Innocent victims: protecting children in times of conflict

by Olara A. Otunnu


Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict

organized by Save the Children

Wednesday, 20 October 1999


I. The Context

We are on the eve of a new millennium. There will be much to celebrate, because in the modern era our civilization has achieved breath-taking advances in virtually every field of human endeavor.

And yet, these quantum leaps in human progress coexist uneasily with a darker side to our civilization. Witness our capacity to inflict and tolerate grave injustice. See the way in which we can destroy entire communities in the quest for power, or in the name of ethnicity, religion or race.

I believe that a crucial measure of our civilization must be about its human and humane quality. It has to do with how we treat our fellow human beings. And above all, it has to do with how we treat the most innocent and most vulnerable members of our community, those who represent the future of every society — our children.

The Preamble to the Charter of the United Nations enjoins us “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war”. Yet on the eve of the millennium, we are witnessing unspeakable abominations being committed against children in the context of armed conflict.

Today, in approximately fifty countries around the world, children are suffering in the midst of armed conflict and in its aftermath. This suffering bears many faces: children being killed; children being made orphans; children being maimed; children being uprooted from their homes; children being raped and sexually abused; children being deprived of education and health care; children being exploited as child soldiers; and children left with deep emotional scars and trauma.

All non-combatants are entitled to protection, but children have a primary claim to that protection. Children are innocent and especially vulnerable. Children are less equipped to adapt or respond to conflict. They are the least responsible for conflict, yet suffer disproportionately from its excesses. Children are truly blameless victims of conflict. Moreover, children represent the hopes and future of every society; destroy them and you have destroyed a society.

Over the last decade, 2 million children were killed in conflict situations, over 1 million were made orphans, over 6 million have been seriously injured or permanently disabled, and over 10 million have been left with grave psychological trauma. A large number of children, especially young women, have been made the targets of rape and other forms of sexual violence as a deliberate instrument of war.

At the present moment, there are over 20 million children who have been displaced by war within and outside their countries. Some 300,000 young persons under the age of 18 are currently being exploited as child soldiers around the world. And approximately 800 children are killed or maimed by landmines every month.

The magnitude of this abomination attests to a new phenomenon. There has been a qualitative shift in the nature and conduct of warfare. This is not war as we have known it in the modern era.

Several developments mark this transformation. Almost all the major armed conflicts in the world today are civil wars; they are protracted, lasting years if not decades; they are fought among those who know each other well — they pit compatriot against compatriot, neighbour against neighbour. They are characterized by widespread social breakdown and lawlessness, the proliferation of small arms and light weapons, the indiscriminate use of anti-personnel landmines, and the involvement of multiple and often semi-autonomous armed groups. Most cynically, children have been compelled to become themselves the instruments of war — indeed the weapon of choice — recruited or kidnapped to become child soldiers. A key feature of this struggle is the demonization of the so-called “enemy community” – – often defined in religious, ethnic, racial or regional terms – – and the orchestration of vicious hate campaigns. In the intense and intimate setting of today's internecine wars, the village has become the battlefield and civilian populations the primary target. This is soldier-on-civilian violence on an unprecedented scale.

It is against this background that today up to 90 percent – – compared with 5 percent in World War I and 48 percent in World War II – – of casualties in ongoing conflicts around the world are civilians, the vast majority of whom are children and women.

These excesses are no longer exceptional; they are widespread across the globe; they are going on today in some 30 locations of conflict.

This trend of abomination can be reversed if serious, concerted measures are employed at both the national and international levels. In this connection, may I propose some actions and initiatives for your consideration.

II. Concrete initiatives

1. Protecting Children in the midst of war

We must pursue concrete initiatives to prevent or mitigate the suffering of children who are caught up in the midst of ongoing conflicts, thus seeking to translate the concept of “Children as a Zone of Peace” into practical arrangements and measures on the ground.

