Press briefing by special representative for children and armed conflict

17-Mar-99

Press Briefing

The Congolese Rally for Democracy was prepared to cooperate with the United Nations and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to disarm, demobilize and rehabilitate child soldiers involved in the Democratic Republic of the Congo conflict, Olara Otunnu, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, told correspondents at a Headquarters press briefing this afternoon.

Mr. Otunnu, who returned yesterday from a visit to the Sudan, Burundi and Rwanda, said he had met Ernest Wamba Dia Wamba, the Congolese Rally for Democracy leader, in Gisenyi, Burundi. Acknowledging that his movement had inherited a significant number of child soldiers from the 1996-1997 conflict in his country, Mr. Wamba had accepted the Special Representative’s proposal that the movement undertake not to recruit young people below the age of 18 years.

The Special Representative said Mr. Wamba had also accepted his proposal of a humanitarian ceasefire to allow vaccination and supplementary feeding to alleviate the desperate situation of civilian populations — especially children, women and the elderly — in the war zones controlled by the Government, as well as those under rebel control. It was hoped that a reciprocal commitment would soon be obtained from the Government so that the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the NGOs could undertake that project.

Mr. Otunnu said that even though it was not a State, the Congolese Rally for Democracy was prepared to observe the principles and provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. That was a message that the Special Representative had been conveying to every major insurgent group, even though they were not signatories to that Convention.

On his visit to the Sudan, Mr. Otunnu said the Government had promised that it would continue to help in facilitating the release and repatriation of children abducted from northern Uganda by the Lord’s Resistance Army, many of whom were believed to be in captivity in the Sudan. On two occasions last year, children in those circumstances had been released.

He said that both the Government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, as well as Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi, had agreed to begin a “neighbourhood initiative” process to tackle such cross-border issues as the movement of displaced persons, the abduction of children for recruitment as child soldiers, the illicit flow of arms, and the flow and use of landmines.

On his visit to Burundi, Mr. Otunnu said the Government had agreed to raise the age of eligibility for recruitment of young people into the armed forces from 16 years to 18 years, as had been universally advocated by the Special Representative. The Government had also agreed that the issue of the protection and needs of children was too important to be treated simply at the technical level, and that it must go up to the Arusha peace process and be underscored politically as a priority.

Turning to his Rwanda visit, Mr. Otunnu said that a large number of orphans had been forced to become the heads of their households; a large number were still separated from their parents; and there were a large number, alleged to have participated in acts of genocide, whose future remained undetermined.

Rwanda remained deeply traumatized, he said. However, the people and Government of Rwanda were trying, in very difficult circumstances, to come to terms with their experience and to transcend their trauma. They would need the continued support of the international community at the moral, political and material levels.

Noting the number of commitments the Special Representative had secured on his recent tour, a correspondent asked whether he had been able to follow up on commitments made on earlier tours to find out if they had actually been implemented.

Mr. Otunnu replied that a follow-up system had been set up at the local level with the United Nations team, the parties concerned, the NGOs, and at the Headquarters level with the United Nations agencies. Steady follow-up work was going on in Sri Lanka and Sierra Leone to monitor commitments of the parties and to keep in touch with them.

In the Sudan, there had been cooperation from the government side with regard to abducted children, he said. There was now reciprocal commitment by both sides.

Another correspondent asked whether the Special Representative had got any sense of what would happen in the Sudan when the ceasefire expired on 15 April.

Mr. Otunnu said he had raised the issue of the prolongation of the partial ceasefire in the Bahr el Ghazal region. The Government had reluctantly agreed to extend the ceasefire to mid-April, but would not be willing to extend it further for fear that the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement would take advantage. The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement was prepared to have an extension.

The United Nations would continue to impress both parties of the importance of prolonging the ceasefire. The situation, though still grave, was not as bad as it had been last year. But the harvest was still several months away, and without a continuing ceasefire, there would be a replay ofsome of the tragedy seen last year. It was hoped that it might be possible to persuade both parties to renew the ceasefire.

A commission investigating violations of the arms embargo against the former Government of Rwanda had warned last year that conditions were developing in the Great Lakes region for violence worse than the 1994 genocide, another correspondent said. Did the Special Representative think that was a possibility, or was the situation being defused?

Mr. Otunnu replied that his impressions of Rwanda were what he had described, and in Burundi conditions were the opposite. Three-and-a-half years ago, there had been demonstrations and complete chaos in the streets, as well as open ethnic cleansing in Bujumbura, the capital. On his recent visit, one could feel the improvement, both in the security situation and in the mood of the people.