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At War With Children

Program 9904
January 26, 1999


Olara Otunnu, Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict

This text has been professionally transcribed. However, for timely distribution, it has not been edited or proofread against the tape.

JEFF MARTIN: This is Common Ground, a program on world affairs and the people who shape events.

If you are a parent, or an aunt or uncle, or a teacher, or for any other reason have a sense of how precious a child is, these images will hurt you. Imagine a 10- or 12-year-old child being given a gun and sent to the front lines to fight for a cause. Or imagine that child targeted for murder, mutilation, or rape, again in the name of a cause. Or imagine that child set adrift to wander the countryside after her or his home, school, village, town, has been destroyed. If you were to travel to the locations of more than 30 conflicts around the world you wouldn’t have to imagine those scenes. You would scene them for real.

OLARA OTUNNU: There’s been a qualitative shift in the very nature and conduct of warfare. It has the world upside down. Most of these are woman and children. Most of these are deliberate targeting of homes and civilian sites and civilian populations.

MARTIN: In this edition of Common Ground, an interview with, Olara Otunnu, the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict.

OTUNNU: The future of our society and the future of our civilization is very much at stake if we do not protect children from the impact of war.

MARTIN: Common Ground is produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Jeff Martin.

MARTIN: It is September 1990. Most of the world’s leaders are meeting in New York for the United Nations Special Summit for Children. One of the topics discussed there is the spreading abuse and brutalization of children in wars. At the summit it is decided that UNICEF, the UN Children’s Fund, should conduct a study of the problem. UNICEF hands that to task to Graca Machel, the former Education Minister and former first Lady of Mozambique. She traveled to the sites of armed conflicts all around the world and in 1996 issued her report. One of Machel’s conclusions was that the world does not need a new treaty to protect it’s children. In a 1996 interview with Common Ground she said all that is needed is better enforcement of the treaties that are already in place.

GRACA MACHEL: What we need is the enforcement of the international standards which already do exist. I think this is a major problem which the international community is faced with. Even countries which have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, they are not implementing correctly. And it is really an important work to be done, to bring the member states to comply with what they have made as a commitment when they ratified the Convention. There is a long way to go in terms of implementation. Even, in certain cases, in cases involving them in conflict. There are some governments who are doing that.

MARTIN: In the wake of Machel’s report the UN General Assembly decided that there should be a Special Representative to follow up on the report’s recommendations. In 1997 Olara Otunnu, a highly regarded diplomat from Uganda, was named to that post. In an interview last December, Otunnu said his small office was responsible for all aspects of the impact that war has on children.

OTUNNU: [We are responsible for] all aspects of the victimization of children in situations of conflict. Children who are killed; children who are displaced. The largest number of refugees, and those who are displaced within their countries are children. Children who are traumatized as a result of being exposed to violence. Children who are used as child soldiers. Children who are sexually abused. Children who suffer disproportionately from the impact of land mines. So all those aspects come within this mandate.

MARTIN: In your report to the General Assembly that you did earlier this Fall you talked early on about a breakdown of values. Can you expound on that a little bit.

OTUNNU: There are two pillars, two normative pillars, pillars of standards on which we can fasten the claim for the protection of children. The one are the standards which have been developed internationally. Especially in the last 50 years beginning with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Geneva Convention, the Convention of the Rights of the Child, to even very recently the Rome Treaty on the statute of the International Criminal Court. So there is a whole repertoire of very impressive international standards providing for the protection of children. That’s one level.

But locally, within most societies, are local value systems that spoke to the same ethos, the protection of children, the welfare of children. It provided taboos, it provided the does and don’ts even in situations of conflict. And what we are seeing is that the international norms, by and large, have not taken root. They are not being applied on the ground. The local values, which called people to order for so long within their own societies, have been undermined radically. In some cases have collapsed altogether because of prolonged exposure to conflict. The result then is an ethical vacuum. It is a free-for-all in which women, children, the elderly, they’ve all become fair game in this absolutely ruthless struggle for power, in so many situations of conflict in the world. That is the crisis of values we are facing.

MARTIN: Do you have any idea why this has happened?