In my visits to several countries — from Sri Lanka to Burundi, from the Sudan to Colombia to Sierra Leone, to discussions with the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD) of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) – – parties in conflict have committed themselves to some of the following measures: not to target civilian populations; to allow access to populations in distress within their zones of control; not to interfere with the distribution of relief supplies; to observe humanitarian cease-fires for purposes of vaccination or supply of relief; not to attack schools or hospitals; not to use landmines; and not to recruit or use children as child soldiers. It is critical that key national and international actors – – governments, the Security Council, regional organizations, UN agencies, civil society organizations – – reinforce these commitments through their own channels of communication and influence.

Although most of today's armed conflicts are internal, the victimization of children is often exacerbated by cross-border activities, such as the flow of small arms and light weapons, the transfer and use of landmines, the recruitment and abduction of children, and the movement of displaced populations and the separation of families. Threats facing children within countries in conflict often cannot be brought under control without addressing these cross-border dimensions.

I have therefore proposed the development of “neighbourhood initiatives” to bring together actors in a sub-regional setting where countries are linked by cross-border activities affecting children. The purpose is to engage governments, insurgency groups, civil society organizations and humanitarian agencies in dialogue which would ultimately lead to specific agreements and concrete measures to protect children from cross-border threats. I have convened an informal inter-agency task force to develop this initiative under the leadership of UNHCR and UNICEF. So far, three neighbourhood initiatives have been selected as pilot cases: Eastern Africa (IGAD neighbourhood); West Africa (neighbourhood of Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia); Kosovo and its neighbourhood.

Children suffer disproportionately in times of war. They therefore have the highest stake in peace. I have been advocating that the protection and welfare of children, including the fate of child combatants, should feature prominently in any negotiations to end war and in peace accords. During my recent visits to Burundi, Sierra Leone, the Sudan and Colombia, Governments and insurgency groups have agreed to place the protection and welfare of children on the agendas of the peace processes currently under way in their countries.

One of the most daunting challenges a country faces after war is the “crisis of young people” – – the desperate conditions of very young children and adolescents. The prospects for recovery in many countries depend very much on rehabilitating these young people and restoring to them a sense of renewed hope. This is why I have called on key actors responsible for designing post-conflict peace-building programmes, in particular national governments, the World Bank, the European Union, UNDP and other relevant UN agencies, bilateral aid agencies, and NGOs, to make the needs of children a central concern from the outset of their planning, programming and resource allocation.

In this context, some of the core issues around which I have been seeking to mobilize concerted and effective response are: disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of child combatants; return, reunion and resettlement of displaced children and families; programmes for mine-awareness and rehabilitation of child victims of landmines; programmes for physical and psychosocial rehabilitation for the injured, the maimed and the traumatized; and provision and rehabilitation of basic medical and educational services.

As a general policy, I have proposed that the protection and welfare of children become an explicit priority in UN-mandated peace operations. To achieve this, I have proposed the systematic incorporation of three elements. First, protection and the needs of children must be firmly entrenched in the mandate of peacekeeping operations. Second, in order to ensure implementation of this dimension of the mandate and to advise the Special Representative in a given country, I have proposed that there must be a senior child protection advocate explicitly tasked with ensuring coordination for the protection and welfare of children. Third, appropriate training must be given to peacekeeping personnel – – both civilian and military — concerning the protection of the rights of children and women.

The widespread participation of children in armed conflict is one of the most horrendous and cynical trends of recent wars. Various conditions give rise to children's participation in armed conflict: manpower shortages typical of protracted conflicts, the fact that children are impressionable and therefore can be easily fashioned into ruthless and unquestioning tools of war, and the desire of armed groups to exercise total control over civilian populations – – all have lead to forced recruitment of children. Some children join armed forces or groups because of a socio-economic breakdown that eliminates viable alternatives. Still others are lured by the appeal of political, religious or ethnic ideology.

To stem this tide of the massive use of children as soldiers, I have been advocating and pursuing a three-pronged strategy. First, I strongly support raising the age limit for recruitment and participation in armed conflict from 15 to 18. This preoccupation has constituted an important aspect of my advocacy work within discussions with governments and engagement with all parties to conflict. Second, and in tandem with the efforts to raise the age limit, I believe there is an urgent need to mobilize right away a major movement of international pressure to lean on armed groups that are currently abusing children as combatants. Third, I believe that it is important to address the political, social and economic factors that create an environment which facilitates the exploitation of children in this way.

