Press Briefing

The Government of Colombia and the main guerilla movement, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), have agreed to place children’s issues on the peace agenda, the Special Representative of the Secretary- General for Children and Armed Children, Olara Otunnu, said at a Headquarters press briefing today.

Speaking at today’s noon briefing, the Special Representative said that during his recent field visit to Colombia, he had launched a broad coalition to support and address the needs of war-affected children in that country. Following his discussions with FARC, that group had pledged not to recruit children under the age of 15 and to explore, with the United Nations, procedures for the demobilization of under-age children already in its ranks. The FARC also agreed to the establishment of a joint task force to respond to the urgent humanitarian needs of civilians in the demilitarized zone, particularly women and children.

For its part, the Government announced a new policy to raise the age of military enlistment from 15 to 18, Mr. Otunnu said. The President of Colombia, Andres Pastrana Arango, agreed to initiate changes in domestic legislation to achieve that end.

Noting that Colombia had one of the world’s largest communities of displaced persons — 1. 2 million — Mr. Otunnu said he had stressed to the concerned parties the importance of protecting women and children in those communities. Most distressing, he added, was that children in the displaced communities had little access to education. The international community must develop a mechanism to protect and support internally displaced persons, he said.

Continuing, Mr. Otunnu said that the objective of his seven-day humanitarian mission to Colombia had been to assess and highlight the impact of the 40-year civil war on children, to explore concrete measures for greater and more effective protection and to support local efforts to place the issue of children at the centre of national discourse. In addition, he aimed to ensure that the protection and welfare of children would be on the peace agenda.

He said the war had spawned a culture of violence, including street violence, which extended to so-called “social cleansing” or the “liquidation” of children thought to be undesirable. There was increasing domestic violence and violence within the communities. He had visited one Medellin community in which 200 young people had killed each other in a year.

Mr. Otunnu said he wanted to impress upon Colombians the preoccupation of the international community with the protection of the civilian population in time of war, especially women and children. He had also stressed the importance of observing humanitarian principles and norms and he repeatedly appealed for the immediate release of hostages taken by the paramilitary and the National Liberation Army. He had met with Senator Piedad Cordoba following her release and travelled with her to visit displaced communities. He reiterated his appeal to all parties to release all their hostages.

There was universal recognition within Colombia that society must address the fundamental issues of social justice and economic and political inclusion, he said. People also recognized that to do that, there must be peace.

In response to a question, Mr. Otunnu said the United Nations was not involved in the political process in Colombia, but with the projects of the specialized agencies in that country. The United Nations was deeply involved in matters of humanitarian concern. The sooner the conflict was brought to an end, the sooner the suffering of women and children would end and solutions to the questions of social justice and inclusion would be found.