OTUNNU: Well, I think it is in part because most of the conflicts today happening within countries. They are civil wars. And the conflict, the struggle, the fighting between brother enemies and sister enemies and neighbors, and compatriots, tend to be the worst, because you are pitting communities against communities, neighbors against neighbors. And with this comes the phenomenon of demonization, where you are not simply seeking to disable the enemy army, as tends to be in situations of interstate conflict, where you’ve got set armies fighting each other. You tend increasingly to be seeking to annihilate the enemy community, the so-called enemy community, whether you define it along ethnic, religious, or regional lines.

But also the number of parties involved in conflict, it isn’t two sides; often there are many parties within a conflict. With a varying degree of autonomy and authority over those who fight for them. Hmm? So that the level of organization and authority varies a lot in these situations.

What we are really witnessing are the very nature, there’s been a qualitative shift in the very nature and conduct of warfare. And that explains why, if you look at World War I, which was a particularly blood conflict in Europe, thousands of people were sent in and died, the percentage of civilian casualties was about 5%. It was a bloody war, soldier-on-soldier violence. World War II, where too, a bloody, bloody conflict, including the aerial bombardment of Europe. You know, it was the end of war. The figure rose up sharply, to over 45%. But today in the kind of conflicts I am describing to you in some 30 theaters of conflict around the globe, fully 90% of the casualties in these conflicts are civilian populations. It has the world upside down. Most of these are women and children. Most of these are deliberate targeting of homes and civilian sites and civilian populations. You see?

MARTIN: In the last year you’ve been to several major conflicts areas; six or seven I believe, which you detail in your report. Were there one or two that you can think of which were particularly moving to you? Things that you saw out there that just really struck you?

OTUNNU: Well, several. Perhaps part of what struck me very powerfully was my recent trip to Kosovo. The beginning of September. I went through these villages and towns, and what are so striking, most of the villages and towns were shelled, destroyed, burned down, gutted and emptied of people. Then I went up the mountain trail and into the forests and there I saw a human presence, a kind of a human carpet spread out in the open; mainly women and children.. Simply in the open air, exposed to the elements, with barely any food, shelter, medical facility. Some 50,000 people out in the open. Altogether the number of displaced was closed to 300,000. And that was a big shock to me, occurring as it did all the more so, right in the heart of Europe. On the eve of a new millennium. It just seems surreal that that should be happening.

But I also tell you another episode that especially struck me. I visited Sudan. And went to the town of Juba in the South. And there, there was a camp of displaced people, the KuKu people. When I went and visited them suddenly I realized this was about the 4th generation straight of this community that have been displaced by war. The first generation I encountered when I was a tiny kid growing up in northern Uganda because they crossed the border from southern Sudan into northern Uganda. Their grandparents. Then I went to school most likely with their older brothers and sisters and some of their younger brothers and sisters, who were also displaced. And people are seeing there the children of those people who I went to school with, or their grandchildren. Except that this time instead of moving outside the country they moved further inwards. Four straight generations of people displaced by conflict.

MARTIN: Let’s talk a little bit about child soldiers. How young are some of these kids and how do they get involved? How do they get started? How do they get recruited into this?

OTUNNU: Well, the reasons vary. Some of them are forced, quite often kidnapped. Many are enticed by, through deception. But also there are those who are attracted by ideological maneuvering, ideological manipulation. They are told, “you are fighting for a cause.” For self-determination; for democracy; for the rights of our people; for our religion. There are many ways by which they are attracted. But there are also those who simply go to the fighting groups because everything else has broken down. There is no economic system in place; school are not functioning; the family has broken up. And these organized fighting groups look more attractive than the alternative. They provide food. They provide a gun which gives instant power. So there are many reasons. There are political reasons. There are economic and social reasons, but there are also ideological reasons in addition to children who are simply forced to go and fight. As you may know, today we are estimated 300,000 children below the age of 18 are under arms around the globe. So that is the kind of situation which we are facing.

In terms of their ages, it varies. But most of the children I’ve seen in the field from the various places I’ve been, they would be, some are barely 10, 12. Others are 13, 15. Of course when you ask any of these kids “how old are you?” they all say “21.” Because somebody has primed them to say 21 or a safe age to give. Now the difficulty here is, in many of these place, from Sudan, to Sri Lanka, to Sierra Leone, to Cambodia, in the rural areas especially, there are no records of birth dates. There are no birth certificates that these children can produce or carry with them. So you are guessing the age of a child most of the time. But you can see most of them are very young children, very young.

