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PRESS CONFERENCE ON CHILDREN AND ARMED CONFLICT

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

19 April 1999

The use and abuse of child soldiers was a destructive phenomenon that wrecked a child's life forever, and those who forced or conscripted children into battle had a "moral vacuum" at their core, correspondents were told this morning by the Deputy Executive Director of the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), Stephen Lewis, at a Headquarters press conference.

Mr. Lewis was joined by Reed Brody, of the Human Rights Watch, and Iain Levine, of Amnesty International. Those two groups were part of the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, whose report on child soldiers in Africa had been issued today.

Mr. Lewis said the press conference marked the important launching of that interesting country-by-country report on the use of child soldiers and their involvement in conflict throughout Africa. Its release was timed to the regional meeting starting today of the Coalition in Maputo, Mozambique, which was intended to build momentum against the use of child soldiers.

There were an estimated 300,000 child soldiers in all of the regions of the world, he said. Sadly, that appeared to be an increase of 50,000 over recent years. No region was exempt from the phenomenon, which, despite the best collective efforts, still continued apace. Indeed, despite world opinion and efforts by agencies like the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), UNICEF, and the Secretary-General's Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, it had not been possible to slow the phenomenon of child soldiers in any significant way.

Negotiations for one of the vehicles for slowing that phenomenon -- an optional protocol to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which would raise the age of recruitment to a minimum of 18 -- had proceeded with agonizing slowness in the last year. On the positive side of the ledger, the Statute of the International Criminal Court had indicated that the practice of conscripting children into international conflict under the age of 15 years was in the category of a war crime. There was a somewhat lesser measure for internal civil conflicts.

He also noted the recent decision of the United Nations to make 18 the minimum age for its own peacekeeping forces, which was further impetus for a target age of 18 for recruitment worldwide. The UNICEF understood that peace agreements must include the demobilization of child soldiers, their reintegration, education, training and counselling.

The regional Coalition meeting was particularly welcome at present, because the world needed to remember that there was more than one conflict presently taking place. The world and the international media were

necessarily and understandably consumed with the Kosovo crisis, but there was a place called Sierra Leone, and in that part of the world one-half million refugees were "on the loose" and desperate for support. Also, in Angola, some one-and-one-half million people were internally displaced, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Sudan should also be remembered.

It was appalling to enter the twenty-first century with such an "unholy mess on our hands", in which children were so often the victims, he said. War, poverty, displacement, and marginalization were the root causes of the horrific phenomenon of child soldiers.

Mr. Brody, of Human Rights Watch, added that children were being targeted across the African continent as tools of war. Of the estimated 120,000 children under age 18 currently participating in armed conflicts across Africa, a number of them were no more than seven or eight years old.

In addition to the obvious risks of participating in armed conflict, children were often at an added disadvantage as combatants, he said. Their immaturity might lead them to take excessive risks, and even when just a few children were involved as soldiers, all children -- civilian or soldier -- came under suspicion. Moreover, atrocities were all too frequently committed by child soldiers, sometimes under the influence of drugs or alcohol, which they might have been forced to take.

He said that the overwhelming majority of African countries set 18 as the minimum age for recruitment, whether voluntary or through conscription. Indeed, some countries, such as South Africa, were in the process of increasing the minimum age of voluntary recruitment to 18, and that country had already abolished conscription. In Angola, another country severely affected by the phenomenon, the Government had recently reduced the age of conscription to 17 years. In Burundi and Rwanda, the recruitment ages were 15 and 16 for volunteers. In Chad, parental consent had effectively reduced the minimum age of 18.

If domestic legislation was always respected in practice, then the problem of child soldiers in Africa would be significantly reduced, he continued. Many African States, including Benin, Cameroon, Mali and Tunisia, appeared to follow appropriate recruitment practices that prevented under-aged recruits to be enroled in the army. In many countries, however, including Angola, Burundi, Republic of the Congo, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Liberia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Sudan, and Uganda, children -- some no more than seven or eight years of age -- were recruited by government forces almost as a matter of course.

In still other countries, children were sought as volunteers, he said. When conflict had broken out in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, a government radio broadcast had called for children from the age of 12 to report as volunteers for enlistment. Many of those targeted had been street children. As a member of the Secretary-General's investigative team in that country, he did not get far out of the hotel, but even at that hotel, the team had seen eight-, nine- and 10-year-old children in the Government's army. Indeed, posted outside the rooms of some high-ranking government officials had been a child of no more than 10 or 11 years old, guarding with a rifle.

He said the problem of child soldiers was not only with governments, but also with armed opposition groups across the continent. Human Rights Watch had found last year, for example, that the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) had been abducting children as young as 13 years of age. The Hutu opposition in Burundi had systematically recruited boys and girls under 15 years of age into its armed group, and in Uganda, the Lords Resistance Army systematically abducted children from their schools and homes and took them across the border into the Sudan. Even children who had left the Lords Resistance Army were not safe: in circumstances yet to be clarified, the Ugandan army recently executed five boys between ages of 14 and 17, suspected of being rebel soldiers.

That data revealed how children across Africa were being deprived of their childhood, he said. On behalf of the Coalition, which comprised several non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including Amnesty International, Defence for Children International, and the Jesuit Refugee Service, he called on governments to stop recruiting children and to end all support for rebel groups that did so.

