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Saving God's children from the scourge of war

Plenary on youth overcoming violence: Presentation by Olara A. Otunnu, president of the LBL Foundation for Children and former UN under-secretary-general and special representative for children and armed conflict.

18 February 2006

Plenary on youth overcoming violence

Presentation by Mr Olara A. Otunnu, president of the LBL Foundation for Children and former UN under-secretary-general and special representative for children and armed conflict.

The theme for my presentation this morning is: Saving God's Children from the Scourge of War. I believe that few missions could be more compelling for the world today. This is a central issue of peace and justice.

When adults wage war, children pay the highest price. Children are the primary victims of armed conflict. They are both its targets and increasingly its instruments. Their suffering bears many faces, in the midst of armed conflict and its aftermath. Children are killed or maimed, made orphans, abducted, deprived of education and health care, and left with deep emotional scars and trauma. They are recruited and used as child soldiers, forced to give expression to the hatred of adults. Uprooted from their homes, displaced children become very vulnerable. Girls face additional risks, particularly sexual violence and exploitation.

I can think of no group of persons more completely vulnerable than children exposed to armed conflict. Yet, until very recently, their fate did not constitute specific and systematic focus and response by the international community. Indeed when policymakers convened to discuss issues of peace and security, the fate and well-being of children did not feature in their deliberations. This has now changed.

Children do not only deserve but, indeed, have a right to protection and well-being. Those who brutalize children and deny them schooling and medical care in situations of war, are committing two crimes simultaneously-- they are destroying the present as well as the future.

These violators need to be identified, named and held accountable by the international community.

In post-conflict situations, it is imperative to invest in the healing, rehabilitation and development of children. This should constitute a central concern, reflected in the setting of priorities, the formulation of policies and programmes, and the allocation of resources. When they are constructively engaged and are active participants, war-affected youth can be an important force for rebuilding their societies. But when they feel marginalized, alienated, embittered and without hope, the same youth can easily turn into an army of spoilers, and a recruiting pool for other warlords to fight new wars. Such youth also become much more vulnerable to radical indoctrination and enlistment by terrorist entrepreneurs.

Ensuring protection for our children and investing in their education and development is therefore among the most important and effective means for building durable peace and justice in society.

Campaign to protect children from the scourge of war

Over the last several years, I have led a UN-based campaign to mobilize international action on behalf of children exposed to war, promoting measures for their protection in times of war and for their healing and social reintegration in the aftermath of conflict. I undertook this mission by developing and implementing specific strategies, actions and initiatives. The campaign was organized in four phases, namely: laying the foundation; developing concrete actions and initiatives; instituting a ‘naming and shaming' list of offenders; and instituting the CAAC 1 compliance regime.

The first phase -- laying the foundation -- consisted of defining and framing the CAAC agenda, gaining acceptance and legitimacy for the new agenda, establishing a network of stakeholders within and outside the UN, and laying the groundwork for broader awareness- raising and advocacy.

Developing concrete response and actions

In the second phase, I led initiatives and efforts (involving in particular UN entities, governments, NGOs and regional organizations) to develop concrete responses and actions and initiatives.

During this period, our initiatives and advocacy yielded significant advances and innovations, most notably: significant rise in awareness, visibility and advocacy on CAAC issues; the protection of war-affected children has been firmly placed on the international peace-and-security agenda; a comprehensive body of protective instruments and standards has now been put in place; a systematic practice of obtaining concrete commitments and benchmarks from parties to conflict has been developed; children's concerns are being included in peace negotiations and peace accords, and have become a priority in post-conflict programmes for rehabilitation and rebuilding; Child Protection Advisers (CPAs) have been integrated in peacekeeping operations; key regional organizations have incorporated this agenda into their own policies and programmes; this issue has been integrated and mainstreamed in institutions and mechanisms, within and outside the UN; and war-affected children are coming into their own, through their active participation in rebuilding peace and ‘voice of children' programmes. These efforts and initiatives created strong momentum.

Embarking on the ‘era of application'

Yet, in spite of these impressive gains, I remained deeply preoccupied by one phenomenon. On the one side, we had now developed these clear and strong standards for protection, and important concrete initiatives, particularly at the international level. On the other side, atrocities and impunity against children continued on the ground. In effect, the international community and the children were now faced with a cruel dichotomy. This dichotomy is not unique to the CAAC agenda; it is a perennial problem of UN and other multilateral efforts at moving from creation to enforcement of international instruments, norms, and standards.

In my view, the key to overcoming this gulf lay is embarking on a systematic campaign for the ‘era of application' -- for transforming international instruments and standards into an actual protection regime on the ground. The ‘era of application' had to be developed and anchored within a formal and structured compliance system of mechanism. Words on paper alone cannot save children and women in danger. To my mind, the time had come for the international community to redirect its energies from the normative task of the elaboration of standards to the compliance mission of ensuring their application on the ground. I have spent the last three years, working to crack this conundrum.