I have developed an active dialogue and framework of cooperation with the World Council of Churches (WCC), a fellowship of over 300 churches active in more than 120 countries. In August 1999, I addressed the Central Committee, the WCC's principal governing and policy making body. The Central Committee adopted a resolution in which it welcomed and expressed strong support for the mandate and work of the Special Representative and for Security Council Resolution 1261 on “Children and armed Conflict”; it called on its worldwide network of member churches and church-related institutions to undertake and to support concrete initiatives for the protection of children affected by armed conflict; it resolved to incorporate this issue as a significant part of the programme and activities for WCC's Ecumenical Decade to Overcome Violence (2001-2010). Earlier, WCC's 1998 Harare Declaration called upon member churches to work to prevent use of children in armed conflict.

I welcome the strong support expressed by the Vatican for this agenda and the engagement of the Catholic Church in communities affected by conflict. I am keen to deepen this engagement through the Church's advocacy outreach as well as its worldwide network of humanitarian institutions.

I have held consultations with the Secretary General of the Organization of Islamic Conference; we are actively exploring several possibilities for future engagement and collaboration.

I should like on this occasion to address an urgent appeal to all states to cooperate actively in current efforts to bring to a successful conclusion, by the beginning of 2000, the work on a draft optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The completion of this project will enable the international community to concentrate its attention and action on the urgent task of curbing child soldiering on the ground.

There is no doubt that there is a strong correlation between the easy availability of small arms and the dramatic rise in the victimization of children and women. Moreover, the proliferation of these weapons has made it possible for very young children to be used as perpetrators of violence. We must work to raise awareness on this issue and to curb this trend. In this connection, I strongly support the activities of the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) and the UN mechanism for Coordinating Action on Small Arms (CASA).

In discussions with governments as well as in my public advocacy, I have urged the signing and ratification of the following new international legal instruments that provide for the protection of children in situations of armed conflict.

First, the Statute of the International Criminal Court (the Rome Statute), adopted in June 1998, provides for jurisdiction over several child-specific crimes. Conscripting or enlisting children under the age of 15 or using them to participate actively in hostilities has been designated a war crime. Intentional attacks against, inter alia, hospitals and buildings dedicated to education are also war crimes. Particularly grave forms of sexual violence, including rape and sexual slavery, are both war crimes and crimes against humanity. The forcible transfer of the children of a group targeted for intentional destruction constitutes genocide for ICC purposes.

The establishment of the ICC is very significant for the protection of children: it is a powerful tool that considerably reinforces advocacy for children; it establishes international criminal jurisdiction over individuals responsible for the most serious crimes against children; and it should serve as a deterrent to such crimes.

Second, I strongly supported the move to include child soldiering among the worst forms of labour, prohibited by the ILO Convention concerning the Prohibition and Immediate Action for the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour, which was adopted in June 1999. The ILO Convention defines a child as anyone below 18 years of age and prohibits the forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict.

It is critical to build and strengthen local capacities for protection and advocacy for children affected by armed conflict, both in the midst of ongoing violence and in its aftermath. In this connection, I have advocated a number of initiatives: the establishment of a National Commission for Children to ensure that the protection and welfare of children are a major priority in the aftermath of conflict, and that this will be reflected in national priority setting, policy making and resource allocation; the formation of informal groups of elders and statesmen to serve as local advocates within a country; and the formation of a parliamentary caucus for the protection of children.

I have also been very struck by the absence of and hunger for information, recreation and entertainment among children in situations of conflict and in its aftermath. I have therefore been advocating the establishment of local radio stations or programmes – -“Voice of Children”- – devoted mainly to the needs and interests of children in such situations. This would serve to give voice to children's concerns, offer education and entertainment, promote tolerance and reconciliation, and raise awareness about the rights and protection of children. Such projects, while locally driven, require strong support from international partners.

