Olara Otunnu's statement to the OSCE's Warsaw seminar on Children and Armed Conflict (23 May 2000)

At the outset, I should like to pay a very special tribute to the Government of Austria, and in particular to the Chairperson-in-Office, H.E. Mrs. Benita Ferrero-Waldner. The Austrian Government has a long and well-earned reputation as one of the staunchest supporters for the protection and wellbeing of children and has indeed undertaken several significant initiatives to advance respect for the rights of the child in various fora. In carrying out my mandate, I have always counted on the political and moral backing of Austrian Government for the agenda. I am very pleased to see Mr. Jacob Kellenberger, who recently took over as President of the ICRC, here today. Throughout the years, the ICRC is perhaps the organization, which has done the most to save and other civilians from the scourge of war and elaborate principles for their protection. Under the able leadership of Mr. Stoudmann, the ODIHR has developed a range of policies and practical responses to issues within the H man Dimension of the OSCE.

It is particularly appropriate that this meeting should take place in Warsaw. We all recall the pioneering role Poland played in proposing and promoting the project that led to the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The commitment expressed by the Heads of State and Government of OSCE participating states at the Istanbul Summit in the Summit Declaration and the “Charter for European Security” to develop and implement measures to promote the rights and interests of children in armed conflicts and post-conflict situations, was indeed a breakthrough for the protection of children within the context of OSCE.

This seminar joins an impressive series of events on the international agenda to further the protection of children affected by armed conflict. In April, West African states held a Ministerial conference on war-affected children, cosponsored by the Government of Canada and Ghana, which resulted in a number of important commitments and a plan of action. In July, the UN Security Council will for the third consecutive year take up the issue of children on its agenda, when it discusses the first report of the Secretary-General on children and international peace and security. This report was requested by the UN Security Council in its resolution 1261, the landmark resolution which for the first time details the commitments of the Council to the protection of children when dealing with international peace and security. In September, the Canadian government will host an international conference on children and armed conflict in Winnipeg, and in September 2001, the UN General has called a Special Session on Children, to follow-up on the World Summit of Children in 1990. The impact of armed conflict on children will be one the key issues.

In conflict areas within the OSCE region, the protection of children constitutes a major issue. In the Balkans, the safe return of refugees and the situation of internally displaced, the majority of whom are children and women, is a priority for the international community. In the Baltic states, issues of citizenship, language and judicial reform, which all directly impact on children, are key to ensuring peaceful coexistence. In Chechnya, a return to peace will necessitate enormous efforts directed at rebuilding basic services for children, ensuring the return of the displaced populations and dealing with the trauma of war. I personally visited Kosovo in September of 1998 and later, in April 1999, also witnessed the terrible situation of the refugees in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and in Albania. Children are the worst affected victims of this conflict.

In several of these areas, the OSCE is already pursuing activities, which have a direct bearing on the situation of children affected by conflict. Examples include discussions with various parties to conflict, as in Georgia and through the work of the Minsk Group, monitoring the interests of national minorities, promoting and monitoring human rights, a central task in most of the OSCE field missions, democracy- and institution-building, and ensuring the rule of law.

I see tremendous opportunities for this seminar, which builds on the firm commitments of the leaders of the OSCE participating states, to come up with concrete recommendations and proposals. These will serve as a first step to realize the potential within the OSCE to act on behalf of children who are being abused in the context of armed conflict.

At the invitation of the previous chairman-in-office, then Minister Knut Vollebaek of Norway, in November last year I addressed the first session on children and armed conflict of the Human Dimension of OSCE Review Conference. I presented then a “10-point agenda for dialogue with the OSCE”, which I have made available for you today. The 10-point agenda outlines actions the OSCE can undertake to make the protection, rights and welfare of children affected by armed conflict a central concern in policy-making, priority-setting, resource allocation, programme activities and advocacy agenda. On this occasion, I should like to elaborate and build on the proposals contained in the 10-point agenda.

(i). Placing the protection of children on the peace-making agenda of OSCE

Children suffer disproportionately in times of war. They therefore have a particularly high stake in peace. That is why we must ensure that their protection and needs feature prominently in any negotiations to end war and in peace accords. During my visits to Burundi, Colombia, Sierra Leone and the Sudan, governments and insurgency groups have agreed to place the protection and welfare of children on the agendas of peace processes currently under way in their countries.