Instituting a ‘naming and shaming' list

The third phase was to institute a ‘naming and shaming' list. This also became the first concrete step in the ‘era of application' campaign. The purpose of the ‘naming and shaming list ' was to institute a practice to identify, name and publicly list offending parties for grave abuses against children. This would underscore accountability and exact public pressure on the offending parties. The idea was not only to publish the list but to submit it officially to the Security Council. This was a controversial project in uncharted territory. It would take a lot of lobbying and negotiations before the proposed listing was accepted by the Security Council.

We proceeded to develop the listing practice in stages, building block by building block. The first list, compiled in 2002, named only parties in situations of conflict which happened to be under consideration by the Security Council. The violation for which the parties were cited was limited to the recruitment and use of child soldiers.

The second list, compiled in 2003, was expanded to include all offending parties, governments as well as insurgents, and in all conflict situations, whether or not their particular conflict happens to be on the agenda of the Security Council.

The third and latest list, published in January 2005, was the subject of protracted and difficult negotiations at all levels. But in the end we were able to realize our most important objective - a comprehensive listing practice. The ‘naming and shaming' list now incorporates all offending parties, in all situations of armed conflict or concern, and with respect to all major violations against children. This became the basis for the development of a full compliance regime, discussed below.

Establishing a formal CAAC compliance regime

The fourth and last stage in our campaign was the task of developing a full-fledged compliance regime. Two years ago, I embarked on an intensive process of designing, drafting and holding extensive consultations with all stakeholders, particularly, governments, UN agencies, regional organizations, and NGOs. Last January I put forward a detailed action plan, 2 proposing a structure and a series of measures necessary for a formal compliance regime. This was subsequently submitted to the Security Council for formal approval. The action plan identified the international instruments and standards that constitute the basis for monitoring - - the yardsticks for judging the conduct of parties to conflict and the basis for ‘naming names '. It specified the particular violations to be monitored and the entities that should undertake the gathering, scrutiny and compilation of information at various levels. Much of this work is designed to be undertaken by the Secretariat-level task force, working with similar monitoring and reporting bodies at the country-level. The Office of the Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, UNICEF, UN peacekeeping missions and UN country teams are to play the key roles in the implementation of the compliance regime.

It took six months of intensive and protracted negotiations within the Security Council and with other delegations, before the Security Council, in a major and ground-breaking development, unanimously adopted Resolution 1612 on July 26.3, endorsing the structure and the series of far-reaching measures contained in the action plan. This marks a turning point of great consequence. For the first time, the UN has established a formal, structured and detailed compliance regime of this kind.

The compliance regime breaks new ground in several respects. First, it establishes a ‘from-the-ground-up' monitoring and reporting system, which will gather objective, specific, and timely information - - ‘the who, where and what' - - on grave violations being committed against children in situations of armed conflict. UN-led task forces in conflict-affected countries will focus on six especially serious violations against children: killing or maiming; the recruitment or abduction of children for use as soldiers; rape and other sexual violence against children; attacks against schools or hospitals; and the denial of humanitarian access to children. Under this new mechanism, UN-led task forces will be established in phases, ultimately covering all conflict situations of concern, to monitor the conduct of all parties, and to transmit regular reports to a central task force based at UN headquarters in New York. These reports will serve as ‘triggers for action' against the offending parties.

Second, all offending parties, governments as well as insurgents, will continue to be identified publicly, in what has been called the ‘naming and shaming' list, which I have prepared and submitted annually to the Security Council since 2003. The latest report lists 54 offending parties 4 in 11 countries. These include: the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) in Sri Lanka; the FARC in Colombia; the Janjaweed in Sudan; the Communist Party of Nepal; the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda; the Karen National Liberation Army in Myanmar; and government forces in DRC, Myanmar and Uganda.

Third, the Security Council has ordered offending parties, working in collaboration with UN Country Teams, immediately to prepare and implement very specific action plans and deadlines for ending the violations for which they have been listed. Typically, these should include: immediate end to all violations by the listed party; commitment by the listed party to the unconditional release of all children within its ranks, within a time-frame agreed with the United Nations team; time-bound plans and benchmarks for monitoring progress and compliance, agreed with the United Nations team; and agreed arrangements for access by the United Nations team for monitoring and verification of the action plan.

Fourth, where parties fail to stop their violations against children, the Security Council will consider targeted measures against those parties and their leaders, such as travel restrictions and denial of visas, imposition of arms embargoes and bans on military assistance, and restriction on the flow of financial resources.

And, finally, in order to monitor compliance with Resolution 1612, the Security Council has established its own special Working Group, composed of all 15 members, to review reports and action plans, and consider targeted measures against offending parties, where insufficient or no progress has been made.

