Sierra Leone

UNAMSIL Press Briefing 28 Feb 2003

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OLARA OTUNNU, SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE OF THE SECRETARY-GENERAL FOR CHILDREN AND ARMED CONFLICT

The most important thing I want to report to you is I am very impressed by the transformation which has taken place in Sierra Leone in the last two years. It's remarkable. At the broader level, the return of peace and security; access to all parts of the country; the successful holding of elections and therefore the consolidation of democracy; there is resettlement of population who were displaced within as well as outside, and the heartwarming signs of return to normalcy, people better fed, more relaxed, commerce begin to take place and people going about picking up the pieces of their daily lives. This is very heartwarming for me to witness and I truly applaud the people, the government of Sierra Leone, the international partners, United Nations, UNAMSIL particularly the UN agencies, civil society and the NGO community. My warmest congratulations to all of you for really what has been a remarkable progress in the last two years or so.

With regard to the protection and well-being of children specifically, among the elements of progress which is very impressive are obviously the resettlement of displaced children, the reunification of separated children with their families, the release and demobilization of ex-child soldiers, the incredible effort to reopen and rehabilitate schools. One of the things I'll never forget compared to my several visits in the country previously is seeing so many children, boys and girls in freshly minted smart school uniforms laughing, playing, learning, in facilities which are not perfect, but a complete transformation from previous times.

In addition, I'm just delighted by a number of key initiatives Sierra Leone has taken - to be a pioneering country in which UNAMSIL has integrated the protection of children in all levels; the first child protection advisors were posted to Sierra Leone; the training programmes I have seen both for military and civilian for the protection of children; the Voice of Children, this remarkable project that has been put in place is the first of its kind and now many countries want to emulate this; the National Commission for War-Affected Children which was inaugurated by the president a few days ago; the incredible rapport I saw in the countryside between peacekeepers of all contingents, Nigeria, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Kenya, and the civilian populations, and the way in which these peacekeepers have reached out to local population to rebuild schools and hospitals, churches and mosques, to provide for community centers and a lot of other services for local community. All these represent tremendous progress and particular elements which affect children specifically.

If tremendous progress has been made there are equally important challenges that lie ahead. As I leave, I want to underscore some of these in terms of recommendations. On the issue of education, much has been achieved but I appeal to all concerned - the government of Sierra Leone, the international community - to invest and invest and invest in the education of the children of Sierra Leone which is the best investment that can be made for peace as well as the future of this country. Fortunately, the young people of this country are a remarkable lot. Rarely have I encountered children and youth that are so talented, so dynamic, so enterprising, so articulate and bright and eager to learn. We must invest in these young people. We must not let them down.

And then comes the broad category of youth, both children and young people. It's the largest single sector of the population. It's a group that has felt alienated and excluded in the past. It's very important that policies and programmes be developed to include the youth, their participation, a dialogue with them, and above all, to provide them with alternatives in terms of education, providing skills and make them a productive and constructive force for consolidating the peace instead of becoming potentially spoilers of the peace process. This can go either way. This will depend on policies and programmes which are developed.

I have been very depressed moving around the country by the level of poverty, chronic poverty which has been aggravated by a decade of war. Part of the way out of this poverty lies with the empowerment of women. I'm very impressed by the women of Sierra Leone, so determined and forceful and clear. They want to embark on enterprises and cooperatives and agriculture and earn income for the family. This would then affect other areas which we are discussing. So the provision of micro-credit for women, the activation of agriculture - this is a country which is very rich in agriculture - this is very important for women for the youth, developing other means of income as a way of breaking out from the chronic poverty.

I have been particularly touched by the situation of the disabled, the blind, the victims of polio, particularly those who have been deliberately disabled during the war period what in Sierra Leone you call the amputees, which is too large a segment of the population. All Sierra Leone in one way or another are victims of the war and all needed to be attended to. But this particular category of victims, because of the nature of what they're suffering, the permanence of their condition, deserve in my view special attention, special policies and programmes. I've seen some of what is being done. I hope that the government and the international community will take steps to provide skills and shelter for the amputees and education for their children.