MARTIN: We’ll break for a moment and then continue our conversation with Olara Otunnu, the UN Special’s Representative for Children and Armed Conflict. Among other things we’ll talk about the long-term effect that war is having on kids.

OTUNNU: It is the future of our society which is being blighted when children are involved in conflict. And to think that here we are on the eve of a new millennium, where we should have so much to celebrate; the breath-taking human achievements which have been recorded in the course of this last century. Yet sitting right beside these break-taking achievements are the darker side to our civilization.

MARTIN: Printed transcripts of Common Ground and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details on ordering. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts varied programs and activities meant to provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.

MARTIN: We talked a little bit about some particularly disturbing things that you saw. Are there a couple of instances that you can think of where you went in and you feel like you made a difference. A constructive contribution and sort of maybe helped turn some things around a little bit or got something started.

OTUNNU: A couple of instances. Beginning with Kosovo, when I visited Kosovo the situation was dire. And when I came out I came out with a three-pronged recommendation. That the international community should bring pressure to bear on the Yugoslav government to guarantee security for the local people. It was not for the UN or for NATO to provide security but for the Yugoslav government itself, a functioning state. It is not a collapsed state. With diplomatic political pressure this could be done. Secondly, I said, the most important thing was to try to bring back to their homes, the people who had been displaced. But for that you needed to increase international humanitarian presence, to observe, to serve as a reassurance to the displaced people returning. But a deterrence as well to possible abuse by the security forces. And thirdly, that every pressure should be brought to bear to have a cease fire and begin political discussions that can address the heart of the problem. And I’m glad to say that in the activities that followed soon thereafter, in the Security Council, with various key leaders with whom I spoke and met, of course activities within NATO, that the international community finally, at least in the case of Kosovo, responded. And responded with a political appeal for political action. Because my whole point was that humanitarian action, important as it is, could not be a substitute for political action.

MARTIN: Even successes are temporary, though. Since my interview with Otunnu the situation in Kosovo has gotten very much worse again. And innocent civilians are often the main targets. Yet Otunnu’s work goes on in many locations.

OTUNNU: Sudan, I visited Sudan the month of June. As well as discussing the situation of children, Sudanese children within Sudan, I’ve also been discussing with the Sudanese government the situation of Ugandan children kidnapped from northern Uganda by Ugandan insurgency groups, some of whom are being held on Sudanese territory. And we’ve now been able to get two batches of children released and returned to Uganda. When I was in the Sudan in fact four children were released to me in the city of Juba and we were able to get them back to Uganda.

When I was in Sri Lanka and Sierra Leone, among the things I was able to do was to get the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, the Tamil insurgency group, to make a public commitment that they would not recruit children below 17. They would not deploy them below 18. They would not target civilian populations. They would not interfere with the distribution of relief supplies to populations in distress within their zone. And so on. What we now need to do in situations like that is to use all the lines of communication, all the lines of influence, to reinforce this message. And to encourage these groups to live up to their commitment. But again in all these situations, one thing for me to get concrete commitments. What I need is the support of key actors on the international scene: NGOs; government, UN agencies; to reinforce this message. So it is clearly a concerted concern of the entire international community. And therefore to give an incentive to parties in conflict to live up to their commitments; you see?

MARTIN: Another place where things looked better for awhile, but then got worse, is Sierra Leone. In that West African country the democratically-elected government was overthrown, then restored to power last March, and then in recent weeks came under heavy attack again. Otunnu had received pledges from both sides that they would not use child soldiers. Bu recent news report have said that many children were involved in the recent rebel offensive. Until things went bad again, the UN’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict had hoped to use Sierra Leone as a pilot project on how to deliver aid to children in post-conflict situation.

OTUNNU: Now the idea of pilot cases is this: that there are so many places facing post-conflict challenge. But we could select a few to really concentrate our efforts, both political efforts, resources, and response, to make our response more effective and to make a success of it. What do I mean by a success? Meaning to make it truly a concerted response. To borrow the best lessons which have been learned elsewhere and apply there. To learn new lessons from that situation. To make sure that whatever we do from the World Bank, the UNDP, to the European Union, that the needs of children and women in that post-conflict phase are central in any post-conflict program of recovery. So this s what I mean by pilot case. And we’re looking at Sierra Leone. We’re looking at Guatemala. We’re looking at Kosovo; possibly Sri Lanka and Liberia as well. So we’re discussing and seeing which cases might be identified on which one we especially concentrate to ensure some success cases to show and then learn from those successes.

