West african foreign ministers adopt declaration andplan of action on war-affected children

Accra, Ghana – 28th April 2000

Ministerial representatives of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), meeting in Accra, have adopted a far-reaching declaration and plan of action calling for an immediate release by armed groups in the sub-region of all children abducted and held against their will and a “West African Week of Truce” to raise public awareness about the plight of children affected by war in the region as well as to facilitate the provision of humanitarian and other services.

These were among a series of recommendations contained in the Plan of Action agreed bythe ministers at the “Conference on War-Affected Children in West Africa”, held from 27-28 April at the Accra International Conference Centre in Ghana. The conference was co-sponsored by the Governments of Canada and Ghana, with the active participation of UN Under-Secretary-General Olara Otunnu, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict.

Ghana’s Foreign Minister, Mr. James Victor Gbeho, stated at the conference’s conclusion that the governments of ECOWAS have taken “a historic decision to commit ourselves to making life better for our children. We have committed ourselves to take actions that will prevent our children from becoming victims of war. We have tried in our own way to provide what we believe can become a blueprint for other sub-regions in Africa, if not other parts of the world”.

Ghana’s President, Flt. Lt. Jerry Rawlings, to ECOWAS Heads of State, will transmit the decisions reached at the Accra Conference at the sub-regional organization’s 25th anniversary summit in Abuja, Nigeria, in June.

President Rawlings addressed the meeting’s opening session, along with the ECOWAS Executive Secretary, Mr. Lansana Kouyate, and the conference’s two co-chairman, the Canadian and Ghanaian Foreign Ministers, Mr. Lloyd Axworthy and Mr. Gbeho, respectively.

At the first plenary session, the UN Special Representative, Mr. Otunnu, outlined a series of recommendations for the protection of war-affected children, most of which were included in the final plan of action. The fact that West African leaders had assumed responsibility for the protection of children affected by war – who include not only child combatants, but also those who are orphaned, maimed, sexually abused and deprived of education and health care by conflict – marked “a political turning point,” Mr. Otunnu said.

Among other measures contained in the plan of action are a call for ECOWAS member states to take “all necessary steps” to implement all international norms and standards on the rights of the child, including UN Security Council Resolutions 1261 (1999) and 1265 (1999) concerning the protection of war-affected children and the protection of civilian populations in situations of armed conflict, respectively.

There was also a call for member states to sign and ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention of the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict once it is open for signature, and to ratify the Statute of the International Criminal Court in order to bring to justice those who commit violations against children.

Ministers also called for the institutionalization of children protection within ECOWAS by the establishment of an office within the organization for the protection of war-affected children in the region, to which the necessary financial resources were committed by Foreign Minister Axworthy on behalf of the Canadian Government.

In addition, the protection and rights of children are to be explicitly provided for in the mandates of ECOWAS peacekeeping missions, and child rights and the protection of children in armed conflict are to be incorporated into training programmes for military forces and other security agencies. Early warning systems are also to be implemented in the region to forestall armed conflicts–which deprive children of their rights–from breaking out.

The ministers resolved as well to develop specific programmes to provide information, education and communications materials on child rights in order that the media are well-informed to contribute to the rights, welfare and protection of children, and also to design radio programmes devoted to the needs and interests of children and young people affected by conflict.

In addition to ECOWAS ministers of foreign affairs and defence from 11 countries, conference participants included representatives of non-governmental organizations, other civil society groupings, UN agencies, the media, and children from across the sub-region.

The outcome of the meeting was described by conference co-chairman Minister Lloyd Axworthy as “very historic” and “a real landmark. “

What was decided here today by the representatives of the 11 states in West Africa has gone much further in terms of developing a specific concrete commitment to the rights of children than any other international organization has done up to now.

It does demonstrate,” said Minister Axworthy, “that there is real leadership that the African states are providing, as they did on landmines, as they are now doing on the International Criminal Court, and as they are now doing on war-affected children. “

Over the last decade, said UN Special Representative Otunnu, 2 million children have been killed in conflict situations around the world, over 1 million have been orphaned, over 8 million have been seriously injured or permanently disabled and over 10 million have been left with grave psychological trauma. In addition, some 300,000 young persons under the age of 18 are currently being exploited as child soldiers and approximately 800 children are killed or maimed by landmines every month.