I call on the OSCE to promote this practice in its own peace-making demarches. Concretely, I recommend the elaboration within the OSCE of a checklist of issues of concern to the protection of children, which could serve as a tool in peacemaking. Some of the key issues that may need to be addressed in this context are the respect by the warring parties for “children as a zone of peace” throughout the negotiations, the immediate demobilization of any child combatants and the allocation of resources for education and health services in any peace agreement. To bring an end to impunity for egregious violations of children's rights in time of armed conflict, all aspects of peace processes involving amnesty, truth or justice should highlight the abuses perpetrated on children, as well as the circumstances that enabled those abuses to occur. And when amnesty legislation is contemplated in transitions from war to peace, we must ensure that the perpetrators of child rights violations are not exempted from responsibility for their actions.

The protection of children should be a central concern in the peace and security agenda of the OSCE. As the standing body for political consultation and decision-making within OSCE, the Permanent Council should pay special attention to the situation of children when discussing specific initiatives and concrete undertakings. Following up on the commitments in the Istanbul Summit Declaration, the Council should also consider holding a separate thematic session on children and armed conflict to discuss concrete ways of integrating this concern into its work. As a first step, I recommend that it adopt a policy requiring that whenever reports are submitted to it on situations of armed conflict, transitions to peace and post-conflict situations, such reports should include assessments of the impact of those situations on children. It could also request periodic reporting on efforts to improve identification and monitoring of the rights of children and specific measures undertaken to improve their situation.

In my visits to several countries, I have elicited commitments from parties in conflict on some of the following measures: to allow access to populations in distress in zones within their control; not to interfere with the distribution of relief supplies; to observe humanitarian cease-fires; not to attack schools or hospitals; not to use landmines and not to recruit or use children as soldiers. I urge OSCE to consider translating the concept of children as a “zone of peace” into concrete measures within its region, and to that end to develop a practice for eliciting and monitoring specific commitments from all parties to conflict.

Particular attention needs to be given to the protection and welfare of children in OSCE-mandated field operations aimed at promoting peace, preventing and resolving conflicts and implementing peace agreements. In particular I urge the OSCE to consider, whenever applicable, making the protection of the rights of children an explicit element in the mandates of its field operations.

I urge the OSCE to consider designating a person tasked with ensuring that the protection of children receives priority attention in field missions, in particular in situations where children have been abused on a massive scale and, as a matter of principle, in all its larger missions. Within UN peace operations, I have been promoting the inclusion of senior staff with this responsibility. Such staff, called Child Protection Advisors, is now serving within the UN peace operations in Sierra Leone and in the DRC, and the placement of a CPA is being considered for Angola. Experience to date has shown that the appointment of CPAs has contributed substantially to focussing attention on the needs of children.

I am delighted that after several years of negotiations, consensus agreement has finally been reached on raising the minimum age for recruitment and participation in conflict. I extend my warm appreciation to the chairperson of the working group, Ambassador Catherine von Heidenstam for her remarkable leadership and quiet persistence. I wish also to pay a very special tribute to the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers for the patient work, determination and all-out mobilization that was instrumental in concluding the protocol. In this context, I should like to extend my appreciation for the support of many OSCE participating states, which made this issue a priority within their foreign policy agendas.

The raising of the age limit for participation in hostilities from 15 to 18 is a victory for children exposed to cynical exploitation in situations of armed conflict. While the new consensus does not go as far as I would have liked, it is a most important step towards eliminating the use of children as soldiers and their participation in hostilities.

Five elements of the optional protocol are especially significant in this context:

States are to take “all feasible measures” to ensure that members of their armed forces who have not attained the age of 18 years do not take a “direct part” in hostilities;

States are to ensure that persons who have not attained the age of 18 years are not compulsory recruited into their armed forces;

Insurgent armed groups are prohibited, “under any circumstances”, from recruiting persons under 18 or using them in hostilities;

The new standards apply to both international conflicts and civil wars;

States parties are called upon to cooperate, through technical cooperation and financial assistance, in the prevention of child recruitment and the use of child soldiers, and in the rehabilitation and social reintegration of ex-child soldiers.

The one aspect in which the agreement falls short of the “straight 18” position that I have advocated is in the area of voluntary enlistment into national armed forces. This is indeed a disappointment. Nevertheless, the raising of the minimum age to at least 16 and the inclusion of specific safeguards, including the provision of reliable proof of age and the informed consent of both volunteer and parents, represents an improvement on existing standards.

I anticipate that the UN General Assembly will adopt the text within the coming days. The Executive Director of UNICEF and I have proposed that the Secretary-General include the optional protocol among the core treaties that would be the focus of a special effort by the SG and the Secretariat to attract more signatures, ratifications and accessions during the up-coming Millennium Assembly. I urge all States to prepare for the speedy ratification of the Optional Protocol. And, when ratifying the optional protocol, I urge States to consider depositing binding declarations pursuant to article 3, establishing age 18 as the minimum age for voluntary recruitment into their national armed forces. I call on all OSCE participating states to set an example by being among the first to ratify this important instrument.