Mr. Levine, of Amnesty International, said that the launching of the Coalition's report on the first day of the Coalition's first regional conference on the use of child soldiers was an opportunity to raise the profile of the estimated 120,000 child combatants. The choice of Maputo, Mozambique, was significant, given the participation and deep suffering of the tens of thousands of children who participated in the country's years-long war. Three more regional conferences were planned for 1999, in Latin America, Asia and Europe.

More than 150 participants in the Coalition conference were expected, including representatives of at least 21 African governments, he said. Among the objectives of the conference was to heighten regional and international awareness of the problem of child soldiers, and to use that awareness to mobilize national, international and regional support, at the level of both civil society and government. The participants would also consider lessons learned in Africa, both in preventing the use and recruitment of children, and facilitating their demobilization, reintegration and rehabilitation.

Displaced children, refugees and street children were much more vulnerable to recruitment than children with their families in stable economic and social circumstances, he went on. The conference would look at practical experience on the ground, in particular by non-governmental organizations, to formulate ways of preventing children's recruitment. It would also build on the growing awareness of the demobilization, reintegration and rehabilitation processes, and the importance of incorporating those into the peace agreements.

Another objective of the conference was to consider the specific ways and means of ensuring respect by armed opposition groups for the standards governing the use and recruitment of children, he said. Many of the worst problems associated with their recruitment related to the involvement with armed opposition groups. The groups' position outside international treaties made it very difficult to promote international standards. The conference intended to examine the experiences with armed opposition groups, including in the Sudan and Sierra Leone, and attempt to find creative ways to work with those groups in the future.

Existing national and international standards would also be promoted, he went on. Those included the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of Children, which was the only international (regional) legal standard which set 18 as the minimum age of recruitment. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Geneva Conventions had set the age at 15. Although the African Charter had been approved by the Organization of African Unity (OAU) in 1991, it still had not come into force, because only 13 of the required 15 African Governments had ratified it so far. The conference sought to promote its ratification, as well as that of the optional protocol to the children's Convention.

He drew attention to some important speakers, including Olara Otunnu, and Graca Machel, who was famous for many things, in particular for the United Nations report on the impact of conflict on children. Angelina Atiyam, a Ugandan woman whose daughter had been kidnapped some two and one-half years ago by the Lords Resistance Army in northern Uganda, would also address the conference. Ms. Atiyam was a founding member of the Concerned Parents Association, which had been set up by parents of children abducted by the Lords Resistance Army. A recent United Nations human rights prize winner, she had been a tireless advocate for those children, and more generally, on the entire question of children in conflict.

Asked what was being done to remove suspicion about non-governmental organizations by governments throughout Africa, Mr. Lewis said he found it personally difficult to respond to the question because he did not share its premise.

In a follow-up comment, the correspondent said that examples of such suspicion had been evident in the Republic of the Congo, Angola, Rwanda, the Sudan -- almost everywhere where governments were trying to "kick out" the non-governmental organizations.

Mr. Lewis said that, as always, there had been tensions and problems in the relationships between civil societies and governments since the earliest years. Major humanitarian predicaments, civil conflicts and armed opposition had naturally led to situations where governments were impatient and anxious about non-governmental organizations. But, on balance, progress had been remarkable.

In another follow-up comment, the correspondent reminded Mr. Lewis that he, himself, had said that no progress had been made.

Yes, that was the case on the question of the demobilization of child soldiers, the reduction in numbers and the optional protocol, Mr. Lewis said, adding that that did not have anything to do with particular tensions between non-governmental organizations and governments.

He was one of those very fortunate people to be in Arusha more than 10 years ago when the first conference ever in Africa had been held between governments and civil society and multilateral agencies. It had been an absolutely fascinating undertaking. Given the elemental matters that had been discussed then and the tremendous tensions that had existed, compared to 10 years later with so much progress on collaboration, he simply could not share the correspondents' premise.

Another correspondent asked what had been done with the Sudanese People's Liberation Army and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone, in particular, to alleviate the problem of child soldiers, and how could that approach be further formalized?

Mr. Levine said that in the case of southern Sudan, the United Nations negotiations with the Sudanese People's Liberation Army in 1995 had resulted in a commitment by the Sudanese People's Liberation Army to respect the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Geneva Conventions. Obviously, that commitment had no formal legal standing, but it had allowed the United Nations and the non-governmental organizations working in southern Sudan to base their relationship with the Sudanese People's Liberation Army on a mutual commitment to certain internationally recognized standards.

Given that the Convention on the Rights of the Child still set the minimum recruitment age at 15 and not 18, it had not been possible to convince the Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army to accept age 18. At least it was a beginning towards getting rebel movements to recognize that although they were not legally committed to international standards, apart from certain provisions in the Geneva Conventions, they had a moral obligation to behave in accordance with international law. More recently, Olara Otunnu had met with rebel leaders to try to convince them to commit to international standards, including on the issue of recruitment.

Mr. Lewis added that with the release today of the opposition leader in Sierra Leone and the discussions that were about to take place, adherence to international standards, including on the subject of child soldiers, would undoubtedly be on the agenda.

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