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Press Conference on New Report by Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict, 3 April 2012

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

Despite revamped policies to protect Colombian children from recruitment as into armed forces, efforts in that regard remained insufficient, experts said today at a Headquarters press conference to launch a new report on the issue.

“Risks for children in Colombia’s war zones are increasing,” said Yvonne Kemper, Reports Officer for the organization Watchlist on Children and Armed Conflict, as she introduced the report, No One to Trust: Children and Armed Conflict in Colombia. Accompanying her were Eva Smets, Director of Watchlist; Nathalia Salamanca Sarmiento, researcher at the Colombian non-governmental coalition against the involvement of boys, girls and youth in Colombia’s armed conflict (COALICO); and Christian Salazar, Deputy Director of the Programme Division at the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). The launch was sponsored by the Permanent Mission of Canada.

Ms. Kemper said the report was the first to describe gaps in the Colombian Government’s strategy to protect children. Indeed, while the State had recently taken important policy and legal steps, the protection of children overall remained inadequate, she said. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group, which had recently stepped up recruitment, was well known for its sophisticated methods of recruiting children, including peer-to-peer recruitment and other village-surveying techniques used to identify potential recruits, she said. Newer “paramilitary successor groups” that had emerged from the Government stabilization process of the mid-2000s were also recruiting children and deliberately using them as “hit men” to commit brutal human rights violations, including torture and murder.

Among the most disturbing trends identified in the report were attacks against schools, she continued. The guerrillas and the paramilitary successor groups often promoted their activities in schools, while members of the Colombian army had turned some schools into barracks or established military camps nearby. Both those activities placed students and teachers at risk of being accused of “siding with the enemy”, she said. Meanwhile, Government protection strategies excluded child victims of the paramilitary successor groups, which did not fit national definitions of armed forces. As a result, communities were losing their trust in the Government’s ability to protect their children, she added.

“This is a critical moment for the Colombian Government and the Security Council to take urgent action,” she continued, calling on the State to allow the United Nations to engage with armed groups in order to negotiate time-bound action plans with the aim of halting grave violations, in accordance with Council resolution 1612 (2005). Among other measures, she said, the report called on the Security Council and its working group to impose targeted measures against the FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN) — two of the most frequent perpetrators of child soldier recruitment — and asked it to send a mission to gain first-hand insights into the situation of Colombian children engaged in armed conflict.

Ms. Salamanca described an example of specific research conducted by COALCO, which had studied the recruitment of three boys in Colombia’s central region. Aged between 13 and 16 years, they had been recruited by an armed group and submitted to harsh military training, she said, noting that, although the three had survived, some of their friends had died during the training. The surviving boys had remained with the armed group for one to three years, and had then been sent home with a warning that they could be called into combat at any time.

Although the boys’ parents had lodged complaints with the Government, it had issued no official response as it did not recognize the armed group as a party to any conflict, she continued. Since such groups were not officially recognized, children were also denied the right to reparations as victims, and to certificates of “laying down arms”, which would have allowed them benefits. A major problem in that regard, she said, was that discussions on the topic of children in armed conflict focused on the nature of the armed groups, rather than the crimes committed against the children. Some of the paramilitary successor groups were still not listed in the Secretary-General’s reports, she pointed out, emphasizing that they must continue to be monitored until enough evidence was available to list them. “Violations against children must continue to be brought to light,” she added.

Commenting on the report’s findings, Mr. Salazar said it was particularly shocking that the age of recruitment was dropping, and was now at an average of 11.8 years. While saying he recognized recent policy efforts by the Colombian Government, as well as the reintegration of some child soldiers, he pointed out that the Colombian Institute for Child Welfare had reintegrated more than 4,800 child soldiers since 1999. Particular importance should now be paid to the reintegration of girls and indigenous children, who were disproportionately recruited, he stressed, adding that more attention should also be paid to the paramilitary successor groups.

Calling for a stronger focus on prevention, he also recommended an amendment to the country’s new law on victims and land restitution — a law “milestone” from the international perspective — which recognized as victims only those children who had left the armed conflict before the age of 18. That law wrongly assumed that children had a choice in remaining with armed groups, even after the age of 18, he said.

Ms. Smets said the report elaborated research findings on violations of the rights of children, including their recruitment and sexual violence against them. It also offered policy recommendations for actions that could be taken to better protect children. The findings were based on field research, particularly interviews with the affected children and their families, community leaders, teachers, Government officials, United Nations agencies and other actors. She said the report was being launched to coincide with the start of deliberations of the Security Council’s Working Group on Children in Armed Conflict, which was set to consider the Secretary-General’s second report on the situation of Colombian children in armed conflict.

Asked why the International Criminal Court had not yet brought cases of child recruitment in Colombia, Ms. Salamanca said COALCO had been making inquiries about bringing in the Court, but that did not seem to be on the immediate horizon. However, efforts being made nationally were working slowly, “but they are working”.

Ms. Kemper added that there did not seem to be sufficient repercussions for the FARC in particular, which had consistently been listed as a recruiter of child soldiers. Whether the International Criminal Court was the right avenue to take was another question, she said, noting that Colombia had its own well-functioning justice system.

Responding to a question about specific efforts in the area of prevention, Mr. Salazar said a major problem was the general lack of policies on youth. There were few good offers in education, and few good job options; moreover, there was no comprehensive approach to young people, especially poor young people, he said. In such a context, money and gifts offered by armed groups were a major draw, he said, stressing that building a comprehensive approach, including by strengthening schools and involving parents, was an important part of any prevention measure.

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