With agreement on the optional protocol in place, we need to turn our energies to making a difference on the ground. In this context, I would like especially to highlight the following tasks:

advocating unequivocally for 18 as the minimum age for participation in conflict;

exerting concerted international pressure on parties in conflict that abuse children as combatants;

addressing the political, social and economic factors that facilitate the exploitation of children as soldiers;

building the capacity and mobilizing more resources in order to respond more effectively to the rehabilitation needs of ex-child soldiers; and

broadening our scope of concern to embrace all children affected by conflict.

Within some countries in the OSCE region, the recruitment of children with immigrant background or from immigrant communities to fight wars raging in their countries of origin, has become a visible issue in recent years. I urge the governments in the governments concerned to take vigilant measures against this grave violation of the rights of children within their borders and to stop the recruitment of these young people. I also urge them to address the underlying issues of marginalization and alienation within immigrant communities, which often facilitate this recruitment.

I urge OSCE to make the needs and rights of children a central concern from the outset of its post-conflict planning, programming and resource allocation. In most peace-building efforts, among the long-term measures required for the rehabilitation of children are the safe return and resettlement of displaced populations, psychosocial and physical healing of traumatized, sexually abused and injured children, rehabilitation of basic educational and health services, demobilization and reintegration of child soldiers, exposing the truth about the victimization of children, strengthening the normative and institutional framework, and mine action awareness and clearance.

In many places, such as Tajikistan and Kosovo, the OSCE is already pursuing activities in these areas. I encourage the OSCE to continue to collaborate with the UN in these efforts, and to take on the tasks within its purview, in particular institution-building and strengthening the normative and legal framework for the protection of children. I encourage ODIHR to develop concrete projects to ensure that the protection and rehabilitation of children receives priority attention in post-conflict settings.

On my missions in the past two years I have everywhere witnessed the deeply distressing and precarious situation of internally displaced persons (IDPs), most of who have been children. Within the UN, this issue has received increasing attention in this past year. In January, the UN Security Council held a meeting on the situation of refugees and in July, the UN Economic and Social Council has decided to make the protection of internally displaced populations the main theme for its discussion during the humanitarian segment of this session.

During her tenure, the Austrian Chairperson-in-Office has taken the initiative to arrange a supplementary Human Dimension Seminar in September on the issue of migration and internal displacement. This will indeed be a very important occasion to develop recommendations on further action within the OSCE. I encourage you to collaborate closely with my colleagues RSG Francis Deng and Mme Ogata, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

I believe that the time has come for the international community to develop a more systematic response and framework for providing protection and practical support to internally displaced persons. The OSCE is well-placed to set an example by developing some innovative methods of response to this problem within its region.

I have often been struck by the absence of and hunger for information, recreation and entertainment among children in situations of armed conflict and its aftermath. To fill this gap I have proposed the systematic development of radio stations and programmes – “Voice-of-Children” – devoted mainly to the needs and interests of children and young people. The “Voice-of-Children” project will operate at two levels.

At the national level, I am encouraging the establishment and development of local radio stations and programmes in conflict affected countries. Such projects, while driven by local professionals and civil society actors, will require the strong support from international partners. This initiative is currently being explored in several conflict-affected countries, including the Balkans. The second level involves the use of international broadcasting networks such as BBC, VOA, RFI and Deutsche Welle. Beyond the present ad hoc efforts, I have proposed that they systematically allocate time, space and resources to develop, produce and air programmes specifically targeted towards war-affected children.

In the OSCE missions where media affairs constitutes an important component of the mandate, as presently in Kosovo and also in Bosnia-Herzegovina, I urge that particular emphasis be placed on children's programming. The Representative for Freedom of the Media should also be encouraged to specifically suggest how the OSCE could best further the protection and welfare of children within this aspect of its work. I also encourage the OSCE to pay special attention to propaganda media used to incite and foment ethnic and cultural frictions, in particular among children.

I believe that we must involve young people as an active part of the worldwide social and political movement for the protection of war-affected children – as participants and advocates – and provide them with opportunities for self- expression. In this connection I have proposed the development of several initiatives. One such initiative is the children-to-children network.

This involves building links between children in war-affected countries and their counterparts from countries at peace, so that they can learn about each other's vastly different experiences, build solidarity among themselves, and enable children to act as advocates on behalf of other children. Such links could be developed on direct and community-based levels, school-to-school, university-to university, neighbourhood-to-neighbourhood, association-to- association. Modern information technology, including the internet, should be employed to facilitate such communication and exchange among young people. In some of the areas ravaged by conflict in the OSCE region, such as Bosnia and Kosovo this exchange is already taking place at an ad hoc-basis. I urge the OSCE to systematically identify and support these efforts. I also call on NGOs to develop and promote links between children and on OSCE participating states to encourage such initiatives within their own countries and to include concrete projects for this purpose in their bilateral programmes in war-affected countries.