1. Political support from Governments

The primary responsibility for protecting children lies with governments and parties to conflict. In this connection, I call on Governments to make the protection of children a prominent feature of both their domestic and international policy agenda. At the international level, I urge them to apply their influence and concerted pressure on those who are abusing and brutalizing children in situations of conflict.

I have made it a particular priority to work to ensure that the protection of children affected by armed conflict becomes a major concern on the agenda of the Security Council. Following the first open debate on the issue and the statement by the President of the Security Council in June 1998, I have continued to encourage a deeper engagement on this matter by the Security Council.

A most significant occasion for children came on 25 August 1999, when the Security Council held the second open debate on the item “Children and armed conflict”. Following a day-long debate, the Security Council unanimously adopted resolution 1261 (1999).

The resolution incorporates a number of concerns which have been at the core of my advocacy work.

It condemns the targeting of children; it recognizes the protection and welfare of children as an issue to be addressed during peace processes; it urges parties to conflict to abide by commitments they make to ensure the protection of children; it calls for an end to the recruitment and use of children in armed conflict; and it calls for the demobilization and rehabilitation of child soldiers. The Security Council has undertaken, when taking action to promote peace and security, to give special attention to the protection, rights and welfare of children; to give consideration to the impact of sanctions on children; and to ensure that personnel involved in peace operations receive appropriate training.

Security Council resolution 1261 is a major landmark for the cause of children affected by armed conflict. First, for the first time ever, the Security Council has devoted a formal resolution entirely to the protection of children, thus demonstrating its commitment to this issue. Second, the resolution sets out a number of important measures for protecting children which, when applied in specific situations, would have a considerable impact. Third, adoption of the resolution has finally given full “legitimacy” to the protection of children as an issue that properly belongs to the agenda of the Security Council. Fourth, the Security Council has requested the Secretary-General to provide a report by July 2000 on the implementation of the resolution, thus signaling that this issue will now remain an ongoing preoccupation on its agenda.

Security Council resolution 1261 provides a most important tool for advocacy on behalf of children affected by conflict. I call on all who are concerned for the protection of children to fully use this new advocacy tool, and to encourage the Security Council itself to apply the measures contained in the resolution in its future consideration of specific crisis situations and in the mandating of peace operations.

In the course of the past year, I have made it a priority to establish strong cooperation with the European Union (EU) and its institutions. The objective has been to encourage the EU to make the protection of children affected by armed conflict a significant aspect of its own agenda. My efforts have concentrated on developing initiatives in collaboration with three main bodies: the European Commission; the European Parliament; and the ACP-EU framework of cooperation which brings together 71 states from the African, Caribbean and Pacific regions and the 15 EU member states.

European Commission. I have held regular consultations with EU commissioners in Brussels, particularly with the Commissioner for Humanitarian Affairs and the Commissioner for Development, as well as with an Inter-Service Group of senior officials drawn from Directorates General concerned with external relations, social affairs, development, humanitarian affairs, human rights, and the management of aid to non-member countries. In these discussions, I have urged the European Commission to incorporate the protection and welfare of children affected by armed conflict into their advocacy agenda and into their programme activities. I particularly requested that a special budget line be created for the benefit of children affected by war.

In this connection, I was very encouraged to learn recently from the European Commission that the protection and promotion of the rights of the child, including those of child soldiers, had been included as one of five thematic priorities for 1999 within the European Initiative for Democracy and Human Rights.

European Parliament. I have held discussions with the chairpersons of the Committee for Development and of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Security and Defence Policy, as well as with a cross-section of members of the European Parliament, seeking to obtain their political and advocacy support for the protection of children affected by armed conflict. The two chairpersons agreed in principle to hold joint hearings on this issue. In November 1998, at the initiative of the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, I also addressed the Committee for Development on the issue of child soldiers; subsequently, the European Parliament adopted a resolution condemning the recruitment and use of children as soldiers, and expressed support for raising the age limit for recruitment to 18.