Another category of children whose experience I knew about in an academic way until two days ago when I visited the Koidu area are the children who are slaving away in the water-clogged diamond pits. It was a horrifying experience for me to witness children who should be in school, children who should be doing vocational training but who are slaving away in these pits with the hope of getting something. The key question here is that they need alternative ways of earning income for themselves and their families. A campaign of sensitization to convince them that alternatives can be explored and can be found as well as providing alternatives to vocational training and education. I've discussed this with the relevant ministries.

I'm also struck by the concern of the Sierra Leoneans on a couple of issues. They're deeply concerned about the resurgence of war in Liberia and the slippage towards war in Ivory Coast, and how this may undermine the new-found peace in Sierra Leone. I've already met refugees, 6000 of them, and I've met kids who've been fighting in Liberia. The prospect of destabilizing peace in Sierra Leone as well as possibly recycling children who haven engaged in war in Sierra Leone to become mercenaries next door is real. I appeal to the regional leaders, the leaders of ECOWAS whose efforts are very important, and the wider international community to spare no efforts to end the war in Liberia and to re-establish peace and unity in Ivory Coast. That would be one of the best ways to consolidate peace in Sierra Leone as well as the sub-region.

I've also noticed another issue of anxiety among the Sierra Leoneans. The donor community until now has been very generous. I want to thank them very much for their generous contributions; they've made a big difference. A good deal of the transformation owes a lot also to local efforts, to what's being done by the government, by UNAMSIL and UN agencies, but a good deal has been contributed by the donor community. I want them to know that their contributions have made a real difference on the ground where it matters, to the lives of children and women in these country. And I appeal to them despite pressures, in spite of the fact that there are many other situations of need, to stay the course, to please accompany the Sierra Leonean people for a while longer in order to make the gains I've referred to sustainable. And to the Sierra Leonean people, I appeal to them to do everything as one of them put it to me to enable the Sierra Leoneans to do the fishing themselves instead of being given fish to eat. In my visits around the country I've seen real determination on the part of the Sierra Leoneans to take charge, to take responsibility for their situation, but they'll need some assistance in the process of becoming self-sufficient and independent and being able to earn income and explore development for themselves.

May I say finally that I'm also deeply concerned about the social phenomena which has been aggravated by the war especially affecting children. I'm referring here to the phenomenon of street children, child prostitution, and the danger lurking and beginning to express itself in brutal ways of HIV/AIDS. Everything must be done by the government, by the young people themselves. I'm very pleased that the Children's Forum Network and other groups are working in this area, by the international community, by the vigilant campaign getting young people in these areas.

Before concluding, I want to say again that Sierra Leone is a country, a society with some formidable hidden strengths which are little known outside this country - the sense of national cohesion, ten years of war has not shaken that; the sense of religious acceptance and tolerance, the sense of religious ecumenism in this country among Muslims and Christians is wonderful at a time when in so many parts of the world people are exploiting religion for conflict; the strength of civil society, a good part of which is now being deployed I'm happy to say for the benefit of children; the talent of the youth; the democracy which you are now in the process of consolidating; and the natural resources of this country, the land and what lies below the soil.

Sierra Leone for many decades was the center for excellence for the entire West African zone in terms of higher education; Fourah Bay College was the equivalent of what the best anyone could have in the world for many parts of Africa. All of this is to say that this country has some very important hidden assets that together with the gains I've referred to earlier form a very solid base with which to consolidate peace and development. I'm very hopeful for this country and I'm very proud of the children and young people of this country. I believe in them, they've shown their potential. If we believe in them and invest in them, they'll offer a real opportunity for this country. Thank you very much.