By committing themselves to actively promote children's rights and interests, to regularly address the rights of children in the work of the OSCE and to pay particular attention to the physical and psychological well-being of children involved in or affected by armed conflict, the heads of state of the participating states of the OSCE have taken an important step for the protection of children. Taking on this challenge will imply many new tasks for the OSCE such as the development of legal and other expertise on children, of guidelines on monitoring and reporting on violations of the rights of children, and of projects on the ground to promote the protection of children. It will also require building networks with international and local organizations and NGOs with activities and interest in this area. I recommend the OSCE to explore appropriate ways of building the institutional capacities within its various organs necessary to fully develop its potential. In this context, the OSCE should also consider how collaboration with the UN and other organizations on this issue may be best developed, drawing on the strengths of each. The OSCE should ensure that OSCE staff, especially in field missions, receives adequate training in the rights of the child. In working to develop national institutional capacities, including national police forces, as in Kosovo, the OSCE should ensure that these officials receive training in the rights of the child and adhere to international standards.

Ultimately the best way to prevent children is to prevent the occurrence and recurrence of conflict. Armed conflicts have their roots in structural inequities, poverty and despair, and various practices of exclusion and marginalization. OSCE has done some pioneering work in the area of conflict prevention, by establishing and monitoring international standards, intervening in all phases of conflict and post-conflict situations, and developing innovative methods of engagement on the ground. No efforts should be spared to invest in prevention.

Until now the international community has had some success, on an ad hoc basis, in negotiating temporary cease-fires with warring parties for various humanitarian purposes. In particular, UNICEF and WHO have undertaken a number of successful vaccination campaigns during such days of tranquility.

We must build on this experience and do more. The international community should call on all warring factions in all on-going conflicts to stop fighting, for the sake of our children, at the same time, for a period of one week in the calendar year. This week would be devoted to the protection of children and would be more than symbolic. It would enable the international community to provide relief and vaccinations to war-affected children. This should also be a period to undertake various cultural and educational activities in all countries, to promote peace, in particular activities for and by young people.

I am very pleased to report to you that at the recent meeting of ECOWAS member states in Accra, Ghana on 27-28 April, ECOWAS agreed to institute an annual “West African Week of Truce for War-Affected Children” in all ECOWAS member states. This should be made a worldwide campaign. I therefore encourage you to explore a similar initiative in the OSCE region.

The UN or the OSCE cannot advance the agenda for protection of children without the support of member states and participating governments. Concerned governments must incorporate the protection of children prominently in their foreign policies, and above all, they and other actors must be prepared to use their collective weight and 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. Where I and others have been able to obtain commitments from parties to protect children, the political support of concerned governments, both individually and collectively, is essential. In today's interdependent world, no warring party – whether a government or an insurgency group – can ignore the prospects of such censure and isolation by the wider community. Many OSCE participating states are also members of other important groupings, such as the European Union, the G8 and the UN Security Council. I call on you to provide political support and to actively promote the protection of children within these fora.

The OSCE participating states can also set a particularly important example for the rest of the world. I call on you to make particular efforts to ratify the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The establishment of ICC in particular is very significant for the protection of children: it is a powerful tool that considerably reinforces advocacy for children; it establishes international jurisdiction over individuals responsible for the most serious crimes against children; it should serve as a deterrent to such crimes.

Within your countries, efforts should be taken to encourage the business community to assume its social and corporate responsibility and to refrain from doing business that fuels war economies, in particular in theatres of conflict where women and children are being systematically brutalized. I call on relevant business sectors, including those trading in arms and natural resources, to develop voluntary codes of conduct within their industries to address this serious issue, and I urge the international human rights community to monitor and report on those linkages.

We now have at our disposal a very impressive body of international instruments that provide for the protection of children in situations of armed conflict. Among these are the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Geneva Conventions and their Protocols, Security Council 1261, ILO Convention 182 and the optional protocol to the CRC on the involvement of children in armed conflict and, eventually, the ICC statute.

I believe that the time has come for us to launch a specific campaign focussing on the protection of children in situations of armed conflict, to develop various activities – awareness-building, exerting concerted political pressure, tapping into relevant local norms within societies – to ensure the application of these norms on the ground. We could set a time frame for this campaign and monitor progress at regular intervals.

Last November, out of the Istanbul Summit emerged a strong political commitment for the protection of children affected by armed conflict. I very much hope that out of Warsaw will come a clear message on the next steps to translate this commitment and vision into concrete activities within the OSCE.