ACP-EU Cooperation Agreement. In my address to the ACP-EU Joint Assembly in Strasbourg in March 1999, I proposed the inclusion of the protection and rights of children, especially children affected by armed conflict, in the successor agreement, now under negotiation, to the current Lomé IV agreement. To this end, he has held a series of consultations with the key actors, within the framework of ACP-EU Cooperation Agreement, including the President of ACP-EU Joint Assembly, the Secretary-General of the ACP, and ambassadors from ACP countries.

In this connection, I was very pleased to learn recently from the Secretary-General of the ACP that several elements he had advocated have been endorsed by the ACP-EU Ministerial Negotiating Conference and are included in the current working documents:

protecting the rights of children and youth, especially the girl child;

helping community-based institutions to ensure the protection and development of children;

rehabilitation and reintegration of children in post-conflict situations;

demobilization and reintegration of ex-child combatants.

The inclusion of these elements in the final agreement would represent a particularly important development for the protection and welfare of children: it would break new ground in the context of a development cooperation agreement; it would provide a major new advocacy tool for the protection of children; and it would provide funding under the new ACP-EU Cooperation Agreement for the specific benefit of children affected by armed conflict.

I believe that non-governmental and other civil society organizations have an indispensable role in shaping the agenda for children affected by armed conflict. Their contribution is critical in many areas. I have called on them to develop activities in three areas in particular: building a movement of advocacy at both the national and international levels; developing concerted operational programmes on the ground to respond more effectively to the needs of victimized children; and serving as an important source of information on particular situations and issues.

I believe that communities of faith – – all faiths – – have a crucial role to play in the protection of children through their advocacy and work on the ground. In this connection, I invite their spiritual leaders and institutions to use their moral influence, leadership and their presence within communities to promote the protection of children and women.

Moreover, I believe that we need spiritual renewal, and when we see signs of it here and there around the world, we should welcome it. Let us embrace the people of faith – – all faith – – and invite them to embrace each other, promoting together the fundamental values — faith, life, love, forgiveness and reconciliation – – that unite them rather than fighting over doctrines that divide them. We need the spirit that will yield in order to bend the sword into ploughshare; the spirit that will say to the other – – Omego, Lamego – – brother, sister – – because like you they too are child of God.

There is an urgent need to monitor and control the flow of arms into and the exploitation of natural resources from theatres of conflict, where it is clear that children and women are being systematically brutalized. I call on the international business community to assume its social and corporate responsibility in this context, and refrain from doing business which fuels war machines in such situations. As a start, I urge them to develop voluntary codes of conduct within their own industries to address this serious issue.

1. Launching the “era of application” for international norms

We must resolve to launch an “era of application” – – the application of international norms and standards.

Over the past fifty years, the nations of the world have developed a truly impressive body of international humanitarian and human rights instruments. As it happens, this is a year of milestones for international instruments that provide for the protection of children in situations of international as well as internal armed conflicts: it is the tenth anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child; it is the fiftieth anniversary of the Geneva Conventions; and it is the centennial of the Hague Conventions. Last year, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

2. Promoting and reinforcing traditional value systems

We must not cast aside local value systems which have traditionally provided ethical bearings to many of our societies. The most damaging loss a society can suffer is the collapse of its own value system. Values matter, even in times of war. In most societies distinctions between acceptable and unacceptable practices were maintained, with taboos and injunctions proscribing targeting of civilian populations, especially women and children.

For example, I grew up in a society where the concept of lapir was very strong. Among the Acholi people, lapir denotes the cleaness and weight of one?s claim, which then attracts the blessing of the ancestors in recognition and support of that claim.

Before declaring war, the elders would carefully examine their lapir — to be sure that their community had a deep and well-founded grievance against the other side. If this was established to be the case, war might be declared, but never lightly, never lightly. But in order to preserve the original lapir, strict injunctions would be issued to regulate the actual conduct of the war. You did not attack children, women or the elderly; you did not destroy crops, granary stores or livestock. For to commit such taboos, would be to soil your lapir, with the consequence that you would forfeit the blessing of the ancestors, and thereby risk losing the war itself.

Moreover in declaring war, there was always the presumption of coexistence in the post-conflict period. Therefore in prosecuting a war effort you took great care to avoid committing taboos and acts of humiliation that would destroy forever the basis for future coexistence between erstwhile enemy communities.