Clearly the information compiled and transmitted in monitoring reports is only useful if it serves as ‘trigger for action', on the part of key decision-making bodies, such as the Security Council, the International Criminal Court, the Commission on Human Rights, regional organizations and national governments, to take necessary and concrete measures to end documented grave violations against children. The monitoring reports are designed to serve this specific purpose.

It is also crucial that the issue of compliance be taken up beyond the corridors of the United Nations, by concerned public opinion. That is why it is important to mobilize an international public campaign in support of compliance. With Resolution 1612 we have a solid base and springboard for this campaign, particularly on the part of legislators, religious leaders, women's organizations, the media, non-governmental organizations, and children themselves. There is a need and important role for a civil society network of ‘Friends of 1612.'

Building local capacity for advocacy, protection and rehabilitation

In order to build a viable regime of protection on the ground, international actors need to do much more to support the efforts of local actors, in particular, to strengthen the capacities of defenders of children who are labouring at the very frontline of this struggle - - national institutions and local and sub-regional civil society networks for advocacy, protection, and rehabilitation. This is the best way to ensure local ownership and long-term sustainability for the protection of children.

I believe that we should strongly support local communities in their efforts to reclaim and strengthen indigenous cultural norms that have traditionally provided for the protection of children and women in times of war. In addition to international instruments and standards, various societies can draw on their own traditional norms governing the conduct of warfare. Societies throughout history have recognized the obligation to provide children with special protection from harm, even in times of war. Distinctions between acceptable and unacceptable practices have been maintained, as have time-honoured taboos and injunctions prohibiting indiscriminate targeting of civilian populations, especially children and women. These traditional norms provide a ‘second pillar of protection', reinforcing and complementing the ‘first pillar of protection' provided by international instruments.

In these efforts to build and strengthen local capacity for advocacy, protection and rehabilitation, I see communities of faith playing a particularly important role.

Can we influence insurgents?

The question is often raised as to how the international community can influence the conduct of all parties to conflict, particularly insurgents. In fact, insurgent groups have grown increasingly sophisticated in their political and financial operations and in their external connections. This means that carefully chosen and calibrated measures can have significant impact on insurgencies.

The imposition of carefully calibrated and targeted measures can have the desired impact on governments as well as insurgents. At political and practical levels there are levers of influence that can have significant sway with all parties to conflict. The viability and success of their political and military projects depend crucially on networks of cooperation and goodwill that link them to the outside world - - to their immediate neighbourhood as well as to the wider international community. In this context, the force of international and national public opinion, including particularly the voice of the communities of faith; the search for acceptability and legitimacy at national and international levels; the demand for accountability as represented, for example, by the ICC and ad hoc tribunals; the external provision of arms and financial flows; and illicit trade in natural resources; the growing strength and vigilance of international and national civil societies, and media exposure - - all of these represent powerful conditions and levers to influence the conduct of parties in conflict. From this list, "pressure points" can be determined and a carefully targeted sanction regime can be constituted against a given offending party. That the imposition of such carefully calibrated and targeted measures can have the desired impact on insurgents as well as governments is demonstrated by the recent examples of effective sanctions measures imposed on UNITA in Angola and RUF in Sierra Leone.

In today's inextricably interdependent world, parties to conflict do not and cannot operate as islands unto themselves.

Northern Uganda: the worst place in the world to be a child today

As we focus this morning on the fate of children being destroyed in situations of war, I must draw your attention to the worst place on earth to be a child today. That place is the northern region of the Republic of Uganda.

The situation in northern Uganda is far worse than that of Darfur, in terms of its duration, its magnitude , and its deep and long-term consequences for the society being destroyed.

Witness the following:

20 years of war. The human rights and humanitarian catastrophe in northern Uganda has been going on, non-stop, for twenty years.

10 years in concentration camps. For over 10 years, a population of almost 2 million people, of whom 80 percent are children and women, have been herded like animals into concentration camps, some 200 camps in all * in abominable living conditions, defined by staggering levels of squalor, disease and death, humiliation and despair, appalling sanitation and hygiene, and massive overcrowding and malnutrition. As a relief official in Gulu stated, "People are living like animals. They do not have the bare minimum."

Staggering death levels in the camps. These camps have the worst infant mortality rates anywhere in the world today. A recent survey by WorldVision reported that about 1,000 children die every week because of the conditions imposed in the camps; the director of WV in Uganda stated, "When I first saw these findings, I though it was a lie. But let us face it. We have reached the worst category an emergency can ever reach." This situation was underscored by the UN in a November report which stated that the mortality rates are in northern Uganda double those of Darfur. As the Gulu NGO Forum noted, "The camp population is not coping anymore but only slowly but gradually dying."

Healthcare, non-existent. As reported recently by the international agency, Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, "Access to healthcare is almost nonexistent."