MARTIN: In your roll, and this is try to, it‘s certainly to elevate the presence of the issue but also to try to coordinate the efforts of these various groups?

OTUNNU: That’s right. My role is to highlight the issues, create greater awareness, serve as an advocate, a convenor of some of the key actors, both within the United Nations, outside UNICEF, High Commission for Refugees, UNDP, the World Bank—I just got back from the European Union in Brussels. Try to mobilize all the key actors. To work in a much more concerted, coordinated way. And to work to serve as their cheerleader as well. See, they’re the ones who do the work on the ground. They have the operational capacity and presence and resources. So mine is to facilitate their work. And in some situations like Sri Lanka or Sudan, when politically the situation is blocked, certain things are not possible; they can’t do their work; my role is try to help to unblock those situations on their behalf, so they can do their work more effectively.

MARTIN: You do have some ideas for some policy initiatives that governments can take and that international organizations can take, as well as non-governmental groups. What kind of initiatives do you think need to be adopted by governments?

OTUNNU: One, the biggest challenge we face together today is a dramatic one. The fact that on the one hand we have standards, we have norms, we have instruments that have been developed internationally, and we have local values. But on the other hand there is no impact of this by and large in theaters of conflict. So we must find ways to move from words to deeds. We must finds ways of translating these good intentions into practices that can save children in danger on the ground. And that is essentially a political project. It is mobilizing politically. It is getting governments to use their political capital influences. Getting the UN system, getting the European Union, to do the same. Getting the key NGOs and the media. All who have influence internationally, to use their influence in favor of protecting children. That is critical.

Secondly, it is very important in many of these critical situations, as much as we do to respond at a humanitarian level, providing relief. Doing what we can to save lives. That must not become a substitute for political action. Because in many of these situations, from Sudan to Kosovo to Sri Lanka, to Liberia what is blocking progress is a political difficulty. And without addressing that political difficulty the suffering of children and women will not end. So even as we respond at a humanitarian level, we must do everything to encourage partners in conflict to politically address the root of their problem. To politically settle, to create political conditions in which the fighting can end. That is so important. It’s so important.

And then of course I’m very, very much convinced that this agenda, the protection of children and women exposed to conflict, it is not an agenda which belongs to governments alone or to the United Nations or to official entities. It’s too important. It’s an agenda around which we must mobilize everybody. The United Nations organizations; NGO communities; churches and religious leaders; the media; the European Union. We must mobilize all the broad spectrum of concerned individuals and groups who care about this. That’s the way we must proceed in trying to get this to work.

MARTIN: Finally, we just have a couple of minute left—I wonder if you’d talk about the long-term effect of children in conflict.

OTUNNU: It is the future of our society which is being blighted when children are involved in conflict. When children are abused in conflict situations. Take children who take up guns and fight. They lose their innocence, they lose their youth. They become instruments of destruction and atrocities. And later, to try to heal them from that is very, very difficult.

Take children who lose out on schooling. Even when the war has ended, how to reintroduce them to productive lives. How to work out some vocational training for them. Very difficult.

Take just the sheer trauma, the trauma that children suffer, being exposed to this, and how that can live with them for so long. And in many ways, these children who are exposed to violence can then become the vehicle for transferring violence from one generation to another. Unless we are able to heal them and cut the cycle.

So the ways in which a society are affected, economically and socially and politically, is enormous. Is enormous. The future of our society and the future of our civilization is very much at stake if we do not protect children from the impact of war. No question about that. And to think that here we are on the eve of a new millennium, where we should have so much to celebrate; the breathtaking human achievements which have been recorded in the course of this last century. In the areas of communication and science and medicine and trade, it’s breath-taking. Yet sitting right beside these breathtaking achievements are the darker side to our civilization. What we do to our children. The way we abuse and brutalize them. So I hope part of what we might agree upon, a resolution we might make together on the eve of a new millennium, is that we shall try to make the new millennium a world safe for our children. All our children. And that we can do. It’s within our means to do that. We’ve got the political, economic means to make that happen.

MARTIN: Our guest in this edition of Common Ground has been Ugandan diplomat Olara Otunnu, the UN Secretary General’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict. For Common Ground, I’m Jeff Martin.

Our theme music was created by B.J. Leiderman. Common Ground was produced and funded by the Stanley Foundation.

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