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Possible exploitation of refugee children denounced by UN envoy

Possible exploitation of refugee children denounced by UN envoy

Olara Otunnu
The United Nations special envoy for children and armed conflict, Olara Otunnu, today added his voice to those who have denounced alleged sexual abuse of children in refugee camps in West Africa.

Speaking at a UN < ahref="/News/briefings/docs/2002/otunnubrf.doc.htm">press briefing in New York, Mr. Otunnu said he was very distressed to learn of allegations that refugee children in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone were exploited, and welcomed the recent statement by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who called for the fullest possible investigations of the charges.

If indeed there were people found to be guilty, the firmest possible action should be taken against those found to be culpable, Mr. Otunnu said. “In this context, I subscribe entirely to the Secretary-General’s policy of zero tolerance for this kind of behaviour,” he said, adding that this was all the more distressing because the allegations concerned sexual exploitation by those who were supposed to protect the vulnerable children.

Mr. Otunnu was in New York after returning from a mission to assess the condition of children in post-conflict Guatemala following 36 years of war and to see how the Government and the international community were responding to the needs of youngsters affected by the long civil war.

The special envoy said he was encouraged by a number of developments there, including the Government’s ratification of both optional protocols – one dealing with child soldiers and the other on sexual exploitation – to a key children’s rights treaty.

In his discussions with the Guatemalan authorities, Mr. Otunnu said he raised the importance of investing in children and youth – especially in the areas of education, health and nutrition – given the level of deprivation and suffering they had gone through. He also discussed with the Government, including the President, its commitment to reforming the education system so that it provided for more access to both urban and rural children, including the indigenous and other communities.

As for the “very painful” issue of disappeared children, Mr. Otunnu said the Government agreed to turn the existing group into an official body in which the state, civil society and parents could participate.