I am sure that we could cite many examples of such a value system in other societies around the world.

But today, to paraphrase the poet W. B. Yeats, things have fallen apart, the moral centre is no longer holding. In so may conflicts around the world, we see a “free-for-all” – – children, women, the elderly, grain stores, crops, livestock – all have become fair game in the single-minded struggle of power, in an attempt not just to prevail but to humiliate, not just to subdue but to annihilate the “enemy community” altogether. This is truly the phenomenon of “total war.”

I believe that we must mobilize all our resources — especially parents, extended family, elders, teachers, schools, and religious institutions to reclaim and reassert those values and taboos that have traditionally been instrumental in protecting children and women in times of conflict. The mainstay of this effort must be the local community, through community-based initiatives. This ethical renewal is an essential process if a society caught in the throes of a deep moral and political crisis is to recover, rebuild and move forward. This community-based process should then be integrated with and reinforced by contemporary norms that have been developed at the international level.

3. Providing protection and relief for internally displaced communities

Most people fleeing armed conflict do so within the borders of their own countries. They are unable or reluctant to leave their homelands and increasingly find countries of asylum less willing to accept them. Over 25 million persons are currently displaced within their own national borders — compared with under 12 million refugees registered by UNHCR — well over half of whom are children.

The nature and scope of this problem have been well described through the important work and reports of Mr. Francis Deng, the Representative of the Secretary-General for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), with whom I have been working very closely on this issue.

On all my missions in the past year – – Burundi, Colombia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, Sudan — I have witnessed the deeply distressing and precarious conditions of IDPs, the vast majority of whom are children and women. I believe the time has come for the international community to develop a more systematic response and framework for providing protection and practical support to IDPs.

In conclusion, I should like to make the following observations.

First, how can we ensure that these claims for protection are taken seriously by the parties to conflict? Well, we live in a world in which interdependence has become a central fact of international life. The warring parties in the different theatres of conflict too depend to a great extent on the good-will and cooperation of the wider international community, from whom they seek political legitimacy and diplomatic recognition, on whom they rely for trading in minerals and timber, as well as the supply of arms and money, for the prosecution of their war efforts.

In other words, there are important trails that lead in and out of theatres of conflict. The question is, how can we press these linkages to full advantage, that is into concerted pressure for the protection of children? The international community should be prepared to use its collective influence to deny political legitimacy, diplomatic recognition, the supply of weapons or the flow of funds to those responsible for committing atrocities and abuses against children. In today's interdependent world, no warring party could ignore the prospects of such censure and isolation by the wider international community.

Second, demonstrating equal concern for the plight of all children affected by armed conflict. Millions of children are currently suffering from the horrendous impact of armed conflict in different parts of the world. In order to maintain credibility and solidarity, it is critical for the international community to be seen to be responding with the same level of concern wherever children are in need of protection and support.

Third, it is clear that, ultimately; the best way to protect children is to prevent conflicts before they occur or to resolve them before they assume destructive proportions. Armed conflicts have their roots in structural inequities and various practices of exclusion and marginalization. Three factors are especially relevant here. First, in too many societies today, we are witnessing a phenomenon in which, within a country, there has developed a centre-and-periphery relationship, a situation in which there are systematic imbalances in the distribution of development resources and political power between different parts and sectors of the same country. To be meaningful, development and growth must benefit the people of a country as a whole and not just a section of it.

A second factor of conflict concerns the management of diversity in many of our countries. It is crucial to foster a sense of common belonging at the national level, while allowing below that the space for the expression of cultural, religious and regional diversities. Unfortunately, we have seen too many political leaders manipulate the diversities within their societies in order to gain or retain power. We must militate against this.

There is the issue of democratic practice. It is critical to build genuine democratic practice and the rule of law, because in the long run this provides a non-violent and routine way of mediating competing claims within a society.

Moreover ending a conflict must not mean a return to the status quo ante, to the conditions that gave rise to the conflict in the first place. In order to prevent the recurrence of conflict and rebuild lasting peace, we must work systematically to transform the distorted relationships of yesteryears.

