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UN officials, former child soldier call for bolstered efforts to protect children

UN officials, former child soldier call for bolstered efforts to protect children

Special Representative Radhika Coomaraswamy
On the tenth anniversary of a groundbreaking study on the impact of armed conflict on children, two top United Nations officials and a former Sierra Leonean child soldier today appealed for greater efforts to protect children and noted that much work remains to be done.

Radhika Coomaraswamy, the Secretary-General's Special Representative on Children and Armed Conflict; Hilde Johnson, Deputy Executive Director of the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF); and Ishmael Beah, now a youth activist and author of "Long Way Gone," briefed reporters in New York on a new report chronicling progress made in the past decade and challenges that remain to be tackled.

Ms. Coomaraswamy said that since the release of the landmark study by Graca Machel, former first lady of Mozambique and wife of former South African President Nelson Mandela, the "nature of conflict has changed," manifested in increasing low-intensity intra-State conflicts, terrorism and counter-terrorism and the blurring of lines between armed conflict and criminal activity.

Despite the rise of global networks to address the issue of the "brutal consequences" -- such as child recruitment and sexual violence -- that children bear, "still a lot more needs to be done," she pointed out.

The Special Representative said the progress has been made in the past 10 years, especially in the fight against impunity and war crimes with regard to children and armed conflict. In 2005, the Security Council adopted Resolution 1612, which established a mechanism to monitor grave violations by both governments and insurgents, focusing especially on such crimes as the recruitment of child soldiers.

Despite the adoption of several key legal instruments, "the reality on the ground is still incredibly difficult for very, very many children," Ms. Johnson told reporters.

She said that last year, over 18 million children were driven from their homes by conflict, and more than 43 million children in 30 conflict-affected States did not attend school.

Regarding the use of rape and sexual violence as a war tactic, Ms. Johnson said that in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), recent figures show that one-third of all rape victims are children.

The new report recommends that impunity against perpetrators of "heinous crimes" ends and that children are protected against sexual violence and against being recruited as soldiers, instead being helped to demobilize and reintegrate into civilian life.

The Deputy Executive Director said that the study also underscores the need for children "to play a key part in defining their own future and in being a part of these processes."

Also speaking at the briefing, Mr. Beah -- who was a child soldier from the age of 13 until UNICEF removed him from the fighting -- highlighted the importance of giving children a voice.

He welcomed the simultaneous launch today of a parallel youth report entitled "Will You Listen: Young Voices from Conflict Zones."

"In my experience, one of the mistakes that I felt was made during the rehabilitation process was that it wasn't very community-oriented," Mr. Beah said. "I grew up in a place where there was a very strong sense of community, so when you demobilize a child and focus only on them, the community becomes upset because they're left out."

He also voiced hope that great strides will be made in the next decade to combat the scourge of children being impacted by armed conflict.

"What I would like to stress is, though, is that I hope come another 10 years we won't be having a discussion again about what to implement but rather what we've implemented and how we can actually celebrate successes rather than speak more about challenges that remain," he said.