A top United Nations expert on the impact of armed conflict on children said today that during a recent visit to Eritrea and Ethiopia he had seen no systematic use of child soldiers and found no evidence of child abuse in refugee camps.
Briefing the press at UN Headquarters in New York on his mission to the two countries, Olara Otunnu, Secretary-General’s Kofi Annan’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, said that the absence of the “child soldiering” phenomenon was particularly impressive since no other conflict zone he had visited recently had been free of the problem.
In addition, since his field trip had coincided with the “horrific allegations” coming to light in western Africa about the systematic sexual exploitation of children in refugee camps, Mr. Otunnu said he looked for any inkling of such activity and found no reports or evidence of such abuse among women and children housed as either refugees or displaced persons. There appeared to be good coordination between the local authorities and community, and with the international personnel of the UN Mission to Ethiopia and Eritrea (UNMEE).
Mr. Otunnu attributed the fact that there was no military recruitment of children and no evidence of abuse in camps to the control exercised by the local authorities and communities. The locals both organized and monitored life in the camps and distributed provisions, he said, while the international community and national non-governmental organizations (NGOs) provided support for their activities.
Furthermore, there was a high level of organization between the local authorities and the local population, particularly in seeing to the needs of vulnerable people, as well as a high level of cooperation based on rapport between UNMEE and the locals.
In moving forward, Mr. Otunnu stressed, there were two imperatives for Ethiopia and Eritrea. The first was to ensure a successful acceptance of the forthcoming decision on 13 April by the Boundary Commission on the disputed border. Acceptance could inaugurate a much-needed, definitive period of peace; both women and children said they wanted it and hoped their leaders would agree.
Secondly, the currently displaced people would need wide support for the resettlement activities that would return them to their homes with the tools to start development projects, Mr. Otunnu said.