Malnutrition and stunted growth. Chronic malnutrition is widespread; 41% of children under 5 years have been seriously stunted in their growth.

20 years without education. Two generations of children have been denied education as a matter of government policy, they have been deliberately condemned to a life of darkness and ignorance, deprived of all hope and opportunity. Imagine this is the land that produced Archbishop Janani Luwum, the martyred primate of the Anglican church in Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Boga-Zaire (Eastern DRC) who was murdered by Idi Amin in 1978.

Children abducted and brutalized. Over the years, over 20,000 children, unprotected, have been abducted and brutalized by the rebel group, Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). Some 40,000 children, the so called "night commuters," trek several hours each evening to sleep in the streets of Gulu and Kitgum towns (and walk back the same distances in the morning) to avoid abduction.

Suicide and despair. In the face of relentless cultural and personal humiliations and abuse, suicide has risen to an alarming level. Suicide is highest among mothers who feel utter despair at their inability to provide for their children or save them from starvation, and death from preventable diseases. For example, in August, 13 mothers committed suicide in Pabbo camp alone.

Rampant rape, sexual abuse and HIV/AIDS. As several reports have documented, rape and generalized sexual exploitation, especially by government soldiers have become "entirely normal." As noted in a recent report by Human Rights Watch, "Women in a number of camps told how they had been raped by soldiers from the Ugandan army… It is exceptionally difficult for women to find protection from sexual abuse by government soldiers." From almost a zero base, the rate of HIV infection among these rural communities has galloped to staggering levels: 30%-50% compared to national infection of 5%. Last June, the medical superintendent of Gulu Hospital reported that 27% of children who were tested there were found to be HIV-positive; 40% of pregnant women attending Lacor Hospital for routine prenatal visits tested HIV-positive. Journalists John Muto-Ono p'Lajur and Wendy Glauser reported that, "Awer camp leader Benjamin Oballim believes HIV infection is cl ose to 50% among adults living in his camp. A 2004 study in Lira found out of 4,026 IDPs who went for testing, 37% were positive."

This is the face of genocide.

In the sobering words of a missionary priest working in the region, "Everything Acoli is dying". Or, as MSF has reported, "The extent of suffering is overwhelming…according to international benchmarks this constitutes an emergency out of control."

Following a recent visit to the region, the Ugandan journalist, Elias Biryabarema, wrote: "I encountered unique and heart-stopping suffering,…shocking cruelty and death stalking a people by the minute, by the hour, by the day; for the last two decades… These children, these women have committed no crime to deserve this. They deserve an explanation from their president: they deserved it yesterday, they do today and will tomorrow." Or, in the words of another Ugandan journalist, P.K. Mwanje, "Ugandans south of the River Nile and their friends do not know of the genocide taking place in northern Uganda."

The population of northern Uganda has been rendered totally vulnerable; they are trapped between the brutality of the LRA and the genocidal project, atrocities and humiliations which are being systematically committed by the government. The LRA have been responsible for brutal atrocities, including massacres, abduction of children and gruesome maiming, for which they must be held accountable. However, it is clear that the LRA factor and presence is being cynically manipulated to divert attention from the genocide unfolding in the camps and other atrocities being committed by the government itself. A carefully scripted narrative is promoted, according to which the catastrophe in northern Uganda begins with the LRA and ends with their demise. In this respect, the LRA and the ‘war' have become both the cover and the pretext under which genocide is being conducted in the region.

In his Easter message last year, the Catholic Archbishop of Kampala, Emmanuel Cardinal Wamala, stated "There will be genocide in the north if the international community does not intervene to end the war." In an anguished plea, Bishop Macleord Baker Ochola II, retired Anglican Bishop of Kitgum Diocese in northern Uganda, recently said "All these cries from the people of Uganda show very clearly that a slow, but sure genocide has been taking place in Northern Uganda, while the world is looking on, as it was the case in Rwanda genocide."

* * *

When faced with genocide, we have a moral, religious and political obligation to recognize it, denounce it, and stop it, regardless of the ethnicity or the political affiliation of the population being destroyed.

We look particularly to you as spiritual and religious leaders to provide that prophetic voice and leadership. We look to you to denounce the genocide in northern Uganda. We look to you to mount a campaign to end the genocide and to dismantle the concentration camps.

As I review what is unfolding in northern Uganda, I cannot help but wonder if we have learned any lessons from the earlier dark episodes of history: millions of Jews exterminated during the Holocaust in Europe, genocide perpetrated in Rwanda, children and women systematically massacred in the Balkans. Each time we have said, "never again," but only after the dark deed was accomplished.

The genocide unfolding in northern Uganda today is happening on our watch, with our full knowledge. And tomorrow, shall we once again be heard to say that we did not know what was going on for all these years? And what shall we tell the survivor children in northern Uganda, when they ask why no one came to stop the dark deeds stalking their land and devouring its people?