29 June – Mr. Olara Otunnu at the Security Council

Mr. Otunnu: It is a great honour for me to appear before the Security Council, and it is a great honour for me to appear under your presidency, Sir. I congratulate you on the leadership which you have provided, especially on the plight of children affected by armed conflict.

We are on the eve of a new millennium. There will be much to celebrate because in the modern era our civilization has achieved breathtaking advances in virtually every field of human endeavour. And yet these quantum leaps in human progress coexist uneasily with a darker side of our civilization. Witness our capacity to inflict and tolerate grave injustice, our capacity for deep hatred and cruelty towards our fellow human beings. See how we can destroy entire communities in the quest for power or in the name of ethnicity, religion, race or class.

A crucial measure of our civilization must be its human quality. It has to do with how we treat our fellow human beings and, above all, it has to do with how we treat the most innocent and most vulnerable members of our community, those who represent the future of every society — our children.

On the eve of the new millennium, we are witnessing an abomination, an abomination directed against children in the context of armed conflict. At this moment, in approximately 50 countries around the world children are suffering from the impact of armed conflict, in its midst and in its aftermath.

In the last decade alone, we have seen 2 million children killed, over 1 million orphaned, 6 million seriously injured or permanently disabled, 12 million made homeless and 10 million left with serious psychological trauma. Children, especially girls, have been made the targets of rape and other forms of sexual violence on a large scale.

At present, half of the total population of refugees and internally displaced persons in the world are children. An estimated 800 children are killed or maimed by landmines every month. It is estimated that a quarter of a million young persons under the age of 18 are currently under arms, serving as child soldiers in various theatres of conflict around the world.

War is nothing new to the human experience. Neither is the incidence of civilian casualties in times of war. But the magnitude of what we are witnessing attests to a new phenomenon: a qualitative shift in the nature and the conduct of warfare. It is not war as we have known it in the modern era.

This transformation is underscored by several developments. Almost all the major armed conflicts in the world today are internal. They are being fought by multiple semi-autonomous armed groups within national boundaries. They are marked by a particular brand of lawlessness, cruelty and chaos. In particular, they are characterized by the systematic and widespread targeting of civilian populations. In these situations, the belligerents routinely ignore international humanitarian laws, which have traditionally moderated, if not governed, the conduct of inter-State warfare.

The conflicts tend to be protracted, lasting years, if not decades, often in recurring cycles, thus exposing successive generations of children to horrendous violence. And most cynically, children have been compelled to become instruments of war, recruited or kidnapped to become child soldiers. Moreover, the indiscriminate use of anti-personnel landmines and the proliferation of light weapons have underscored the particular vulnerability of children in these situations.

Civil wars are fought among those who know each other well, among enemy brothers and enemy sisters. They pit compatriot against compatriot, neighbour against neighbour. A key feature of these struggles is a demonization of the so-called enemy community, often defined in religious, ethnic, racial or regional terms. In the intense and intimate setting of today’s internecine warfare, the village has become the battlefield and civilian populations its primary target. It is against this background that today up to 90 per cent of casualties in ongoing conflicts around the world are civilians, the vast majority of whom are women and children. This is the world upside down.

This abomination is due in large measure to a crisis of values, both at the international and the local level. The traditional limits on the conduct of warfare — international instruments as well as local injunctions and taboos — are being cast aside. This has given rise to an ethical vacuum, a setting in which international standards are ignored with impunity and where local value systems have lost their sway.

To reverse this trend of abomination, we must take concerted measures at both the national and the international level. In this connection, I wish to propose a number of measures and areas of engagement, in the light of which we can move towards prevention, protection and recovery.

The first area of engagement concerns the wide gap which currently exists between the existence of international norms and their non-observance on the ground. Over the past 50 years, the nations of the world have developed an impressive repertoire of international humanitarian and human rights instruments. Several of these address the rights, protection and welfare of children. The most pertinent in this regard are the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Geneva Conventions, along with their additional Protocols. Together, these instruments contain a number of provisions designed to ensure the protection and welfare of children in situations of international as well as internal armed conflict.

But the value of these provisions is limited to the extent to which they are applied. Today, the gap between these norms and the situation on the ground remains unacceptably wide, and it is growing. Words on paper cannot save children in peril. To bridge this gap, the international community must be prepared to demonstrate its commitment, determination and readiness to use its collective influence and weight to ensure the observance of these norms and, therefore, the protection of children. The Security Council can lead the way by sending forth a clear message that the targeting, use and abuse of children are simply unacceptable. A message needs to go out that it cannot be “business as usual” when atrocities and abuses are systematically committed against children.

Secondly, at a very fundamental level, I believe that perhaps the most damaging and disorienting loss a society can suffer is the collapse of its own local value system. In most societies, even in times of war, fundamental values and rules mattered. Distinctions between acceptable and unacceptable practices were maintained, with taboos and injunctions proscribing indiscriminate targeting of civilian populations, especially women and children.