Mr. Yousef Hamdan: Thank you very much Mr. Otunnu. You have highlighted the important progress made since your last visit. And most importantly you have pointed out the challenges that are still ahead and I'm sure our colleagues here will convey your message not only to the people of Sierra Leone but to the international community as well. I know, sir, that you're going to have an important meeting a bit later and therefore we will have a limited time for questions. Now I'd like to open the floor for questions.

QUESTIONS & ANSWERS:

Clarence Roy-Macaulay (AP): When all is said and done, what should the children affected by war expect from your visit?

Mr. Otunnu: I hope the visit will contribute to highlighting, consolidating the increasing attention which is being focused on children. I'm very impressed how this attention has developed over the last few years. But I hope this would be consolidated. I hope that this would then be translated into policies to favour children and young people in some of the areas I've referred to, and that this would in turn lead to programmes and resources generated from within this country by the government and by civil society and which are contributed to in part by the international community. And certainly as I leave Sierra Leone I continue to be a very vocal advocate for the children of Sierra Leone in whom I believe totally.

Musah Yamba (The News): You said you were horrified by what you saw in Kono. What are you going to do as ambassador for children in order to ensure that some of the schools being occupied by the troops in Kono are transferred to the school authorities in Kono?

Mr. Otunnu: I have already been discussing these with the responsible authorities in this country. Indeed, when I went to that area I had with me the senior representatives of the Ministry of Social Welfare, Gender and Children's Affairs. I had the local representative of the Minister of Education. I had with me the Executive Secretary for the National Commission for War-Affected Children. I had with me representatives of UNICEF and UNAMSIL and a number of NGOs that are active in Sierra Leone at the national and local level. I didn't go alone. I had with me the concerned actors who can do something about this situation together. I had been discussing these with the relevant ministers, including the Minister of Youth since my return to Freetown. I'll be discussing this with the Vice-President a little later. I know there are no easy answers here.

I believe there is a need for a sensitization campaign that seeks to win over the hearts and minds of the child minor, many of whom believe that there is no alternative to the only way they can support themselves and their families, and that one day they'll hit it big in this lotto, in this gamble of diamond-mining. So there is work to be done to change their attitude and their own mentality with regard to the usefulness of being engaged in mining. There is work to be done in terms of offering alternatives. Without alternatives they will never leave the diamond pits.

There is also the question of adult education which I was discussing with the UN country team a short while ago. Some of these children may be above school-age so some kind of education for adults would be very useful. There are some of school-going age who should be rescued and encouraged to go back to the school system.

I spoke about agriculture. When you look at the countryside, there are few productive sectors. But the more obvious productive sectors in the countryside is agriculture. Sierra Leone's neighbours don't have the same good fortune you have with the fertile land, the water, the fertile soil. So a programme that would target the reactivation of agriculture, for women, for the youth would be very useful. There are ideas I know which are being developed by the ministries and by the UN team. I know there are no easy solutions. You can't just say get out of the mine pits and they'll get out. That would make no difference unless concrete programmes are in place and alternatives and a kind of public education is offered to these young people.

Farah Marah (Wisdom newspaper): First of all I'd like to commend you for your kind visit which has helped the children of Sierra Leone bring out their grievances and their problems to you. What message would you like to leave to the people of Sierra Leone. For Margaret, we must commend you for your kind initiative in creating the Voice of Children.

Mr. Otunnu: My message to the people of Sierra Leone? I rejoice with you in the ending of the war, recovery of peace and stability in this country. With the hidden strengths which I've referred to earlier and the resources of this country, there is no reason why Sierra Leone cannot recover fully and develop and become a very prosperous society. You have to assume responsibility for this. You have to take the destiny of this country in your hands. And you have to identify and repudiate, correct the factors that led to the year of darkness in this country. I believe that can be done. For the young people, I say to them please you must learn, you must learn, you must learn. Whenever there are opportunities for schooling, even in a classroom which is half-finished, even if you're sitting on the floor, as long as the teacher in the classroom has a blackboard or something on which to write on, you must seize every opportunity to educate yourself. That's the best contribution you can make to your family and to Sierra Leone. And then finally, for both the young people and the adults, the adults I hope will begin to listen more and more and have dialogue with children and the young people and then the young people even as they assert their rights will take seriously their responsibility. With the rights, come responsibilities.

