Everything possible should be done to ensure that the present generation of Afghan children and youth would be the last generation exposed to conflict within their country, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, Olara Otunnu, said at a Headquarters press briefing today to mark the issuance of a special appeal for the children and youth of Afghanistan.
He said that war had defined their lives in terms of death, violence, deprivation, lack of education, and despair. If there was to be a durable peace in Afghanistan, it was important to provide hope and rehabilitation to those children and youth, in order to make them a constructive force for the rebuilding of their country. To give a sense of the magnitude of war s impact on them, he quoted estimates that some 25 per cent of Afghan children died before the age of five from preventable diseases. Some 50 per cent suffered from malnutrition, and an estimated 2 million were either refugees or internally displaced persons. In Kabul alone, 40 per cent of children had lost at least one parent, in a country where some 700,000 women were war widows.
He said that there were an estimated 100,000 victims of landmines countrywide, with more than one third of them children. There was also a huge phenomenon of street children. In Kabul, it was estimated that some 50,000 worked the streets as the main provider for their families. And in the neighbouring countries among the refugee community, there was also a very significant number of street children. In the immediate view, the United Nations Consolidated Fund should be supported in order to provide for emergency and relief needs of children exposed to winter and needing shelter, food and water. Beyond the emergency phase, the world must begin to plan and commit resources for their rehabilitation, through the provision of education, vocational training and long-term rehabilitation.
In the context of the current military campaign, he appealed to all parties involved to abide strictly by the provisions of international humanitarian and human rights law. He was very disturbed by reports of massive participation of children in the Taliban and Northern Alliance forces, and of their increased recruitment for military purposes. All levels of pressure must be brought to bear to stop that practice. He was working within the United Nations, as well as with civil society and non-governmental organization partners, to ensure, within the emerging peacemaking, peace-building framework, that the well being, rehabilitation and rights of children would be central. Clearly, in order to break the decades-old cycle of conflict and ensure sustainable peace in Afghanistan, it was imperative to address the factors of despair, alienation, radical indoctrination of children and youth – all of which had provided fertile ground for exploitation and mobilization of children for conflict.
Given that he held the key to the future of Afghan children in his hands, did he think he had enough power, in light of current developments, to really protect them? a correspondent asked.
Mr. Otunnu said that, in terms of ensuring the children s well-being, certain things were needed. In the context of the current military campaign, children should be protected and respected, in accordance with international
humanitarian and human rights law and the relevant resolutions of the United Nations Security Council. That was a matter of international public opinion coming to bear on the parties in conflict. Secondly, there were the material needs of children, in terms of shelter, water and food. It was very important, therefore, for the donor community to support strongly the United Nations Consolidated Appeal for that purpose. The United Nations Children s Fund (UNICEF) had estimated that some 1. 7 million children were in real danger with the onset of winter. The world must look beyond the present humanitarian emergency and provide children with rehabilitation and hope. That meant schooling, recreation, vocational training and giving them productive alternatives to conflict.
The influence of international public opinion and the pronouncements of the Security Council and General Assembly, civil society organizations, human rights advocates, and various parliamentarians were important, and should focus on the welfare and the protection and rights of the children of Afghanistan. He was also talking about the need for material resources used to provide relief and succour in the immediate term to the children blighted by the experience of war. There were some specific provisions in the Geneva Convention, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and some resolutions of the Security Council, dealing with the protection of children in situations of war. All of those should be applied and respected on the ground today. International public opinion should seek to ensure adherence to those provisions.
Another correspondent said that Mr. Otunnu was describing peace, but at the moment there was war. What was the peace about which he was speaking?
Mr. Otunnu said it was everyone s hope that the present phase of the Afghan crisis – of the war — would be short-lived and that the United Nations and other actors would be able to come into action in a major way in the context of peace, reconstruction and rehabilitation of Afghanistan. With respect to the war effort, he could not comment beyond that. It was not enough to look at the immediate needs of the children – which were very real – but to look beyond at the 23-year heritage of war. That had left a deep mark on children and youth. Recuperating and rehabilitating them must be undertaken, for which resources should be committed now, not tomorrow.
He said he was in close discussions with Lakhdar Brahimi, who was presiding over the United Nations framework, to make sure that any plans with regard to peace-building, peacemaking and rehabilitation put the well-being of the children and youth at the forefront of concerns. Now was the time to commit and plan for the future.
Replying to a question about what share of such projects was donated by the United States, he said he did not have that figure, but he would find it and get back to the correspondent.
In response to another question, he said that the onset of the military campaign had meant some interruptions and dislocations, but in fact most United Nations agencies and non-governmental organizations had continued to operate within Afghanistan, as well as in the neighbourhood. The Afghan national workers had remained in Afghanistan on the front line and under very difficult circumstances, providing comfort, assistance and relief to the children and women. That was a good foundation on which to rebuild local capacity within Afghanistan for the future. In the past, however, such endeavours had not received the
necessary attention. Thus, he was issuing the appeal, as an opportunity to set right 23 years of neglect. There was now an opportunity to do right by the children and youth of Afghanistan.
Asked if he could speak at present about the kidnapping in Burundi, he said he was unable to supply specifics until he learned more. But Burundi was one of the situations where the peacemaking process, in which he was very much engaged – in particular, the Arusha Accord – contained a significant section devoted to the well-being, protection and rehabilitation of children affected by conflict. He was in touch with the parties in conflict, as well as with the two facilitators of the peace process. He would later provide the correspondent with more specifics about the purported abductions.