In order to prevent conflict therefore, both international and national actors have a responsibility to take political, economic and social measures that can generate within communities a sense of hope in place of despair, a sense of inclusion and participation instead of exclusion, a sense of belonging instead of alienation.

Fourth, I have been deeply touched and humbled by examples of ordinary people doing extraordinary things within their local communities.

I think of the host families in Albania and Macedonia. They are ordinary and for the most part, very poor families, with nothing really to spare. But in an extraordinary demonstration of solidarity and love, they have opened their hearts and homes to well over 60% of the refugees from Kosovo.

My mind flashes back to my visit to the village of Ruiigi in Burundi. We have all been told how in Burundi and Rwanda Tutsi and Hutu can never get along with each other. But in Ruiigi I encountered three remarkable people – Maggy, Beatrice and Isaac – who by their examples and lives have challenged their paradigm.

Maggy is a Tutsi woman, who witnessed unspeakable massacres in Ruiigi during the upheavals of 1993. Children and women who had taken refugee at the residence of Catholic Bishop (where she worked as secretary), children she had tried to shield/protect with her own body, were all taken and murdered in front of her, sometimes by her own relatives. She became a revolutionary for peace and reconciliation among the Hutu and the Tutsies. She decided to build homes that would receive and take care of orphans and child survivors from all ethnic groups. I visited these three homes: —–Maison Shalom

In Ruiigi, I encountered another remarkable woman, Beatrice, a Hutu, with Maggy to take of these children. During the problems in 1992, in Burundi, Beatrice, a native of Ruiigi fled to Rwanda as a refugee. There, she met and married a fellow Hutu Refugee from Burundi. They were blessed with 8 children. During the exodus from Rwanda in 1994, the entire family fled to Tingi Tingi in DRC. When Tingi Tingi camp was attacked in 1997, her husband and children were all massacred in that episode. Beatrice worked her way back to Burundi, completely alone as she had left some 25 years earlier. Within weeks of arriving in Bujumbura, Beatrice ran into Maggy. The two women told each other their stories. They decided to make common cause across Tutsi-Hutu divide. Beatrice decided to return to Ruiigi and joined Maggy in taking care of the orphans and child survivors. When I asked what it felt like to work at the orphanage, Beatrice said, “working here with Maggy has given me back the dignity of a mother.”

And then I met Isaac, a Hutu, who is now the local Prefect of Ruiigi. Before 1993, Isaac was a renowned artist; he had had much success at home in Burundi and abroad in Europe. After the problems of 1993, he decided to put aside his professional pursuit in order to return to Ruiigi and devote himself in rebuilding his local community. He is working closely with Maggy and Beatrice.

I think of my visit to Juba hospital in Southern Sudan. And I think of my encounter with Dr. Paul Tingwa who is running a hospital in desperate conditions in the middle of a war zone, with seven other doctors instead of 35 doctors in earlier/better times. Paul was in fact my roommate at Makerere University. There he was barely with a shirt on his back and hardly any shoes on his feet. But he was smiling and holding on tenaciously for the sake of the children and women in desperate need of medical attention in Southern Sudan.

At the Kuku and Yei camps for the displaced persons in Juba, in spite of their adversity they refused to accept the faith imposed upon them by war. They were busy building huts and schools. They only asked for two things: peace and assistance for schooling for their children.

Finally, there is a danger that we in the international community may be exposed to so much that we could come to regard as normal a phenomenon that in fact presents a radical departure from the fundamental norms of conduct acceptable to all societies. We must no allow to this to happen.

We must create a political and social climate which makes the abuse and brutalization of children entirely unacceptable.

On the eve of the new millennium, I very much hope that we can resolve to make the rights, protection and welfare of children – – all our children – – a common cause that can unite us across the boundaries of our political orientations, religious affiliations and cultural traditions. We must resolve to make our world safe for our children.

I look forward to working very closely with all of you to realize this project. This is an entirely feasible project, if we want it to be so, if we are prepared to invest in it, and if we are prepared to work for it.