Un special envoy says protection, rehabilitation of children should be top priority in congo

AFR/326

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Calls for Complete Halt to Recruitment and Use of Child Soldiers

NEW YORK, 7 June (Office of the Special Representative) — At the conclusion of a 10-day (24 May 2 June) visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to assess first-hand the impact of the wars on children, Olara A. Otunnu, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, called for the protection and rehabilitation of war-affected children to become a top priority in the DRC. He also urged political and military leaders to bring a complete stop to all recruitment and use of child soldiers. He stated: There is an urgent need for a plan of action to address the grave situation of war-affected children in the Congo. Their protection and rehabilitation must become a national and political priority.

During the mission, Mr. Otunnu visited different zones in the country, including the provincial cities of Goma, Bukavu, Bunia, Kisangani and Kananga. In Kinshasa, Mr. Otunnu met with President Joseph Kabila and several Government ministers; he also met with leaders of the principal political parties and members of the diplomatic community. In Goma, he met with the leadership of Rassemblement Congolais pour la D mocratie (RCD), headed by its president, Adolphe Onusumba. In Bunia, he met with the leadership of Front de Lib ration du Congo (FLC), headed by its president, Jean Pierre Bemba.

Throughout the country, Mr. Otunnu met and heard first-hand different groups of war-affected children and their parents. Everywhere he went, he held discussions with political and military authorities, local and international humanitarian non-governmental organizations, civil society, religious leaders and United Nations agencies.

He observed that the direct and indirect impact of the war has been particularly devastating for children.

— It is estimated that 50 per cent of the DRC s 49 million people are children under 16.

— The vast majority of the 2 million people displaced by war are children and women.

– Press Release AFR/326

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Hundreds of thousands of children suffer or die from severe malnutrition and preventable diseases because of conditions created by the wars.

— According to a recent study by the International Rescue Committee, since the outbreak of hostilities in August 1998, there have been 2. 5 million excess deaths (above the number normally expected) in Eastern DRC, the majority of the victims being child

Most families live on less than one dollar a day.

Forty per cent of the country s children are malnourished.

— In the past 10 years infant mortality has doubled.

More than half of the children of school-going age are not in school.

All these categories of war-affected children need our urgent attention and support, Mr. Otunnu said.

During the visit, Mr. Otunnu received persistent reports of extensive use of children as child soldiers in all his meetings. Wherever he went, Mr. Otunnu reiterated the same message, The place of children is in schools, is with their families and with their communities, not in the battlefields. The massive recruitment and use of children as child soldiers has become a plague that is steadily destroying the fabric and future of this country and this zone of Africa. yes”> In this context, Mr. Otunnu proposed the following five-point program of action that was accepted by all political and military leaders:

— A complete stop to all recruitment and participation in armed groups and forces of young persons below the age of 18.

Establishment of a mechanism to monitor and report on the application of the above commitment.

Organization of a major public awareness campaign to sensitize the military, civil society and local communities.

Undertaking of joint visits to military camps and barracks.

Establishment of necessary structures for demobilization, rehabilitation, reception and reintegration of child soldiers.

A very important development was the Government s announcement at the end of the visit that it has just ratified the Optional Protocol banning the participation in war of young persons below the age of 18; the DRC has become the fifth country to ratify the protocol.

Everywhere he went the children and their parents called for an end to the war, an end to the looting of natural resources of the Congo, and the beginning of

– Press Release AFR/326

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national dialogue. Mr. Otunnu stated, The widespread and systematic looting of diamonds, gold, timber and coffee from the Congo, by all concerned, is an outrage that is robbing the Congolese children of their birthright, of resources that should be used for their education, heath care and development.

In his discussions with political and military leaders, Mr. Otunnu insisted that the measures agreed upon during his visit need to be translated into concrete action on the ground. He told them: The international community is ready to assist and accompany you in these efforts, but the primary responsibility for reversing the present conditions of children belongs to you, the Congolese leaders. The future of every society depends on the protection and development of its young people.

At the conclusion of the visit, Mr. Otunnu stated, I appeal to the international community to reach out to the Congolese children with concrete assistance, focusing particularly on rehabilitation of schools and health care centres, and the provision of much-needed resources for the demobilization of child soldiers. These measures are necessary to break the present cycle of despair and exploitation. They will serve as means of protection, rehabilitation and prevention.

Mr. Otunnu said that he was particularly impressed and encouraged by the commitment of all sectors of Congolese society to preserve their national unity, the strength and engagement of civil society throughout the country, and the resilience and determination of local communities. Mr. Otunnu concluded, A united and healthy Congo should be the natural locomotive for development and social progress in this zone of Africa.

For further information, please contact:Mr. Tonderai Chikuhwa, Office of Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict (OSRSG-CAC) – tel: 212-963-3462 or fax: 212-963-0807. M. Mounoubai, Charg d Information (MONUC) – tel: 880 58 33 / 990 6428 (Kinshasa). Martin Kakra-Kouame, Chef Section Information et Communication (UNICEF) – tel: 88 46 746 (Kinshasa)

UN bodies call for a prohibition on the recruitment and participation of children under age 18 in armed conflict