26 Sept 2008 – Paris Principles Meeting

Statement by Ms. Radhika Coomaraswamy,

SRSG for Children and Armed Conflict

Paris Principles Meeting

26, September 2008

Mme Yade, Ms. Hilde Johnson, Excellencies and distinguished delegates, colleagues.

It is a great privilege for me to be here with you today as we reassert our commitment to the Paris Principles on Children and Armed Conflict.  I would like to thank the French Government and partners for convening this follow up meeting to secure continued support for the implementation of the Paris Principles so that partners are able to go ahead with programmes of prevention and response.

For the most part of the last decade, my office, UNICEF, the wider UN family and NGO partners have focused on ending the recruitment and use of child soldiers by both states and non state actors. We have done this by trying to fight against impunity and for accountability of those adults who use and manipulate children. Security Council resolution 1612 and the actions of the International Criminal Court have been welcome developments in this regard.  According to the recently concluded 10 year Machel Review, we must now also move forward and focus on programmatic response.

The Paris Principles, based on the experience of child protection partners is perhaps the most comprehensive document on the prevention and reintegration of children associated with armed groups. It is a thoughtful step by step exercise put together by those who truly understand the process. The principles are clear:-any programming must be inclusive and community based and child protection partners remind us that it must be directed toward all children in the community so that former child soldiers are not stigmatized and so that there is no charge of discrimination by those who are not child soldiers. The programming must aim at developing the child along with his family and community.

How do we implement these principles in real terms? I think of Moi who I met in Northern Uganda. He and his friends were playing at home one evening when the LRA attacked their village. They were abducted and on the long way back to the LRA camp, his friend slipped, fell and broke his ankle. He watched as the Commander callously shot his friend for being weak. Moi became part of the LRA, and after being induced by drugs and beatings, he took part in raids against his own family and neighbours, killing, looting and witnessing rapes by his commanders. After many years of this life, he finally escaped and was with a UNICEF sponsored project when I met him. Initially, even though a child, he walked in with a masculine swagger of an adult male, barely hiding his aggression. After a period of conversation, he relaxed, almost trusting, and became childlike. His father had been traced and had visited him but then had never returned, perhaps frightened by the appearance of his son. At the end of the conversation, Moi looked at me tearfully and said, “Madam what am I to do, I only know how to fight”

How do we help children like Moi? The practice of partners on the ground and a recent Harvard Public School of Health longitudinal study from Sierra Leone points to the fact that family acceptance is one of the most important indicators of successful reintegration. What happens when families do not want their children? What options exist for them and how do we deal with the consequences. How do we turn them away from the option of being re-recruited, or adopting a criminal life style with the skills they have learnt.?

A Nepalese NGO representative recently told me the story of L, a young girl in Nepal who had become a Maoist. She had run away to join the Maoists because of domestic violence in the home by her stepfather. After the peace process began, she did not want to go back home to her family or to her community. As a soldier she had learnt leadership skills and had a measure of confidence. She knew that the patriarchal norms of a traditional society would rob her of those advantages. Again research points to community acceptance as one of the key factors of successful reintegration but what do we do if children find traditional communities too oppressive and confining?

The Paris Principles give us clear guidance on reintegrating the vast majority of child soldiers but we must also deal with the children who fall between the cracks. Those who are rejected by family and community, girl children, urban children, and those that research points to as having great risk- those children associated with armed groups who were forced to commit violent crimes and those who are the victims of sexual violence. These two groups need, according to the Harvard study, special care and assistance. We must implement the Paris Principles without romanticizing the community or the family, knowing that many children will not find shelter or protection in these traditional places, and that it is sometimes the very conditions in the family and community that push children towards armed groups.

It is therefore important to point to the fact that the Principles speak about “the best interest of the child” as being the ultimate marker; that children's agency and resilience should be built upon; that  psychosocial support should be given to children who require support and special efforts should be made for children with special needs. The basic principles contained in this document should be our guide, implemented on a case by case basis, depending on local context. The local realities and the need of individual children must condition and fashion our responses.  In all this education plays a central role.

Our operational partners have put together a document that outlines the unfunded gaps with regard to country programmes for the protection of children during armed conflict. All these programmes are in line with the Paris Principles. They range from supporting the monitoring and reporting system in Afghanistan to comprehensive packages for the identification, release and reunification of child soldiers in Chad, Many of them request funding for longterm rehabilitation programmes such as education and livelihood training in Nepal and also issues relating to juvenile justice in Liberia. The unfunded gaps amount to around 78 million dollars. We hope the donor community will respond to this call.

Our continued commitment to the Paris Principles and support for their implementation in material terms is crucial.

Unless we are ready to make these commitments, children may not fully recover from their experiences and the cycle of violence and conflict may continue. Protecting the children and developing their talents is an investment in the long term sustainability of peace. It is an investment worth making for it is an investment in our collective future.