.
Over the coming week, the Special Representative will officially launch two initiatives he proposed in 1999 in his "Agenda for Action for the Children of Sierra Leone" -- the National Commission for War-Affected Children, and the Voice of Children, a radio programme run by and for children. Mr. Otunnu noted that each project was the first of its kind and expressed the hope that they would be emulated in other war-affected countries. He further noted that UNAMSIL was the first peace operation in the world to have a child-protection adviser on staff and to integrate child protection into peacekeeping.
Explaining the significance of the Voice of Children programme, Mr. Otunnu emphasized the importance of giving young people a voice and "an authentic participation" in the peace process. The Special Representative urged the children to take advantage of the advice and information imparted through the Voice of Children, adding, "It's your own voice, take it seriously." Several children from the project were present to welcome him at Radio UNAMSIL, which is hosting and airing the programme.
The Special Representative also praised Sierra Leoneans for their efforts to seek justice and peace through the Special Court for Sierra Leone and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. "These are exceedingly important institutions which we are watching with a lot of interest," he said.
On the subregional context, Mr. Otunnu expressed concern over the negative impact on children of the ongoing conflicts in Côte d'Ivoire and Liberia. "Regression in Liberia," he said, "is of tremendous concern to us especially as it relates to children". He also urged that measures be taken to prevent the involvement of children in the Ivorian conflict.
Later in the day, the Special Representative was briefed by the Registrar of the Special Court, Robin Vincent, on the measures the Court has taken to protect the rights of children who may serve as witnesses during future trials.
During his six-day stay in Sierra Leone, Mr. Otunnu is scheduled to hold discussions with President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah and Government ministers and officials, senior UNAMSIL staff and the UN Country Team, child protection agencies, children and civil society representatives. He will also make field visits Koidu, Bo, Makeni, Daru and Magburaka.
For further information, please contact:
In New York: Jean-Victor Nkolo, Communications Officer, Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict (OSRSG), Tel: +1-212-963-9879, Fax: +1-212-963-0807, E-mail: email@example.com.
In Freetown: Masimba Tafirenyika, Acting Spokesman, UNAMSIL, Tel: +232-22-273183/4, ext. 6817, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. 22/02 -- 01/03: March: Margaret Novicki, Chief of Outreach, OSRSG, c/o UNAMSIL, Tel: +232-22-273183/4, ext. 6817 or 6583, E-mail: email@example.com.