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PRESS BRIEFING BY SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE FOR CHILDREN AND ARMED CONFLICT

Department of Public Information . News and Media Division . New York

17 February 1999

Urging international assistance for the Economic Community of West African States' Monitoring Observer Group (ECOMOG), the sub-regional peacekeeping force operating in Sierra Leone, Olara Otunnu, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, said today that he remained hopeful about the long-term prospects of the country.

Mr. Otunnu said ECOMOG, which had shouldered a heavy burden in the context of pacification of Sierra Leone, needed the strong and enthusiastic support of the international community to provide financial resources, logistic support and equipment and communications support. Neighbouring States should also provide men and women for ECOMOG. He also urged the international community to make Sierra Leone a pilot case, with concerted attention to help make it a success.

Mr. Otunnu was speaking at a Headquarters briefing at which he announced a forthcoming trip to Africa, which would take him to Rwanda, from 22 to 24 February; Burundi, from 24 to 28 February; and the Sudan, beginning 2 March. In the Sudan, he would also visit areas controlled by the Sudan People's Liberation Army.

Commenting on the situation in Sierra Leone, he said that despite the recent reversals, he remained hopeful about the country. The key long-term objective factors there were positive, he noted. He observed that it was rare that a society emerging from protracted conflict remained as united and cohesive at the national level as Sierra Leone was today, especially given its diversity in regional and religious terms. It was also rare for such a society to have a Government, whatever its difficulties, that enjoyed such "a universal political legitimacy in the eyes of its own people".

He had been discussing this with partners within the United Nations and a number of non-governmental organizations in the context of an idea of a neighbourhood initiative by which a joint mission would go to Sierra Leone in the near future, when circumstances permitted. The mission would consist of representatives of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and his own office. It would examine on the ground what could be done within that neighbourhood.

He said his view was that there were initiatives that needed to be taken within Sierra Leone itself. But given some cross-border activities, recruitment and abduction of children, the flow of illicit arms and of displaced persons, there was need for initiatives which would include neighbouring States. The mission would pursue that in conjunction with the Secretary-General's Special Representative for Sierra Leone, Francis Okelo, with whom he had been discussing the project, in addition to colleagues within the United Nations.

Mr. Otunnu said he had been saddened and pained by the unspeakable tragedy unfolding in Sierra Leone. Recent reports had indicated that massive atrocities were being committed against the civilian population, especially children and women, including the cutting off of limbs. He was also deeply affected by the use of children on a massive scale as fighters in the conflict; the wanton destruction of homes and other structures, especially in the cities; and the kind of scorched earth policy being pursued.

The overwhelming responsibility for those atrocities rested with the rebels and their allies. "I condemn these acts in the strongest possible terms", Mr. Otunnu said, and appealed to rebel leader Fonday Sankoh to immediately order the cessation of those activities by his followers if they wished to have any political claim in Sierra Leone. He had further been affected by recent reports indicating that ECOMOG forces had also been involved in incidents of excesses. It had been a special pain for him because in two visits to the country last year, he had been struck by the exemplary conduct of the force, vis-a-vis the civilian population in particular.

He said inquiries had been made to the ECOMOG leadership by Special Representative Okelo, who had met with General Timothy Shelpidi, ECOMOG Force Commander, and General Maxwell Khobe, Commander of the Sierra Leone Army. Mr. Otunnu said the two Generals had acknowledged that there had been incidents of excesses, and that about 100 of their men had been arrested and were being interrogated. The commanders welcomed any further evidence of those involved and had promised swift action against them. They had given assurances that the incidents had not been ordered, quite to the contrary.

Mr. Otunnu appealed to the ECOMOG leadership to rein in their men, ensure that there was maximum discipline and to bring to book and punish those who committed excesses, given the exemplary reputation that the Force had built in Sierra Leone. Similarly, he appealed to the leader of the Kamajors, known to have been involved in incidents of excesses, to take immediate, swift and decisive action to bring those incidents to an end.

Explaining the issues he would be concerned with on his trip, he said that, in Rwanda, he would bear witness to the legacy of the horrendous genocide that had taken place in 1994, and to see for himself the situation of children, who as a result of the genocide, had become heads of families and households. He would also see the situation of children accused of participation in the atrocities and who were being held in jail, and would examine the issue of juvenile justice for them. The trip would also enable him to see whether enough was being done to rehabilitate, heal and reintegrate those children into society.

In Burundi, Mr. Otunnu said he would raise the issue of the increasing incidence of targeting the civilian population and families in the civil war there. Other issues he would raise were the use of children as fighters; the situation of those displaced internally, as well as refugees returning to Burundi from neighbouring countries; and the impact of sanctions, now suspended, on children. He would also seek ways by which the issue of protection and the needs of children could be incorporated into the Burundi peace process now going on in Arusha, United Republic of Tanzania. He had already raised the issue with former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, who had in principle accepted and welcomed the proposal. He said he would discuss with Burundi leaders how the proposal could be implemented.

In the Sudan, he said, he would take up with the leaders issues concerning the impact of the Sudanese war on Sudanese children. He would also seek the assistance and cooperation of the Sudanese Government to help with the situation of Ugandan children abducted by Ugandan insurgency groups, especially the Lords Resistance Army.

Mr. Otunnu would be accompanied on the trip by Anna Cataldi, who was recently named by the Secretary-General as the United Nations Messenger of Peace, and the Chair of the United Nations Working Group on the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, a working group seeking to develop a consensus on the movement to raise the age limit of children serving in the military from 15 to 18.

Asked what impact his visit would have, Mr. Otunnu said it would vary from one country to another. In the Sudan, he would also raise the issue of landmines, the use of children in the conflict, the targeting of the civilian population and the facilitation of humanitarian assistance to those trapped. He recalled that two sets of Ugandan children had been released last year through the auspices of United Nations agencies. He would hold discussions with the Sudanese Government and other neighbouring countries on how some of the cross-border issues might be incorporated in a neighbourhood initiative for that area -- separate from that of Sierra Leone.

In Burundi, he said, nothing could be more concrete than seeking to have the issue of protection and needs of children, as well as their recruitment and rehabilitation, incorporated into the Arusha peace process.

A correspondent asked whether Mr. Otunnu was in touch with any of the major corporations operating in Sierra Leone uninterruptedly during the conflict to get them to use their influence to stop the recruitment of children, including ECOMOG's use of children. Mr. Otunnu said he had no evidence of such activity by ECOMOG, and suggested that the correspondent might be confused about the reported use of children by the ECOMOG allies, the Kamajors, the civil defence force. He said recent reports suggested that atrocities were being committed by the Kamajors, and it was within that context that he had appealed to its leader to end the atrocities.

As regarded the business community, he said, information available to him suggested that international business interests were heavily engaged in the exploitation of diamonds and other commodities. He appealed to them, in view of the unspeakable acts being committed against women and children, to rethink and examine their own conscience.

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