“On all continents - Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, Middle East - wherever there is conflict, children are disproportionately affected.”
Mr. Olara Otunnu, Special Representative of the
United Nations Secretary-General
for Children in Armed Conflict
The last briefing on the first day of our Study Tour at the United Nations was held by Mr. Alec Wargau from the Office of the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict. The Office, led by Mr. Olara Otunnu, coordinates since its creation in 1997 the measures for the protection of children in times of war as well as for the healing and social reintegration of children in the aftermath of conflicts. The fundamental pillars of Mr. Otunnu’s work are raising awareness to the fate of war-affected children, convening key actors within and outside the United Nations as well as coordinating humanitarian and diplomatic efforts to unblock difficult political situations. The Office does not operate programmes directly, but works with agencies of the United Nations such as UNICEF and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations.
Mr. Wargau, underlined the various dimensions of the Special Representative’s work. Protecting children in armed conflict does not only include the disarmament of child soldiers but also the fight against sexual slavery and against health dangers.
Many children are recruited from refugee camps, the majority of them being orphans or internally displaced. The unit they fight in often substitutes the lost family. A strong feeling of belonging to their co-combatants makes it difficult to convince them to start leading a civilian life. Furthermore, children are highly popular among the recruiters. They are small, obedient and can be kept under control with the help of drugs and violence. As far as the demobilisation of child soldiers is concerned, the work of the United Nations constitutes a race against time. Many children turn 18 during long conflicts and are therefore no longer subject to underage protection.
Speaking from his own experience, Mr. Wargau told us, that field representatives of the United Nations combating child abuse in armed conflicts suffer severe restraints due to the lack of security, access and cooperation within the conflict areas. Local Non-Governmental and church Organizations cooperate with the armed groups to get information on how many children do they employ. The long and difficult process of reconciliation which follows armed conflicts and civil wars includes the re-integration of child soldiers into civilian life and the fight with the impunity of war crimes against children. Mr. Wargau emphasized the need to mainstream children’s rights in post-conflict management. A working peace agreement with sufficient regard to children is an important tool in this context. The Special Representative and his office have also worked closely with local Non-Governmental Organizations operating on the ground, and supported them in their efforts to specifically address the concerns of children in their respective programs. On a global scale, the Office of the Special Representative concentrates on mainstreaming efforts within the United Nations system as well as on working with regional organizations, the Non-Governmental Organization community, and the media. As a positive outcome, the agenda concerning war-affected children has been implemented into the work of the Commission on Human Rights.
Another major challenge is the targeting of children recruiters. They are mostly non-state actors such as, for example, armed revolutionary groups and are therefore hard to track down and to negotiate with. The Security Council is currently working on a resolution to target such groups and to end their impunity. According to Mr. Wargau, a monitoring and reporting mechanism to track down on the recruitment of child soldiers and other children's rights violations would prove to be a very useful instrument.
Nevertheless, achievements have been made. Child protection provisions are now incorporated into peacekeeping mandates and into the training and reporting processes of the peacekeeping troops. Besides, the Special Representative continues to emphasize the importance of cultural norms that have traditionally provided for the protection of children in times of war. These norms should complement and reinforce the existing international legal standards.