For example, I grew up in a society where the concept of lapir was very strong. Among the Acholi people, lapir denotes the cleanliness of one’s claim, which then attracts the blessing of the ancestors in recognition and support of that claim. Before declaring war, the elders would carefully examine their lapir to be sure that their community had a deep and well-founded grievance against the other side. If this was established to be the case, war might be declared, but never lightly. But in order to preserve the original lapir, strict injunctions would be issued to regulate the actual conduct of war. One did not attack children, women or the elderly; one did not destroy crops, granary stores or livestock, for to violate such taboos would be to soil one’s lapir, with the consequence that one would forfeit the blessings of the ancestors and thereby risk losing the war itself. Moreover, in declaring war there was always the presumption of coexistence in the post-conflict period. Therefore, in prosecuting a war effort one took great care to avoid violating taboos and committing acts of humiliation that would destroy forever the basis for future coexistence between erstwhile enemy communities.

There are many examples of such a value system in many other societies around the world. But today, to paraphrase the poet William Butler Yeats, things have fallen apart; the moral centre is no longer holding. In so many conflicts today, anything goes. Children, women, the elderly, granary stores, crops and livestock — all are fair game in the single-minded struggle for power, in the attempt not just to prevail but to humiliate, not just to subdue but to annihilate the enemy community altogether. This is the phenomenon of total war.

Tragically, many societies that have experienced prolonged periods of conflict have seen their local value systems collapse under its pressure. I believe that such a society must, in the first place, draw from the deep well of its own tradition a renewed sense of ethical rootedness. This can then be related and linked with the norms that have been developed at the international level. We must ensure, in that context, that the institutions that traditionally inculcate values — parents, the extended family, elders, teachers, schools and religious institutions — are strengthened. It is only in this way that a society caught in the throes of a deep moral crisis can regain its moral bearings.

A third area of engagement has to do with exploring concrete initiatives to prevent or mitigate the suffering of children who are actually caught up in the midst of ongoing violence.

First, with regard to access to populations in distress, when communities are cut off from the outside world, when they are out of sight, they are entirely at the mercy of the belligerents. That is when they are the most vulnerable; that is when gross abuse and atrocities are likely to occur and multiply. For this reason, the international community must insist on having access to such communities. Humanitarian relief agencies and human rights organizations must be given access to populations in distress, to provide relief and succour, to bear impartial witness and to draw attention to rules and norms applicable to the conduct of war.

The international community must also insist that facilities normally reserved for children or which have a significant presence of children — facilities such as schools, hospitals, children’s playgrounds and school buses — should be considered battle-free zones.

With regard to the recruitment and participation of children in hostilities, children simply have no role in warfare. The international community should insist on this fundamental principle and therefore seek firm commitments from belligerents neither to recruit nor to use children in hostilities.

Finally, there is a need to monitor and control more carefully the flow of arms — especially small arms — into theatres of conflict where children are being systematically brutalized and abused. Similarly, greater effort must be made to prevent the supply and use of landmines in such theatres of conflict.

We now live in a world in which interdependence has become a central fact of international life. The various armed groups also depend in no small measure on the goodwill of the wider international community, from which they seek political legitimacy and diplomatic recognition and on which they depend for the flow of arms and money to prosecute their war efforts. In our interdependent world, no group, no Government and no entity could ignore concerted international pressure in favour of the protection of children.

A fourth area of engagement concerns the needs of children after conflict has ended. When war is over, it is not really over for the children for whom the culture of violence has become a way of life; nor for the children left carrying deep scars in their hearts and minds; nor for the children who have simply lost out altogether on their education and youth. In the aftermath of conflict, we must work to heal these wounds. Healing is important to restore spiritual, emotional and physical health. Healing is necessary to facilitate reintegration into society. But healing is also critical, because without it, it is difficult to break the cycle of violence. Without healing, the victims of today’s abuse may become the abusers of tomorrow; without healing, the wounded children of today could become the channel for transmitting violence from one generation to the next. This is the reason why any plans for post-conflict peace-building should make the needs of children a central concern from the outset, not merely an afterthought after the fact.

In this context, some of the issues requiring concerted action by national Governments, as well as the international community, should include the demobilization and reintegration of child combatants; the treatment of psychological trauma; the return and resettlement of displaced and refugee children; mine clearance and the development and rehabilitation of children affected by mines; and the provision and rehabilitation of basic medical and educational services, including vocational training. These are some of the areas requiring concerted action.

Lastly, a fifth area of engagement concerns the need for taking preventive action. This means addressing the very conditions that give rise to conflicts in the first place: political exclusion and gross disparities in the distribution of resources between different regions and different sectors of the same country. We must work to transform these distorted relationships. Both international and national actors need to take political, economic and social measures that can generate within communities a sense of hope in place of despair, a sense of inclusion and participation instead of exclusion, a sense of belonging instead of alienation, a sense of one country instead of centre and periphery.

In addition to these specific areas, I would request that when the Council considers the imposition of sanctions it especially take into account the needs of children, their impact on children and how best to protect them in those circumstances. I would also hope that whenever the Security Council considers peacemaking efforts, peacekeeping mandates and peace building plans, the central needs of children will be there from the outset and will inform the plans and the way.

In conclusion, let me say that I have a deep fear, a nightmare scenario, that we may be exposed to so much that we are in danger of accepting as normal what in fact represents a radical departure from any acceptable norms at both the local and the international level. I would hope that, beginning with the message that the Council will send forth today, we may resolve as we enter the new millennium, regardless of our cultural traditions, religious affiliation, political ideologies, to agree on a common project: to make our world one that is safe for children — all of our children.

I wish to thank you, Mr. President and members of the Council for your commitment and concern about the plight of children affected by war all over the world.

Link to the verbatim of the 3896th meeting of the Security Council