Christo Johnson (Reuters): Illicit mining is a very serious issue. When you talk about illicit mining you first talk about the adults involved before the children. In Sierra Leone, at least 12 districts are diamond-mining areas. I want to assure you that from the time you left Kono there would be an additional 200 children involved in illicit mining. What advice would you give the government with regards to children involved in illicit mining?

Mr. Otunnu: I think I've covered that part but let me return to it. First of all, about the gravity of what you call illicit mining in Sierra Leone, which is also true in Congo and other places. It's robbing the children of this country of their birthright in two respects. We're talking here about schools and hospitals, facilities for the development of children. It's absurd that a country which produces so much in terms of resources will go out in one door, then somebody should walk in the other door with a begging bowl asking the international community to contribute a little bit of money here and there to rebuild schools and hospitals. It makes no sense. The children are being robbed of their birthright to education, to health, by the stealing of resources that belong to the children of this country. It's a very grave matter. That's why the Security Council has made this a big issue. You should make this a big issue. There should be no tolerance for those who are stealing the natural resources of this country, wherever they may be, whether they're inside or outside the country. Now they're using children to exploit those resources. Instead of being in school learning, they're busy hacking in the mine pits apart from endangering their own health. We should be very vigilant and find ways by which the law can increasingly target those who are exploiting the natural resources and using children in this way. There are several elements that need to be explored, you would know better. Clearly a campaign that is seeking to win the hearts and minds of children who have now got so accustomed to living in this way will be important. They may believe there are no alternatives, and they are now condemned to live their lives in this fashion. A campaign of sensitization will be important. Secondly, it is important to offer tangible alternatives. If this is not the future for them, what is the future for them? Whether it's in schooling, vocational training, agriculture. All this will require policy, investment, I believe from the Government in Sierra Leone together with international partners.

Q: What advice would you give to the government with regards to the national education policy?

Mr. Otunnu: The children are very lucky to have peace and security restored, to be reunited with their families, to be able to sit in any classroom of any kind. My message to the children is whenever you're given an opportunity to learn, however non-ideal, however difficult, please seize that opportunity and make maximum use of that opportunity even as the government and partners continue to see how to rehabilitate more schools and improve the facilities. You must take advantage of everything that is there. To the government and the partners as I said earlier, clearly more schools need to be rehabilitated. New ones need to be built. It would take time. For the primary schools where tuition is free, one still needs income-generating activities for the family so that other matters such as uniforms, school materials can be provided. It's probable that some teachers are receiving their salaries very late but the government is working on this. New teachers need training. Where there is a situation where the need is so great compared to resources, what is important is I see movement towards making more gains, more progress, which means it can be done. It's possible for things to change. I want the Sierra Leone people to know that it can be done, and that you've demonstrated it over the last two years.

Christo (Reuters): How to you see the situation with Iraq regarding the children if Iraq is attacked?

Mr. Otunnu: It's difficult for me to answer that question. There're a lot of ifs. We don't know if there would be war. These matters are being debated. We hope it may be possible to have the disarmament of Iraq without a war. These matters are being discussed at the Security Council. We just have to wait and see and keep our fingers crossed that the worst will not happen. I cannot answer that in the hypothetical. I reiterate my preoccupation about developments in Liberia and in Ivory Coast - these are beginning to affect children in a serious way. Everything should be done to roll back these developments. I hope the Voice of Children will receive strong support; this will be an example for other countries. We should be proud of this pioneering project.

UNAMSIL Headquarters, Mammy Yoko, P. O. Box 5, Freetown, Sierra Leone Tel: 232-22-273-183/4/5 Fax: 232-22-273-189